Sunday Spinelessness – Little creatures that make a world

By David Winter 28/08/2011

E.O. Wilson once described insects as “the little creatures that run the world”. Wilson was presumably referring to the huge amounts of energy and mass that pass through insect bodies in terrestial ecosystems. There are, slightly puzzlingly, almost no insects in the sea but invertebrates still run marine ecosystems. In fact, invertebrates even create habitats in what would otherwise be unproductive waters.

We tend to think of the tropics as areas of great biological diversity – that’s true for the land but less so in the ocean. The beautiful clear waters you see in tropical seas indicate a lack of nutrients and a corresponding lack of plankton. Without plankton, the normal marine food webs don’t develop and, as a result, tropical seas are generally not very productive. But if you’ve been snorkling around a tropical island you’ll know coral reefs are explosions of biolgical diversity. That’s all because some coral animals can take advantage of the marginal conditions in tropical waters. These corals supplement the meager pickings that can filter from the water with energy trapped by a type of photosynthetic protozoa called zooxanthellae. In time these corals, with their protozoan helpers, can put down acres of calcium carbonate and create food and habitat for more and more animals. When those animals are anenomes, they can themselves form habitat for another animal. Like this anemone fish (or, as most people call them, NEMOS!!!) filmed earleir this year at Hideaway Island in Efate, Vanuatu: