August 31, 2012

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By Mera McGrew

Invertebrates, animals without backbones, are some of the world’s most abundant creatures.  They can be found in nearly all ecosystems across the globe — swimming, flying, swarming, and floating. They thrive in NYC apartments, the depths of the ocean, and everywhere in between.

Making up an estimated 97 percent of all living species, invertebrates are truly nature’s unsung heroes, playing a key role in maintaining a healthy environment.  “If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change,” famed biologist E. O. Wilson once wrote. However, if invertebrates were to vanish, he said, “I doubt that human species could last more than a few months.”

Invertebrates form the basis of numerous food chains, play a key role in the reproductive cycle of many plants, are used to assess overall habitat quality, and outweigh all the fish in the sea by both species and mass.

The most familiar marine invertebrates include crabs, corals, sea anemones, jellies, sea stars, sea urchins and shrimp. Marine invertebrates such as the blue-ringed octopus, found off the coast of Australia and the western Pacific Ocean, are among the most deadly in the world. Other marine invertebrates such as Christmas tree worms add vibrant color to coral reefs and are harmless.

Marine invertebrates live in coral reefs, shallow mangroves, sea caves, and deep in the ocean inside remote sea vents. Some marine invertebrates pick parasites off of fish, others remove harmful algae from coral reefs, others float through the water column, and still others are found sifting and burrowing through sand.

Marine invertebrates fill many crucial ecological roles within the world’s ocean. However, both local and global pressures including pollution, climate change, habitat degradation and competition for resources with invasive species threaten marine invertebrates.

As much as the charismatic marine mammals, invertebrates also need to be protected. They are, after all, the oceans’ unsung heroes. These simple organisms ultimately help sustain our fragile ecosystem both in and outside the ocean.

 

Check back with Mission Blue as we introduce a virtual exhibit on marine invertebrates by a renowned photographer!

 

Top photo: http://bit.ly/S6oZk1

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