Despite the fact that coral reefs are concentrated in a small area of the Earth’s oceans, they are home to about a quarter of all marine life. The two largest reefs – the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Belize Barrier Reef in the Caribbean – are popular with divers and snorkelers looking for a vibrant and colorful variety of underwater life.
Coral reefs have a reputation for being home to colorful animals and some of the most beautiful corals and sea anemones in the world, but there is plenty of wildlife in these diverse aquatic landscapes. Our list aims to capture the true variety of animals that call the coral reef home, including mammals and birds, as well as fish and more bizarre marine life. These 10 animals could not exist in the same way without a coral reef, and the reef ecosystem would not be the same without them.
No. 10. Coral reef animals: whale sharks are powerful but gentle beasts
The whale shark is considered the largest fish in the world, which means that it needs an environment to support its ferocious appetite. As a result, whale sharks are known to migrate to coral reefs around the world. Regardless, the whale shark takes an incredibly efficient approach to digestion – essentially sucking in everything in its path and filtering out anything that doesn’t match its appetite. Feeding whale sharks is a popular pastime in Belize and elsewhere, and it becomes much less dangerous when you realize that the 300 teeth of a whale shark are only used to filter water.
The whale shark can reach over 40 feet in length and you can find out more facts about this leviathan here.
No. 9. Coral reef animals: sea turtles – reef gardeners
Green sea turtles are one of the few rare species of large animals that graze on the grass of the seabed and can have a profound impact on the ecosystem, especially in environments such as coral reefs. They control, distribute and nurture the seabed, which serves as an integral component of the healthy environment created by coral reefs. The Hawkesbill sea turtle, in particular, plays a vital role in many coral communities by pruning sponges that might otherwise stunt coral growth and the development of richer food sources and habitats for other marine life.
Sea turtles are vital members of coral reef ecosystems, but these far-migratory creatures have much more interesting habits that you can learn about here.
No. 8. Coral reef animals: crocodiles are predators on the way
Crocodiles are known for hiding in shallow and swampy waters, so it may come as a surprise to learn that they are actually an integral part of some coral habitat. On the Great Barrier Reef, the actions of nearby crocodiles are observed, which call neighboring estuaries and islands their home, but still go to the reef in search of prey thanks to the reward available there. Although crocodiles are a relative rarity on the Great Barrier Reef itself, some beaches have been closed due to crocodile sightings.
You can read more about the crocodile, the closest living dinosaur binder, here.
No. 7. Coral Reef Animals: Dugongs Are Descendants of Elephants
The large and delicate dugong is evolutionarily related to the huge land elephant, but it can be difficult for the average person to distinguish it from the manatee. Dugongs share responsibilities with large turtles grazing and cutting grass on the seabed, and coral reefs provide a natural place for them to settle. But although the coral reef is mostly lacking predators, people, unfortunately, have put this creature on the brink of extinction. And given their slow breeding cycles and small litters, the road to recovery looks long and dangerous.
The dugong is Australia’s only true marine herbivore, and you can learn more about this gentle but endangered animal here.
No. 6. Coral Reef Animals: Osprey are the most common reef seabirds
Osprey is such a common seabird on coral reefs that a particular atoll in the Great Barrier Reef system has been named Osprey Reef after them. Osprey congregate around reefs in large numbers, and they are so numerous that many of the larger reefs actually have nets that prevent them from destroying their habitat. However, they play an important role above the water surface in terms of population control and fertilization of the environment. They spread biodiversity not only by transferring species from corals to surrounding islands and vice versa, but also by fertilizing the water with their feces.
No. 5. Animals that live on coral reefs: manta rays – food for the entire reef
Crocodiles and seabirds tend to live on remote islands and go to the coral reef to hunt for prey, but the manta ray goes to the reef to clean it up well. Manta rays are regularly found in places where creatures regularly congregate, and small and hungry fish clean off bacteria and dirt from their surface. This is just one sign of the unique symbiotic relationship that forms on barrier reefs, and it is such an established routine that many stingrays will return to the same places to groom themselves over and over again.
The manta ray may have devil horns, but there is nothing sinister about this fish – as you can find out here.
No. 4. Coral reef animals: dolphins – recognition of the medicinal value of corals
Dolphins are some of the smartest creatures in the water, so it’s no surprise that they are drawn to the abundance of food and life found on coral reefs. But while dolphins play a critical role in wildlife management and pollination of the surrounding ecosystems, they seem to have discovered the medicinal value of corals as well. Documentary filmmakers have found cases of injured dolphins rubbing their bodies against corals, potentially due to the antimicrobial and antibacterial properties that mucus growing on them can provide. If true, this is a sign that coral reefs may provide the medicine of the future.
If you are only familiar with dolphins from Flipper, you can learn more about these amazing and intelligent mammals here.
No. 3. Coral reef animals: the Caribbean reef octopus is a master of reef camouflage
Most fish and sea creatures do particularly well on coral reefs, but Caribbean Reef Octopuses are made exclusively for them. Found only in the Belize Barrier Reef – the second largest barrier reef in the world – and in surrounding areas, this cephalopod can be disguised even under the often wildly colored patterns that make up the coral reef system. Combine that with the astonishing intelligence of this tentacled creature and you have one of the most dangerous and resourceful predators on coral reefs.
There may be over 300 species of octopus, but you can learn the basics about this adorable sea animal here.
# 2. Coral reef animals: the sea dragon is less fearsome than the name might suggest
Due to being a notoriously poor swimmer who lives exclusively aquatic life, the sea dragon is actually a member of the family of seahorses, which are less efficient than most of its brethren. But the fact that these creatures resemble the algae found on coral reefs gives them a kind of perpetual camouflage that helps ward off predators. Only in an environment as vibrant as a coral reef can the sea dragon’s vibrant colors be considered camouflage rather than a hindrance.
There are three different types of sea dragons, each of which you can learn more about here.
# 1. Animals that live in coral reefs: the lionfish is a colorful warning to all predators
While the sea dragon’s vibrant colors and striking designs actually allow them to hide among the reefs, the lionfish’s unique colorful patterns are actually a sign for predators to stay away. The long and dangerous-looking spines protruding from their bodies are actually venomous bristles, and some of the venoms secreted by lionfish are enough to kill an adult. They are also aggressive predators in their own right, known to feed on fish, crabs, and shrimp for food.
Here you can learn about lionfish and their unique approach to survival.
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