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Coral bleaching occurs when, due to stress, the coral expels the zooxanthellae algae with which it has a symbiotic relationship. This stress can come in the form of higher water temperatures, increased solar radiation, ocean acidification, and a loss of food in the form of zooplankton due to overfishing.
The term "coral bleaching" was coined because the algae gives the coral its color, thus when the algae is expelled, the coral loses its color. Without the algae the coral cannot survive, leading to a chain of events which can leave areas of ocean lifeless. Coral is the major backbone of many ocean ecologies, and if it dies then many other life forms in the area may leave or die as well.