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Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

L CORALS
iving animals whose skeletons photosynthesis. In turn, the algal
form the framework of Floridas tenants provide many benefits to
multicolored underwater reefs, the coral, including nutrition and
corals are a diverse and ecologically
important member of the aquatic Architects of the Reef waste removal. Scientists are still
investigating the nature of this
ecosystem. Florida boasts the only symbiotic (mutually beneficial)
shallow-water tropical coral reef ecosystem in the relationshipwhich occurs in many forms by
continental United States, but these ancient, various inhabitants of the reef system.
slow-growing structures are now imperiled by Most corals are colonial and composed of
heavy tourism, over-fishing, global climate tiny individuals called polyps which are closely
change, coastal development, and pollution. All of related to jellyfish. They begin life in tropical
these factors combine to degrade these monuments waters as free-floating larvae but eventually
of the sea that, for many people, are the very settle on the sea floor as sedentary animals. A
embodiment of Floridas underwater appeal. single polyp may be as large as a compact disc
or smaller than the head of a pin. Billions of
these polyps work together, generation after
What Are Corals? generation, to create one of natures most
Incorrectly classified as plants until the mid-19th spectacular and enduring wonders: a coral reef.
century, corals are animals that gather their food A coral polyp consists of translucent tentacles
instead of producing it themselves as most plants and a mouth. It can feed by waving its tentacles
do. But within their tissues corals do house a through the surrounding water to capture tiny
group of microscopic plants called zooxanthellae, wandering animals called zooplankton, which
which use sunlight for photosynthesis. Coral the polyp stuns with stinging cells called
provide these colorful algae with shelter, nutrients, nematocysts, located on its tentacles. When a
and carbon dioxide, which is necessary for polyp is feeding or defending its territory, it

Heres How You Can Help Keep Our Reefs Healthy!


Remember that all Florida coral is protected and may not be collected, harvested or sold.
Do not touch, grasp, stand on, sit on, or drag equipment over living coral.
Try to retrieve fishing gear and equipment, especially monofilament line.
Avoid running aground on the reef. Brown, brown, run aground; blue, blue, sail on through.
Anchor boats in sandy areas away from the reef. Use mooring buoys if available.
Do not dump trash on or near the reefor anywhere else at sea or land.
Reduce, reuse, and recycle! The less you use, the less emissions (greenhouse gases) you make.
stretches itself out of its cup and spreads its produce calcium carbonate that cements diverse
tentacles like the branches of a tree. At rest, it reef material, and they give the reef its vivid
pulls its tentacles back into the cup and closes its rainbow hues.
mouth tightly like a drawstring pouch. Most Coral reefs have been in existence for 200
species of coral rest during the day with their million years. In prehistoric times, when the
tentacles retracted while the algae produce climate of North America was warmer, coral reefs
energy and become active at night, unfolding were found over a much broader area. During
their gaily colored tentacles to gather food. glacial periods, reefs retreated. Although some
Corals can reproduce by spawning, releasing scattered coral communities are found off western
sperm and eggs into the water which come Florida and the coasts of Texas and Louisiana,
together to form larvae, or by brooding, growing the only living shallow water tropical coral reef
fertilized eggs into larvae inside their body cavity ecosystem in the continental United States is
and then releasing them into the water. located in the Florida Keys. Here, some 6,000
Reproduction usually occurs at night and only at individual reefs are draped like a jeweled necklace
certain times of the year. Larvae can drift from along the coast for 130 miles from Key Biscayne
several days to several weeks before settling to the Dry Tortugas. Southern Florida is
onto a hard surface, where they form into a documented to have the largest amount of coral
polyp and immediately begin to construct habitat under U.S. jurisdiction.
skeletons to anchor themselves to the rock. A
polyp will remain in one place its entire life,
growing new polyps by cloning itself, a process
Floridas reefs began to form 5,000 to 9,000 years
called budding.
ago, when sea levels rose following the last Ice Age.
Throughout their lives, coral polyps extract
calcium and bicarbonate ions from seawater to
construct calcium carbonate skeletons. Since All coral reefs are in a constant state of flux.
coral polyps must be in contact with water in New colonies grow on the outer surface of coral
order to collect food, only the outside layer of reefs, causing the reefs to expand. Hurricanes
any coral formation is alive. Corals grow very grind the coral rock into sand, causing the reefs
slowly: estimates of growth range from 1-16 feet to shrink. Reefs are also excavated by bio-
every 1,000 years. eroding animals such as sponges, snails, worms,
and other sea creatures. If conditions are favorable
How Coral Reefs Form for long periods, the reefs may reach awe-
inspiring heights.
Coral skeletons form the gradually evolving
framework of the huge and colorful coral reefs.
New corals settle and grow on hard substrate, Types of Reefs and Corals
often the skeletal remains of formerly living Worldwide, there are many types of coral reefs,
corals. Over centuries, many coral colonies including fringing, barrier, atolls, and deep sea
together form large calcium carbonate structures banks. Florida has bank reefs, which are found
that may extend to just below the oceans surface. up to three miles offshore in deeper waters and
This continual work-in-progress forms the rise steeply from the ocean floor, and patch reefs,
exquisite floral patterns and jagged pillars and which grow close to shore in shallow water.
spires of a coral reef. In addition to the algae Atolls, ringlike coral islands encircling a shallow
that live within the coral polyps, other types, lagoon, are found primarily in the South Pacific.
usually red, green, brown or blue-green algae, Corals can generally be divided into two main
grow on the reef itself. Some of these algae also categories: stony corals and octocorals. Numerous

