We call them the rainforests of the ocean for a reason: coral reefs harbour remarkable diversity and provide shelter for about a quarter of the planet's known marine species. And this week, efforts to preserve these incredibly important ecosystems got a major boost in the US when the country's lawmakers announced new protections for 20 species of coral. 

In response to the growing threats of global warming, disease and ocean acidification, five coral species that occur in Florida and the Caribbean, and 15 in the Pacific, have been classified as 'threatened' under the US Endangered Species Act, a move that promises habitat protections, recovery planning, and crucially, the banning of activities that could jeopardise the corals (like water pollution, dredging, commercial fishing and coastal construction).

The Center for Biological Diversity conservation group has welcomed the new protections, but its also described them as a bitter-sweet victory. "This is a wake-up call that our amazing coral reefs are dying and need federal protection," said Miyoko Sakashita, the Center's oceans director, in a press release. "But there's hope for saving corals and many other ocean animals if we make rapid cuts in greenhouse gas pollution to stop global warming and ocean acidification," she added.

The move is all the more significant because it marks the single-largest protection decision for corals under the Endangered Species Act.

"This decision is a big step forward for corals," said Sakashita. "The world's coral reefs are in crisis from global warming and acidifying oceans, and it’s great news that 20 coral species will get the safety net of [the] Endangered Species Act to help them survive these threats."

You can check out the full list of newly protected corals here ... or you can feast your eyes on this small selection: 

Dendrogyra Cylindrus coral_2014_08_28

Dendrogyra cylinders, also known as pillar coral. Image: Harold Hudson, Wikimedia Commons.

Euphyllia paradivisa_coral_2014_08_28

Euphyllia paradivisa, also known as frogspawn coral. Image: Brian Renken, Flickr

Montipora australiensis coral_2014_08_28

Montipora australiensis. Image: Kim S. Hansen, Flickr

Mycetophyllia ferox coral_2014_08_28

Mycetophyllia ferox, also known as rough cactus coral. Image: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Flickr

Acropora lokani coral_2014_08_28

Acropora lokani. Image: Alex Costa, Flickr 

Top header image: NOAA Photo Library, Flickr