A Christmas tree worm rests on star coral in Bonaire, in the Netherlands Antilles, on October 23, 2008. Hurricane Omar slammed into the lower Caribbean the week before, depositing sand all over the reef and causing major damage. (UPI Photo/Roger L. Wollenberg)
The coral reefs covering less than 1 percent of the Earth are disappearing at alarming rates as scientists struggle to learn why, a U.S. researcher says.
Marine scientist John Bruno of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill said the reefs serve as a valuable home for many marine life forms, including reef fish whose population numbers have declined in conjunction with coral disappearances, The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer reported Sunday.
"It's a wonderful murder mystery for ecologists," the associate professor said. "It's not obvious what the cause is. There are lots of potential culprits."
Bruno said among the potential causes for the mysterious coral decline are pollution of the world's oceans, slight increases in water temperatures, disease and questionable fishing practices by mankind.
Whatever the cause, Bruno told The News & Observer the decline is posing a major risk to the oceans' ecosystems.
"It's kind of like losing all the pine trees in Carolina and Georgia," Bruno suggested. "It just changed the ecosystem. That is pretty much what happened under water. We just didn't see it happen."