Coral reefs are the most productive marine ecosystem known, providing essential habitats and shelters for fish and other organisms. Additionally, they help protect coastlines, support economies, provide important food sources for local fisheries, and so much more. Coral reefs are ecologically essential—but are continuing to vanish. Fire coral (Millepora) brings new hope to this marine crisis due to their unusual ability to grow in two forms and survive under various habitat stresses.
What Is Fire Coral?
Fire coral has been around for millions of years and is most commonly found in sunny, shallow reefs. They tend to grow in tropical and subtropical waters with many thriving in different areas of the Caribbean Sea, one of the planet’s most biologically diverse ecosystems. Fire coral resembles typical stony corals but has a wicked sting that can cause burning skin reactions, reflecting their relationship as a close relative to jellyfish.
My daughter has a favorite tree, The Old Willow Tree, at Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Madison. I don’t know exactly how much time she has spent in that tree, but I suspect it is significant.
Trees have served as the source of inspiration for scientists’ careers, writers’ metaphors, and musicians’ nostaglia.
One of our science writers at Promega tells this story about an early “botanical” experiment he and his grandmother performed:
“When I was four, my grandma helped me plant a ‘helicopter’ in a butter dish. It slowly graduated to a Cool Whip container, then a family-sized takeout tub from a spaghetti joint. It’s now the largest tree on my parents’ property.” –Jordan Villanueva
When I was in college, the campus quad was lined with ancient Ginkgo trees that filled my morning walks to my fall classes with shimmering gold leaf. I remember those trees with such fondness that the first tree I planted when I moved to Wisconsin was a Ginkgo tree.
Dennis Dimick has focused his journalism career on the collision between human aspiration and the planet. The son of fisheries biologists, Dimick grew up on a farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and he holds degrees in agriculture and agricultural journalism from Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his 35 years at National Geographic, he served for over a decade as the magazine’s environment editor, and guided major projects on climate change, energy, freshwater, population, and food security. Dimick is co-founder of Eyes on Earth, a project meant to inspire a new generation of environmental photographers.
As a young man, Dimick witnessed firsthand the price of progress when his family’s farm was cut in half by the construction of an interstate beltway. This invasion of their farm, in addition to the clear-cut logging of nearby forests where Dimick had spent his youth, combined to sensitize him to the profound impacts of human progress on the Earth. Early photography experience and his personal connection to the effects of human progress led to a life and career spent combining these two dimensions.
In anticipation of hisparticipation in the 2018 Wisconsin Science Festival, I asked Mr. Dimick some questions about photojournalism, and what it’s like documenting the human impact on the environment. Some of his answers have been slightly edited for clarity.
For a few years beginning late in 2013, warmer ocean conditions in the eastern Pacific prompted the appearance of unexpected species and toxic algal blooms that devastated others. When temperatures cooled in 2017, the marine ecosystems seemed to be returning to normal. Except for the pyrosomes. Although these previously rare organisms did start to wash up on beaches during the periods of warming, they began to appear by the millions from Oregon to Alaska that spring.
While the appearance of pyrosomes impeded the efforts of fisherman by clogging nets and filling hooks, greater ecological effects have yet to be observed. As we celebrate World Oceans Month, pyrosomes offer a mesmerizing example of the astounding biological diversity our oceans have to offer and, perhaps, a cautionary tale of the impact climate change can have on those marine lifeforms.
The pyrosome species common in the NE Pacific, Pyrosoma atlanticum, goes by a few other colorful names. Each name reveals something captivating about these creatures. Commonly called “sea pickles” due their size, shape and bumpy texture (like a transparent cucumber), these are not single organisms, but colonies formed by hundreds or thousands of individual multicellular animals call zooids.
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