American Oceans

Types of Coral

Because of its colors, textures, and shapes, coral is one of the most intriguing animals in the world. There are roughly 6,000 coral species worldwide, most belonging to one of the three main coral reefs; fringing, barrier, and atoll.

staghorn types of coral reefs in pacific ocean

You can find coral worldwide, but the Pacific Ocean has the most coral species. Because of their environmental restrictions, reefs generally are confined to tropical and semitropical waters.

There are some distinguishing characteristics to help tell them apart. Keep reading to learn more about the different types of coral you may encounter in the ocean.

Staghorn Coral

You can typically find staghorn coral in clear, shallow water on coral reefs throughout the Bahamas, Florida, and the Caribbean.

staghorn coral in clear water of caribbean sea

Staghorn coral colonies may be pale brown or golden with white tips. They have 1-3 inch antler-like branches and typically stem from a central trunk and upward.

Individual Staghorn Coral colonies can grow to 4 feet in height and 6 feet in diameter. You can identify staghorn coral if you see a single large corallite at the tip of a branch.

This is the only Caribbean species that grow into sturdy branches that create a complex habitat network.

Elkhorn Coral

Like staghorn coral, you can find elkhorn coral in shallow water in coral reefs throughout Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean.

yellowish-brown elkhorn coral in caribbean sea

Elkhorn coral is either yellow or yellowish-brown with complex antler-like branches. On average, elkhorn coral colonies grow approximately 6 feet in height and 43ft in length.

As the name suggests, elkhorn coral is easily identifiable by its structure resembling elk antlers. These frond-like branches appear flattened and angled upward, stemming from a central trunk.

Elkhorn coral is crucial for reef-building throughout the Caribbean. You may also see other reef species near it as its branches create necessary habitat and shelter.

Great Star Coral

Great star coral colonies from giant boulders and domes are at least 5 feet in diameter in shallow water and moderate depths.

This coral has been observed growing as a plate formation in deeper waters. The coral’s total longevity is unknown, but they may be able to live up to ten years.

The great star coral may be shades of green, brown, grey, or orange. You can find it across the Atlantic Ocean, in the Gulf of Mexico, Bahamas, Bermuda, Brazil, and West Africa.

The species have lengthy, wide columns with enlarged, dome-like tops or large, massive mounds and sheets with skirt-like edges. Its surface is covered with unique, often somewhat lifted, corallites.

Leaf Coral

Leaf coral is a class of marine invertebrates that includes sea anemones, soft corals, and stony corals.

Adult leaf corals are nearly always attached to the seabed, while their larvae can spread as part of the plankton.

This type of coral can include various animals with polyps with a flower-like appearance. It is divided by walls or septa, which appear as folds from the body wall.

Leaf corals vary significantly in appearance. Many species are red, pink, and purple shades, while others are yellow, blue, white, or orange. They can range from under half an inch to over two feet.

Carnation Coral

Carnation coral is a soft coral located in the Red Sea to the Western Pacific. It is typically a shade of orange or pink with a transparent trunk but may also be purple, green, white, yellow, or a combination of colors.

Not only can it range in colors, but this spectacular coral may change color. This type of coral is one of the easiest corals to identify because of its vibrant colors.

It can also be arboreal or grow in bundles or clumps. Upright limbs have branches with bushy clusters of polyps at the ends and are aposymbiotic, meaning they are night feeding, filter feeders, and non-photosynthetic.

Sea Whip Coral

Sea whip coral has long, slender, whip-like branches covered with coral polyps, resembling tiny, white dots among the skeleton.

It varies in color from tan, yellow, or orange to deep purple and can grow up to three feet tall.

If you live or dive near South Carolina, you may come across an eye-catching sea whip coral 20m down in the water.

Fox Coral

Fox corals belong to species that include jellyfish and sea anemones. You can find this gorgeous coral in the seas by Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Thailand.

In some rare cases, fox corals may have a glowing appearance. Fox coral can grow to 6 inches and are green, cream, white, pink, tan, or brown, though it is commonly cream to light green.

The polyps fold outward with striations in the tissue that branch from the center toward the ruffled edges, resembling a flower.

Sun Coral

Sun corals have an orange body with translucent yellow tentacles. They’re located in deep waters, in depths below 200 feet.

Sun corals are unique in that they can live without sunlight. They require a strong water flow to allow filter-feeding to catch their food.

While most corals contain zooxanthellae, which turn sunlight into food for coral, sun coral does not have zooxanthellae. They must capture all its food using its lengthy tentacles.

You can usually find sun coral in tropical and subtropical rocky coral reefs across all oceans and seas. They are typically spotted in deeply shaded crevices, pier pilings, or caves.

The colonies usually grow to approximately 5 to 6 inches in diameter and grow at about 1.18 inches per year. Some colonies will form large communities by growing nearby one another.

Venus Sea Fan Coral

This species is an airy-looking colonial soft coral with a fan shape composed of multiple branches on a single level.

The coral grows from a small base, forming several central units with side branches and a network of small branchlets.

Venus sea fan coral is sessile, permanently attached to a surface. This species is a fleshy, soft coral. Rather than having a hard skeleton, it has tiny and prickly formations.

You can find venus sea fan coral in the Bucco Reef in Tobago and on beaches like Toco in Trinidad.

Bubble Coral

Bubble coral gets its name from its appearance. These are large polyp stony corals with a calcium carbonate skeleton and round, fleshy bubble-like polyps.

