Coral reefs are unlike anything else on the planet. In addition to providing valuable habitat for fish and other animals, they are incredibly beautiful, with seemingly infinite structures and growth forms. Some of their common names describe this diversity: staghorn, elkhorn, bird’s nest, brain, finger, mushroom, pillar, lettuce, lobed, and tube, to name just a few. Their intricate crevices and three-dimensional structures shelter many species of fish, marine worms, crustaceans, clams, and many other animals and plants, all of which play a unique and vital role in the coral reef ecosystem.
Coral reefs are an important food source for the people who live near reefs, and, as nurseries, are vital to the world’s fisheries. Many of the compounds now being used in human medicines, including some that treat cancer, are found on coral reefs, with probably many more yet to be discovered. Coral reefs help humans in many other ways too: generating tourist dollars for communities, and—especially important in our changing climate—acting as natural barriers against storm events like hurricanes, typhoons, and even tsunamis. The annual value of the ecosystem services provided by coral reefs to millions of people is estimated to be over $375 billion.