‘Janitors’ of the Sea: Overharvested Sea Cucumbers Play Crucial Role in Protecting Coral

In a first-of-its-kind study, the researchers discovered that sea cucumbers protect coral from disease.
Sea cucumbers and coral

Sea cucumbers play a crucial role in protecting coral from disease. Credit: Cody Clements

Corals are foundational for ocean life. Known as the rainforests of the sea, they create habitats for 25% of all marine organisms, despite only covering less than 1% of the ocean’s area. 

Coral patches the width and height of basketball arenas used to be common throughout the world’s oceans. But due to numerous human-generated stresses and coral disease, which is known to be associated with ocean sediments, most of the world’s coral is gone.

“It’s like if all the pine trees in Georgia disappeared over a period of 30 to 40 years,” said Mark Hay, Regents’ Chair and the Harry and Anna Teasley Chair in Environmental Biology in the School of Biological Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Just imagine how that affects biodiversity and ecosystems of the ocean.”

In first-of-its-kind research, Hay, along with research scientist Cody Clements, discovered a crucial missing element that plays a profound role in keeping coral healthy — an animal of overlooked importance known as a sea cucumber.

Read about how they figured it out at Georgia Tech Research News.