These fascinating animals can be shades of greens, white, yellow, or pink. Its polyps will expand or retract depending on the time of day.

It feeds on small animals, such as plankton, through filter-feeding. Bubble coral’s native habitat is the Red Sea and Indian Ocean reefs.

Though you may be intrigued by bubble coral while diving, be careful, as they are known to sting human flesh.

Orange Pipe Coral

You can find orange pipe coral in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, Australian water, and the Philippines to the Galapagos Islands.

These large-polyp stony corals typically occur in areas with a strong water flow and a high nutrient content at depths of 9 to 16 feet.

Orange pipe coral is an encrusting coral that can become massive and strongly convex. The corallites are covered with porous tissue with a vermicular appearance.

The calyx has a diameter of 0.31–0.39 and a depth of 0.20–0.31. Its polyp’s tentacles are bright yellow-orange, while the coenosteum and the center of the polyps are deeper oranges. The surface of the coenosteum is swollen between calyx.

Vase Coral

Vase corals are native to the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Japan, and the South Central Pacific Ocean. It may be massive, laminar, columnar, or foliaceous, though foliaceous is the most common form.

They may form plates, discs, or tiered structures, usually corallites only on one surface. This species’ color varies from brown to bright green.

The colonies form swirling layers of plates that interlock and fuse, giving a stone rose’s appearance. Additionally, vase corals also have variations in their polyps.

Some vase corals may not have as many polyps due to lack of feeding, yet the polyps are still distinctly small and spaced, so it is easy to identify.

Organ Pipe Coral

Organ pipe coral is a soft coral with a distinctive, hard calcium carbonate skeleton containing many organ pipe-like tubes.

After the delicate parts die, the skeleton remains as a brightly colored mass of tubes that resemble organ pipes (hence its name). The polyps’ tentacles are sometimes green, and the skeleton is bright red or crimson.

You can find the organ pipe coral 2-20 meters down in the Indian Ocean and Western areas in the Pacific Ocean.

Organ pipe corals look somewhat like an underwater flower bush with its many polyps, each containing 8 tentacles.

During the day, you may see their tentacles extended, though they may retract them if bothered.

Boulder Star Coral

Boulder star is a species that can be found in the shallow waters in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, Bahamas, Bermuda, and Florida.

Its corallites are 2.1-3.5 mm in diameter, with 24-26 septa. Neighboring corallites are typically between 0.6 and 1.2 mm apart.

Boulder star coral typically forms large clumps with uneven surfaces or plates. Usually, this species is orange-brown, green-brown, or gray-brown, but its extremities are almost always white. Boulder star coral is considered threatened and listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Grooved Brain Coral

The grooved brain coral gets its name from its brain-like appearance. It looks very similar to the human brain and has deep grooves resembling the brain’s folds.

This circular coral may appear in various colors, including yellow and tan. In deeper waters, it may have a grayish appearance.

Grooved brain coral is a large, reef-building coral that lives throughout the Caribbean Sea and adjacent waters.

This species forms large, circular structures up to 6 feet in diameter. Despite its size, only the outer few millimeters are living tissue, while the rest is a calcium carbonate skeleton.

Open Brain Coral

Open brain corals are a vibrant coral species in the Merulinidae family. Colonies have vibrant colors of blues, greens, yellows, and browns.

This species is found across the Indo-Pacific Ocean, starting from the Red Sea to New Caledonia.

This tiny species can be solitary or colonial and rarely reach over 20 cm in diameter. You can find this species in water up to 43 yards in depth.

Open brain corals are not usually spotted in coral reef inhabitants and can instead be located in lagoons, on sandy reef slopes, and around continental islands.

Lettuce Coral

Lettuce corals may be brownish-green, brown-purple, or faded yellow-orange. This species is sensitive to environmental conditions causing it to form crusts of corallites on its thin, exposed ridge-like plates.

The lettuce coral has a rugged, stony exterior with corallites formed in rows on the plates, while some are single with pointed ridges in between.

The polyps expand at night to trap and feed on plankton. This coral is located in shallow waters in the tropical western Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Honeycomb Coral

Honeycomb coral went extinct millions of years ago, but luckily, fossils have been left behind so we can see what they looked like.

They were a yellowish-brown color, and their polyps formed a collection of closely-packed hexagon-like shapes, giving it an appearance resembling honeycombs.

You can commonly find this coral where you find the Michigan Petoskey Stones and Charlevoix Favorites Stones situated in the Traverse Group Geological Formations in the far northern sections of the state.

Mushroom Coral

Mushroom corals come in varying colors. including blue, green, red, brown, and purple, and often have stripes, spots, and mottled color variations.

Mushroom corals are one of the most distinctive species of Hawaiian stony corals. Mushroom coral gets its name from its radiating septa that give it a mushroom-like appearance.

This species is often flat or dome-shaped, circular or slightly oval, resembling a mushroom cap. Most mushroom-shaped corals live alone and unattached to any substrate. You can find this species in Indo-Pacific waters.

Clubbed Finger Coral

Clubbed finger corals have 1-inch sweeper tentacles, yet they are not as aggressive as other corals. They may have one color or have single-colored branches with fluorescent polyps.

This species can be bright green, blue, purple, cream, and pink. This branching coral has a dense network of corallites and polyps that gives it a fuzzy appearance when its polyps extend.

Colonies grow to 1 to 4 feet, and the branches range in diameter between 0.5 and 1 inch. You can find clubbed finger coral in south Florida, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and the west coast of Africa.

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