Written by Sarah Bigley, Maria Alonso Novo, and Ankitha Venguswamy, of the Co-Lab Wildlife Conservation Hub

Coral reefs are home to the world’s most abundant source of marine wildlife, including many diverse species like sea turtles, sponges, jellyfish, sharks, dolphins, sea birds, crabs, and over 4000 different species of fish. It is estimated that around 25% of marine biodiversity can be found in coral reefs, and the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia itself is the largest coral reef system in the world, housing over 1,500 species of fish and other organisms. The Indo-Australian archipelago has some of the most diverse marine wildlife in the world because of the large populations of coral that grow there. However, historically, the Indo-Australian archipelago has been challenged by its sensitivity to climate change and sea levels. 

In one study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a group of researchers studied how coral reef populations affected marine wildlife during the Quaternary period, around 125,000 years ago. By reconstructing coral reef paleo distributions from the Quaternary era, they observed that cold temperatures and sea level drops caused massive coral habitat loss. Many of the coral reefs killed resulted from the rise of the sea surface temperature, which impacted the surrounding area by killing a lot of fish. It was observed that on “short temporal and small spatial scales” the corals can fluctuate greatly, which affects the composition and abundance of certain species. Stable coral reef populations help with marine diversity by acting as refugia — an area where organisms can survive through a period of unstable/ harsh time with a difficult climate (glaciation in this case). This prevented species loss because it provided habitat for the many species of fish. In the study, they measured the global distribution of fish species richness from the past 3 million years (sediment cores gave clues to the sea surface temperature and sea level paleo conditions of the habitat). The three species of fish studied, Pomacentridae, damselfishes; Labridae, wrasses; and Chaetodontidae, butterflyfishes; all had population increases when isolated in refugia. It is likely that historical barriers, like those created by the sea level drops in the Quaternary, contributed to the isolation of species by cutting off local sea basins. This wasn’t just because of the water temperature, because scientists also examined other fossils from the same period but from further away from the Quaternary coral reef, which proves the positive effect of the coral.

The study concluded that areas that retained suitable coral reefs served as refugia which was a key part in “buffering species from extinction” (Pellissier, 1017). In a time when marine wildlife is rapidly decaying from climate change causing ocean temperatures to rise, which can change how fish species migrate and can kill coral reefs, it is important to be advocates for the protection of these species. The Wildlife Conservation Hub, a team that is part of the Global Co Lab Network, is committed to raising awareness and doing our part to understand the effects of our actions on the environment. We have worked with non-profit organizations in the past like Rhinosaverz, which works on the ground in South Africa for wildlife protection against poaching, artists like Emily Tin Yang who has fundraised for wildlife conservation organizations, and Wocean, an organization started by two Mexican students who created “The Earth Talk” podcast to share stories of people in the field of wildlife conservation. We have also started an Instagram campaign to educate others about the protection of wildlife and you can see more on @teensdreamcolab on Instagram. We are passionate about the protection of wildlife both on land and in the ocean and hope our message will inspire you to learn and protect our planet. We would love to have you join us.  To learn more, see here.