Fish swimming through the coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Getty Images
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Coral reefs are an irreplaceable environmental and economic treasure, in need of help

"Losing the world's coral reefs would be like burning every Impressionist painting - you won't get them back." A new exhibiton at the Natural History Museum shows just what a tragedy these natural wonders' loss would be.

When we hear the words "coral reef" we probably reminiscence on its collage of beauty, and feel nostalgic about Finding Nemo, but that’s probably as far as most people's knowledge goes. Yet despite occupying only about 0.1 per cent of the ocean’s floor, they provide life for at least a quarter of all marine species  and with rareness comes fragility. Human interferences such as overfishing, coral bleaching, pollution and climate change have damaged coral reef ecosystems, and many of them are now holding on for dear life.

By 2050, practically all of the world’s coral reefs will be seriously endangered. The Caribbean reefs, for example, have already lost 80 per cent of its coral cover since the 1970s, mainly due to the overfishing of the fish which eat algae that grows on it, as well as a disease that wiped out algae-eating sea urchins – causing the complete off-balance in the coral:algae ratio. Coral and photosynthesising algae are meant to live in symbiotic harmony when the water temperature is just right, but a rise in global temperatures stresses the algae; they get fed up and start to leave the coral in a process called "coral bleaching". The result is that the corals lose their algae, and without the algae they start to die. 

There are around 800 species of coral worldwide, and some have developed extreme survival tactics, like dissolving neighbouring corals with digestive toxins. But this isn't enough, and like all ecosystems, the damage caused to the coral reefs will have a domino effect throughout the world's oceans, and on land - like people living in countries like the Philippines and Haiti, two impoverished places which depend on the reefs for both food and tourism revenue.

To try to kick against public ignorance of just how important coral reefs are to us, the the Natural History Museum has curated a new exhibition about them. "This exhibition helps us to understand and predict the effect of human impact and climate change on our oceans, one of the biggest challenges facing our natural world today," said Sir Michael Dixon, the NMH's director ahead of its opening. "Coral reefs [...] are being studied every day here at the museum."

The exhibition is simple, spacious but effective. You walk in feeling as those you’ve been immersed in water, and there are geometrically-accurate structures of corals dotted around the space to create that "under the sea" illusion (though they're made from fresh plywood, the pungent smell of which may sometimes slap you back to reality).

Speaking to the NS at the press opening, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the University of Queensland spoke about why coral reefs are important, and the dangerous consequences of not having them around anymore:

Coral reefs are important for a number of reasons. Up front they are an enormously beautiful and diverse system – the most diverse ecosystem on the planet, aside from the rainforests. When you look at their contribution, they have generated trillions of dollars to economies across the planet. But what’s important is that there are about 500,000 people with very little means who live along coastlines and look to coral reefs for their daily meals and income. And those 500,000 people are extremely vulnerable. If we start to lose productivity of coral reefs and fisheries disappear, those people become even more impoverished.

It's an informative exhibition  and here are seven highlights:

1) It has six corals collected by Charles Darwin during his HS Beagle from 1831 to 1886  and even better, it's got the illustrations from his first scientific study, on the formation of coral reefs.

Darwin's notebook.

2) A giant Turbinaria coral – a massive, one-metre-long specimen, the many layers of which would have been a safe haven for many sea species.

3) A giant clam – the biggest of all living bivalves, and weighs as much as 300 bags of sugar. It's currently under threat of extinction as a result of overfishing.

4) A giant grouper – about the size of a large motorcycle, it’s the largest bony fish living in the Great Barrier Reef. But don’t be deceived by its size, as it doesn’t eat humans and is in real threat of extinction throughout the Indo-Pacific region due to overfishing.

A mighty, giant grouper fish.

5) A sea fan – a fragile lace-like structure that helps filter food out of the water. It’s also home to seahorses and nudibranchs.

6) Gorgeous 180 degree panoramic imagery of several reefs in a chamber of circular screens.

The immersive reef chamber.

7) A hundred real-life fish and 26 species of coral, making up a four-tonne aquarium. (And, of course, I tried to count up all the Nemos and Dorys I could find.)

"Losing the coral reefs would be like taking all the Impressionist pictures in the world and burning them, because you won’t get them back," said Hoegh-Guldberg. "Once you’ve lost them it’s a tragedy." On this evidence, it's clear why.

Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea will be opened to the public on 27 March – 13 September 2015, 10.00 – 17.50. All photos by the author unless otherwise credited.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear