Coral reefs are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet, home to thousands of species of aquatic life. Berkshire Museum’s coral tank is well-established and provide a unique look at these interesting creatures.

Theme music by Phil Vivori.

Special thanks to Aquarium Assistant Jordan for helping to share her expertise for this podcast.


Craig: Welcome to What’s in the Basement? a new podcast from the Berkshire Museum.  In each episode, we will explore objects and stories from our collection of over 40,000 pieces of art, historical artifacts, and natural specimens. I’m Craig Langlois, Chief Experience Officer for the Berkshire Museum and host of What’s in the Basement. Today we are joined by…

Kendra: I’m Kendra the Experience Coordinator.

Craig: Welcome, Kendra. Technically, we are in the basement of the Museum, but we are not in collections storage. There are quite a few objects that we are currently looking at. Can you start by describing them for our listeners?

Kendra: Today, we are looking into a whole different world. It’s bright and full of life. It’s one of our large saltwater aquariums, the coral reef tank.  We see a variety of species of coral in here. Some are brain coral, candy cane, green moon, bird’s nest, blue tip, acropora… Besides coral, we also have sea anemone and different fish species living in here, too! This is where the fan favorite, Nemo, the clownfish lives.

Craig: Kendra, this is an amazing mini ecosystem we have here. So many beautiful creatures. So many things to talk about. Before we get into specifics, what exactly is coral?

Kendra: Coral are carnivorous animals, closely related to sea anemone and jellyfish.  They are invertebrates, meaning they have no backbone.  They begin their lives as free swimming soft polyps that attach themselves to hard rock and as they grow, they draw calcium and carbonate ions from seawater to build a hard, limestone skeleton around their delicate bodies.  They get their color from millions of tiny algae that live within the coral.

In nature, thousands of these hard, coral polyps form the backbone of coral reefs, which are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet!  They are home to more than a quarter of all marine life, yet they take up less than 1% of the ocean floor. On top of that, coral reefs provide food and medicine for millions of people.

Craig: Over the last few years, we’ve heard a lot about coral bleaching?  Can you explain what that is and why scientists are so concerned?

Kendra: I’m really glad you asked about that. Coral bleaching is a huge threat to reef habitats. It occurs when coral becomes stressed, usually from rising ocean temperatures.  They eject the coral that live inside of them, which makes them lose their color and turn white, like they’ve been bleached and they become more vulnerable. Many coral die, though some can survive this.

Scientists have declared major worldwide bleaching events in 1998, 2010, and the longest ever lasted from 2014 to 2017, and as climate change continues to raise ocean temperatures and acidity levels, these events are going to continue. Reefs are also threatened by pollution, rising sea levels, and stronger storm systems. The loss of biodiversity in all of this is very concerning to ocean scientists because it makes the entire ecosystem less resilient to changing conditions and sudden disturbances, like future bleaching events.

Craig: Kendra, can you give our listeners an idea of what we do here at the Museum to care for this little ecosystem to make sure it stays healthy?

Kendra: I asked our awesome Aquarium Assistant Jordan about this and she says that this is actually one of the easiest tanks to care for because it’s so mature and well-established. Unlike many natural coral reefs, this one is healthy and thriving. The live rock in the tank is covered in bacteria that processes waste and turn it into less toxic material. The rock acts like a natural filter! The tank also has special lights that mimic natural light from the sun.

One thing they do need to supply is a daily boost of calcium that the coral need to grow, which Jordan tells me they add with an evaporation replacement.

Craig: Normally we hold our question on relevancy to the last question on our podcast, but I’m gonna bump it up a few notches today. What makes this relevant for today’s audience?

Kendra: Coral reefs are important habitats for thousands of underwater species. They are vital for a healthy, functioning planet Earth. When people visit the Museum’s Aquarium, they get to peak into this strange habitat that’s so unlike our own. And I really hope it encourages people to be more thoughtful about ways we can all do our part to protect coral reefs.

Craig: That is the perfect segue to my last question. Can you give our listeners a few ideas of how they can protect coral reefs?

Kendra: Even though we don’t live on the coast, that doesn’t mean our daily actions and decisions don’t affect the ocean. People need to remember to not litter, to keep recycling, and to stop putting chemicals down the drain. Look for reef-friendly sunscreens and lawn fertilizers. These things really do always find their way back to the ocean, no matter where you live. Look at your ecological footprint and see what minor changes you can make to make a major difference for the future of our oceans.

Craig: Museum basements can be magical places, even though we can’t have all 40,000 objects on display, we can glimpse at the depth and breadth of the Museum’s collection through programs like this. I’m Craig Langlois, Chief Experience Officer for the Berkshire Museum, I hope you can join us for future episodes of What’s in the Basement?

Kendra: I’d also like to give a special thanks to Jordan for helping me out and sharing her expertise for this podcast. And a big thank you for always taking such great care of the animals in the Aquarium.