Lessons from Travels: Reefs

by Carl Strang

One of the most breathtaking experiences is that of tropical coral reefs. Whether you explore them by snorkeling, as I have done a few times, or take the plunge and scuba dive, the beauty of reef communities is so far removed from our everyday experience that it safely can be described as “out of this world.”

The shapes and colors of the corals and other fixed life forms are sufficient to satisfy the aesthetic need. But then add the diverse, colorful fishes and other freely moving animals, and the experience is transporting.

Beaches near reefs may be filled with the rubble from eroded coral formations, as well as mollusk shells and other remains of ocean life.

The pieces are reminiscent of fossils.

This brings us back home. Our bedrock in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana is Paleozoic in age. It formed when our part of the world was a shallow sea, and was in fact punctuated by reef communities. There were corals, though they were not the ancestors of today’s corals. For most of that time fishes were absent or few. I think, though, that snorkeling or diving in those reefs would have been just as transfixing as today’s experience. The trilobites and other animals were diverse and active, some swam, and they well may have been as colorful and patterned as the reef animals of today.

Winter is edging in, and so we enter the season when tropical reefs seem most remote in time and space. One brief respite can be found in the prehistoric life exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. There is an enormous animated wall that shows what a Cambrian reef might have been like, with the fixed forms, the slowly moving ones, the fast swimmers, the episodes of predation, all with a very relaxing background sound. I cannot visit that museum without spending a few minutes enjoying that scene. Sometimes lessons don’t need distant travel.

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