Coral reefs are the pandas of the undersea world. Not because they are intriguing to watch but because they seem outrageously sensitive to environmental conditions.

They show an almost peevish inclination to go extinct, depriving the world of a fascinating eco-system that is home to a quarter of all living species in the sea.

As a new exhibition Coral Reefs: Secret Cities Of The Sea attests, while they only make up around 0.1% of Earth’s surface, more than 500million people depend on reefs for their livelihood.

The benefits they provide, such as fishing, tourism and protection from storms, are estimated to be worth more than £200 billion each year.

The list of assaults on these delicate structures (living organisms built from billions of jigsaw pieces of calcium carbonate) include: coral mining, harmful run-off from cities and farms, ocean acidification, overfishing, blast fishing, sea temperature and level rise and air pollution.

They are delicate and breathtaking superstructures, the ultimate expressions of nature’s love of pattern-and-repeat, yet we insist on taking a literal and metaphorical hammer to their existence.

Dr Ken Johnson, coral reef researcher at the Natural History Museum, said: “Coral reefs are not simply beautiful environment, they provide food, income and storm protection for many millions of people around the world.

“The museum has an exceptional collection of corals from ancient and modern reefs we have been studying, to understand how these animals, and the habitats they create, have responded to changes in the ocean.

“A quarter of coral reefs around the world are sadly damaged beyond repair and many more are still under serious threat.

“Now we have access to new technology, we can document current conditions around the world and gain even more insight into how coral reefs cope with these changes.”

Coral Reefs: Secret Cities Of The Sea contains more than 200 specimens from the museum’s collections, including specimens collected by Charles Darwin on his HMS Beagle expedition from 1831-1836, a giant Turbinaria coral, and some of the strange and spectacular creatures that call the reefs home, from the venomous blue-ringed octopus to tiny sponge crabs.

They grow slowly and die quickly, acting as warning sign of environmental change. So more like canaries than pandas then.

Coral Reefs: Secret Cities Of The Sea, National History Museum, Until Sept 13, £10 (concs)

Six wonders of the sea to see

Hawksbill Turtle

HAWKSBILL TURTLE: Hawksbill turtles play an essential role on the reef, eating fast growing algae to keep coral alive

Giant Clam

GIANT CLAM: Weighing the same as 300 bags of sugar, this is the largest of all living molluscs – and is under threat

Thorntail Stingray

THORNTAIL STINGRAY: Growing to 1.8m across and over 200kg in weight, it is among the largest stingrays in the world

Red Cushion Sea Star

RED CUSHION SEA STAR: The red cushion star is much the largest sea star found within its range, sometimes growing to about 50cmcross and over 200kg in weight, it is among the largest stingrays in the world

Large Sea Fan

LARGE SEA FAN: A delicate lace-like structure that helps to filter food out of the water and is home to seahorses and nudibranchs

Giant Grouper

GIANT GROUPER: At over three metres long; similar in size to a large motorcycle, it is the largest bony fish on coral reefs. A gentle giant under threat.