Practical reasons to care about the Reef invoke the economics of tourism and fishing and the utility of scientific discoveries. We also care because we have a sense of wonder and respect for other life and the vast web of nature, and because we want to pass it on to future generations.
The wonder of life in the sea
In water, where gravity has less constraint, life takes wondrous forms. Sound travels faster and further. Marine animals use it to communicate, sometimes across great distances. Some see colours beyond our human range; have polarised vision; multiple eyes; electro-sensory perception, inbuilt sonar; ability to navigate by magnetic fields; ability to change their sex or clone themselves; athletic power from superior haemoglobin; ability to strike with the speed of a rifle bullet; intelligence to cooperate with their own and other species; an exceptional sense of smell to locate food, avoid predators, navigate and find a mate; and ability to derive energy from sunlight, sequestrate carbon, and produce exotic chemical compounds. Some have their wonder on spectacular display, but for many it is only found through scientific study.
And that’s just the animals – there is also great diversity and wonder in marine plant species, and in the galaxies of microscopic life – the viruses, bacteria, algae, fungi and other lifeforms in the sea.
Coral reefs are super-rich ecosystems. Although only a tiny fraction of the total sea surface, they provide a habitat for a quarter of all marine species. It has been estimated that there are around 2 million marine species, of which only 10% have been described by science. We search for life on other planets. There is still so much more to find here.
The wonder of the time-scale
Life began in the primeval sea 3.8 billion years ago. Marine organisms have been depositing calcium carbonates to create reefs for 2.7 billion years. Earth is the only known planet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, generated by photosynthetic cyanobacteria in the sea 2.5 billion years ago.
Corals evolved in the Triassic period, approximately 250 million years ago. That’s impressive survival. But core samples on paleo reefs also reveal periods (sometimes thousands or millions of years) during which no living corals were present. Warming seas could cause another long hiatus.
Animals much like modern humans appeared around 2.5 million years ago. They evolved into various homo species, including habilis, erectus, rudolfensis, ergaster, antecessor, neanderthalenis, naledi, floresiensis and more. Our own species, homo sapiens, has existed for only 150,000 years, During our first 80,000, we were not notably more intelligent than the others still living in that period. Then, around 70,000 years ago, we became smarter and began to profoundly change the balance of life on our planet, taming and destroying.
Homo erectus survived almost two million years. If our population and pollution trends continue, we homo sapiens could become extinct much sooner. We are unlikely to be the last species of life on Earth*. We still have the opportunity to do less harm.
The wonder of the cosmos
The German explorer Alexander von Humboldt* described nature as a vast interconnected web. He thought emotions and feelings should guide our response to the natural world, and turned scientific observation into poetic narrative. Beyond the necessities of our survival, we appreciate other life in tune with its biology, the seasons, the sun, the moon and tides, the music and majesty of mountains and deeps, reef lagoons and the rhythm and flow of the sea.
Humboldt spoke and wrote of cosmos – the order and beauty of the universe, the opposite of chaos – long before we knew all life is driven by DNA. He inspired Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and many other scientists and conservationists. Muir famously wrote that the clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness. A marine scientist would add “or through a coral reef”. Rachael Carson wrote that the more we focus on the wonders of the universe around us, the less taste we will have for the destruction of our species.
*References: For an excellent overview of how our own species profoundly changed the balance of life and is continuing to do so, see Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, 2011. For more on Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1858) and his influence, see The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf, 2015.
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