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species of coral, including nearly fifty species of cluster of cells. It funnels seawater through a
stony corals, are found in Florida reefs. Each network of canals and pores to collect food,
species forms colonies that that have a unique minerals, and oxygen.
shape, making them distinguishable from other From silvery, streamlined barracuda to spine-
colonies. Different colonies of the same species covered sea urchins, coral reefs attract a
can take on the various hues of the algae that live remarkable variety of marine creatures, many of
within themusually red, green, and brown. which are just as brightly colored as the corals
Skeletons of dead stony corals, the skeletal themselves. The reason for this color display is
deposits of sponges, and algae are the building unknown, although scientists suggest that the
material of coral reefs. The most spectacular residents of the reefwith so many ledges and
reef-building corals in Florida are brain, star, openings to hide withinmay not need to
elkhorn, and staghorn corals. Brain coral is camouflage themselves in drab attire as many
dome-shaped and has waves, folds, and ridges creatures of the open ocean do. But like all
that resemble those of a human brain. Star coral animals, reef inhabitants have evolved a number
is also dome-shaped, but it has a distinctive star of adaptations to improve their survival chances.
pattern on its surface that is caused by the The spiny lobster and the four-eyed butterfly
accordion-like folds within its polyp cups. Elkhorn fish, for instance, sport spots on their tails that
and staghorn corals are so named because their look like eyes to direct a predators attention
branchlike projections resemble the antlers of away from their vulnerable heads and bodies.
those animals. Clown fish have a special coating of slime on
Octocorals, some of which are also called their bodies that allows them to hide without
gorgonians, look like strange trees and shrubs, injury among the poisonous tentacles of the sea
although they too are composed of living polyps. anemone. And the parrotfish, which helps to
The name gorgonian aptly refers to the mythical make beaches by pulverizing coral into sand,
Gorgons, sinister women with writhing snakes creates its own sleeping bag of mucus that seals
for hair. Unlike stony corals, octocorals are do its scent from predators.
not build thick calcium carbonate skeletons.
Instead, many octocorals are supported by an
internal structure composed of a substance
Coral reefs occupy a small portion of
called gorgonin. Octocorals frequently grow on
the ocean floor, but they provide important
or near the reef like a fantastical garden. habitat to millions of marine species.
The most conspicuous octocorals in Florida
are sea fans and sea rods. Sea fans are pale
lavender or green fan-shaped corals. Their fans Although coral reefs are beautiful by day,
flutter in the ocean currents like lace curtains. they take on an even more dazzling appearance
Sea whips have long, feathery branches that at night, as more of the coral polyps unfold and
spread in all directions. They can be orange, lilac, many reef residents come out of their daytime
purple, yellow, brown, or buff. shelters to feed.

