New England Mermaid
On a cold December day in Rhode Island, I went off looking for my coral friends. I was not disappointed (except for the quality of my photos but that’s ok). The New England corals were so easy to find! I have never seen so many of them at a time here – probably thousands of them in all directions. I always see some when I go to visit, but never so many! Some were out of their homes and feeding. Some were hanging out inside their homes, not in the mood for a visit. Where did so many come from and why were they so easy to find?
Simple – their hiding places were gone! With the colder water temperatures, many of the plants have gone for the season. The large kelps (those brownish green leathery-looking seaweeds) grow in the spring and summer, draping over the rocks, and hiding many of our local coral friends.
There are a few things that are super cool about our local coral. 1) They are here! 2) They are beautiful! 3) There is something unique about them that may hold a key to helping protect corals worldwide – more about that later – ooh, a mystery!
In the meantime, enjoy the Northern Stony Corals in the picture below – aren’t they gorgeous?
We usually think of corals as living in the tropics. The corals form the foundation of most coral reefs – which is why, of course, they are called “coral” reefs. That is my obvious statement of the day. Corals are very small animals, cousins of the anemones who we recently met – you may recall that one attacked me. Each individual coral is a polyp. They hang out together in large groups called colonies, making them appear to be larger animals (or actually looking more like flowers!). The corals that create the reef foundations are called hard corals, because … well … you guessed it – they are hard – at least on the outside. You see, they excrete calcium to form hard shells which serve as their homes. When the soft animals extend out of their homes, showing off their pretty tentacles, they show off all of their colors and frilly textures (similar to an anemone). When they go inside their homes, you can mostly see only their outer calcified outside skeleton, like in the picture below. You’ll see some completely in their homes in the bottom right of the picture below, and then, in the center, some partially in their homes and some completely out of their homes. Please excuse the blurriness, but you get the idea.
Ready for some cool coral trivia? You never know when this might come in handy. What color(s) are hard stony corals? Think about the ones that you’ve seen either in person (if you are a fellow mermaid or merman) or on a screen somewhere. Picture an absolutely beautiful coral reef. Just close your eyes and imagine … ahhhhhh. Maybe take some deep breaths and relax into this peaceful ocean world in your head while you ponder the answer. ……………. OK – are you back on the surface now? So, what color(s) are the corals?
Corals are white or translucent. Wait, what? Of course, you can see that some of the Northern Stony Corals in the picture is a translucent white. Some of them are a brownish-orangish-pinkish sort of color in the picture. And … what about those colorful colors in the tropics? They look like all the colors of the rainbow. Yes, they do. Here’s the amazingness about nature. The color that we are seeing is not the coral. The coral has a housemate – a house plant! The colors that we see are the colors of the plant that lives inside the coral, the housemate of the coral polyp. In order to survive, these tropical corals rely on a type of symbiosis in which 2 living beings help each other to live well. Each supplies the other with nutrients and the coral home also protects the algae from predators. They rely on each other for survival. When a coral is stressed, most often due to climate change and warming waters, it expels its algae friends. This is called bleaching as the corals are now their original white in color. The corals can live a short time without their colorful housemates, but if conditions do not improve quickly, allowing them to once again put out their “for rent” signs and invite their housemates to return, they will sadly die and entire reefs can be lost forever. Well, that’s really a bummer. So let’s move on to something more upbeat, as a sad mermaid is a very sad thing indeed.
This is where our Northern Stony Coral is unique and may hold answers to helping its tropical cousins. The symbiosis between algae and this coral is optional! Yes, optional! Corals may invite in housemates or not … and they are okay either way. They do not rely on housemates to survive. So some choose to have houseplants while others consider them to not be worth the effort. As this mermaid has managed to kill most of the houseplants for which I have been responsible, I would probably be the latter if I were ever to actually be a Northern Stony Coral. Scientists are studying our local coral friends to see if they can ultimately find something about these corals that they can use to help their tropical cousins to survive or to help in restoring their reefs.
So here’s some additional cool-ness! Geeky coolness – whoa! With what we’ve all learned, I bet we can all now accurately guess which of the corals in the first picture are sharing their homes and which are not. Woo-hoo! Impress your friends with this new found knowledge. Or, if that doesn’t work out for you, perhaps you can at least use it in a trivia contest at some time.