We Have Unrealistic Beauty Standards for Coral, Too


Experiments show that people value pretty reefs over healthy ones. (Hakai)

Use our lesson plan to help introduce students to coral reef ecosystems.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Look at this beautiful, healthy coral reef off the coast of the Swan Islands of Honduras.
Photograph by Brian J. Skerry, National Geographic
Look at this beautiful, healthy coral reef off the coast of Australia.
Photograph by Paul Zahl, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas


  • The ecosystem benefits provided by coral reefs rely largely on their dazzling colors. Why are corals so colorful?
    • They’re not, really. Corals and their exoskeletons are actually clear or translucent.
    • Corals can synthesize pigments. These pigments benefit a type of algae known as zooxanthellae. Zooxanthellae live inside the coral, and have a mutualistic relationship with their host organism.
      • The coral provides the algae with a protected environment and compounds they need for photosynthesis. In return, the algae produce oxygen and help the coral to remove wastes. Most importantly, zooxanthellae supply the coral with glucose, glycerol, and amino acids, which are the products of photosynthesis. The coral uses these products to make proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and produce calcium carbonate” to make their exoskeletons. Photosynthesizing zooxanthellae lend corals their brown and dark-green colors.
      • Corals’ brightly colored pigments protect zooxanthellae by acting as sunscreen and shielding the algae from harmful UV rays.
      • Coral reef coloration is dependent on genetics. The production of pigments is a complex, energy-intensive process involving multiple copies of one gene. The process may vary radically across corals exposed to the same light and environmental conditions.



  • Why is the appearance of a healthy reef possibly as important an actually healthy reef?
    • Criteria for UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the Great Barrier Reef include “exceptional natural beauty” and “aesthetic importance.”
    • Both the tourism industry and conservation organizations benefit from beauty. Visitors and donors are more likely to value “unhealthy and beautiful” reefs over “healthy and less-beautiful” ones.




Hakai: We Have Unrealistic Beauty Standards for Coral, Too

Nat Geo: Coral Reefs: Ecosystems Full of Life

Nat Geo: Coral Reef Food Web

EcoMar: Healthy v. Unhealthy Coral

NOAA: Zooxanthellae … What’s That?

The Conversation: Revealed: why some corals are more colourful than others

(extra credit!) Royal Society Open Science: Using virtual reality to estimate aesthetic values of coral reefs

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