The Churning of Corals

Corals may appear static, but near the surface the tiny hair-like cilia of these polyps are churning the water. Although it has been known for some time that corals have cilia, scientists had previously assumed they only moved water parallel to the coral’s surface. Instead recent flow visualizations show that the cilia’s movements generate larger-scale vortical flows near the coral that can help draw fresh nutrients in as well as flush waste away. This means that, instead of being reliant on currents and tides, corals can exert some control on their environment in order to get what they need. This insight into coral cilia may shed some light on the micro- and macroscopic flows generated by other cilia, like those in our lungs. For a similar example of seemingly-passive organisms generating their own flows, check out how mushrooms create air currents to spread their spores.  (Image credits: O. Shapiro et al. and MIT News; source video; h/t to Katie B)

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