O Hoegh Guldberg S Dove

Corals reefs provide a spectacular contrast to the oceanic ecosystem that surrounds them. While coral reefs are ablaze with thousands of species living within a highly productive ecosystem, the surrounding ocean is usually devoid of particles and has a low rate of primary production. Whereas coral reefs are often likened to the 'rainforests of the sea', the surrounding waters are often referred to as 'nutrient deserts' due to the low quantities of essential inorganic nutrients such as ammonium and phosphate ions. How a marine 'rainforest' exists in an oceanic 'desert' was one of the grand puzzles that faced the early workers on coral reefs, including Charles Darwin.

In this chapter, the various drivers of the energy flow through coral reefs are explored. After investigating which physical and chemical factors define corals and the reefs that they build, we describe some of the fundamental biological relationships that lead to the capture of energy and nutrients by coral reefs, and how these essential requirements of life flow through coral reef ecosystems. As we will see, while primary production is similar to that of other shallow marine ecosystems, coral reefs have a high proportion of pathways that involve the recycling of nutrients between closely associated primary producers and consumers. We will also see that the highly productive nature of coral reefs is deceptive in that it is accompanied by the rapid and efficient recycling of nutrients and energy such that overall rates of accumulation of organic carbon as reef growth are low. This theme lies at the heart of the puzzle of how highly productive and diverse coral reefs can exist in the 'nutrient deserts' of tropical and subtropical oceans.

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