Reef Residents Why Coral Reefs Are Important


Coral reefs are a study in deception, supporting Coral reefs are among the most biologically
many animals that look like plants. The most diverse ecosystems on earth. Coral reefs occupy
obvious example of such confusion is the sponge. less than 1 percent of the worlds oceans, but it
Although it looks like a plant, it is an animal, is estimated that about 25 percent of marine fish
albeit a simple one consisting of no more than a species inhabit coral reefs during some part of

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their lives. Reefs are second only to tropical rain Global climate change has also been identified
forests in the number of species they harbor and, as a major threat to coral reefs. In general, reef
indeed, are sometimes called the rainforests of corals require clear water, bright light, oceanic
the sea. Like their terrestrial counterparts, coral salinities, and water temperatures between 65
communities contain valuable materials and degrees and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. As tropical
medicines that are useful to people. sea temperatures increase, corals become stressed
In Florida, coral reefs are home to many of and can expel their zooxanthellae in a process
the states most important fisheries resources, called bleaching. When this occurs corals lose
including spiny lobsters and groupers. Reefs also their color and appear white as their calcium
buffer coastal land from the damaging effects of carbonate skeleton shows through their
storms and erosion and help to form the sandy transparent tissue. While long periods of elevated
beaches and quiet lagoons that are signatures of water temperatures have been identified as a
the states tourism industry. major cause of bleaching, this phenomenon can
occur when a coral becomes stressed for various
reasons. Most species of corals can recover from
Threats to Coral Reefs bleaching, but if the stressors last for too long the
Two centuries ago, enterprising residents of the whole colony can eventually die. Recently it has
Florida Keys waved lanterns from the shore to also been shown that greenhouse gases known to
lure unsuspecting ships onto reefs so the residents cause global warming are also changing chemical
could salvage the cargoes for themselves. properties of the oceans through a process referred
Although that activity has long since been halted, to as ocean acidification. Ocean acidification can
Floridas coral reefs today are continuously slow coral growth and coral reef accretion.
threatened by the activities of an increasing An initial attempt to protect the reefs came in
human population. Boaters frequently run 1960, with the creation of John Pennekamp State
aground or drop anchor on the coral heads, Park off Key Largo. That was followed by the
divers and snorkelers accidentally step on and designation of the Key Largo National Marine
damage them, and pollution decreases the Sanctuary and, later, Looe Key National Marine
optimal water quality that is vital to their survival. Sanctuary. Both of these were incorporated into
the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
(FKNMS) which was established in 1990 and
The reefs of the Florida Keys are one of the protects 2,900 square nautical miles of waters
most popular diving destinations in the world. surrounding the Florida Keys. In 1997, the FKNMS
implemented a comprehensive management plan
that created five types of zones, each with varying
Today, the number of visitors to the coral levels of protection. Together, the marine zones
reefs in Florida continues to swell, along with the are designed to protect and preserve sensitive
sedimentation, sewage and stormwater discharges parts of the ecosystem while allowing activities
associated with coastal development. These that are compatible with resource protection. The
discharges can smother coral colonies and allow management plan offers hope that the states
other organisms, such as sponges, tunicates, and shimmering underwater mansions will continue
algae to overgrow parts of the coral reef habitat. to grow and flourish.

May 2016

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
100 8th Avenue SE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 (727) 896-8626 MyFWC.com/Research