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The nature of the coral reef
- Life and death on the coral reef: an ecological perspective on scholarly publishing in the health sciences

What is the coral reef, and why is that ecosystem important to us? Corals evolved more than 500 million years ago and began to literally build and change the face of the planet [13]. Corals are tiny plant-like animals that require clean, clear water and sunlight to survive, and, in return, they provide the foundation for an immensely rich, complex, and fruitful food chain and recycling system. Corals are both hard and soft. Each coral polyp contains photosynthetic algae that provide food and oxygen to the polyp in exchange for a safe shelter and convenient access to nitrogen and other waste products. For hard corals, when individual polyps die, the next generation builds on the skeleton left behind. The reef feeds on solar energy and recycles almost everything, including the many chemicals and materials we deposit in the ocean in one way or another. The reef itself creates almost no waste, because its many inhabitants use all the byproducts in this complicated chain.

In fact, the coral reef is the planet's most successful engineering mechanism of all time. The 400 species of coral have produced the largest artificial structures on earth. In The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin marveled that:

We feel surprise when travelers tell us of the vast dimensions of the pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals! [14]

Australia's Great Barrier Reef began to form about 18 million years ago and is the largest such system [15]. It extends over 1,250 miles, about the length of the coastline of the western United States. Worldwide, there are approximately 360,000 square miles of living coral reefs [16], about the size of Texas and Colorado together. Reefs occupy less than 1% of the ocean floor, yet they provide a home for more than 25% of all marine organisms [17]. They absorb enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help regulate the global climate. Scientists cannot agree whether the reef or the rain forest forms the most complex environment, but they do agree how vital both are to our survival, and yet both remain poorly understood. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest structure on earth created by living organisms. Not bad for tiny animals that possess a simple nervous system but lack a brain!

These tiny corals manage to make such large homes through lots and lots of sex. Most, although not all, corals are hermaphrodites, producing both eggs and sperm. To maximize fertilization, concurrent mass spawning occurs over large sections of ocean. In one or two nights, entire coral reefs spawn. On the Great Barrier Reef, as many as 200 species of coral may all release cells on the same night [13]. Slicks of eggs and sperm cover the surface of the sea for miles, and water visibility declines. It is the most spectacular sex act on the planet.

As a healthy coral reef grows, it provides an essential platform for other marine organisms to come together in many different relationships. “Symbiosis” exists when two species live together or interact in some way, and several subdivisions of this type of arrangement exist [13]. For example, coral polyps and algae display “mutualism,” where both benefit from each other. We are all aware of “parasitism,” where one species exploits another. Today, faculty members and librarians protest apparent parasitism in the publishing world, and some of us are taking action to alter the balance of power and foster greater mutualism.

On the reef, tension between competition as a means of ensuring survival versus some form of cooperation as an alternative strategy for flourishing is constant. Competition sometimes results in increased specialization and sometimes encourages biodiversity as a way to improve the probability of survival in the face of unpredictable future change or large environmental flux [13]. In the publishing realm, rigorous competition also exists between various individuals and organizations, and we have seen the emergence of ever more specialized biomedical publications. Electronic publishing promises to result in more biodiversity, but survival is always a chancy thing. We think of death primarily as an event that involves individuals, but, when major imbalances occur in the ocean, they can lead to the loss of a whole species or failure of the entire ecosystem. Consider global pressures threatening the coral reef parallel to disruptions to the system of scholarly publishing.

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