Coral Identification: Types Of Coral (Part 1- Hard Coral)

Knowing and being able to identify different types of marine life, fish and coral makes scuba diving all the more exciting and enjoyable. When it comes to Coral Identification the sheer number of and different types of coral make it hard to come up with an extensive, all encompassing list. However,  as part of our series of posts on marine life identification, we’ve put together a list of some common types of coral you are likely to spot when reef diving.Coral Identification- Types of Coral

Sometimes mistaken for and referred to as plants or rocks, corals are actually made up of small marine invertebrate animals known as Coral Polyps and their exoskeleton structure that acts as a home. That is we see as the hard chalky structures that join together to form coral reefs. There are two main types of coral- Hard Coral and Soft Coral.
Above photo by flickkerphotos on flickr

Hard corals are made of a rigid calcium carbonate (limestone) and appear very much like rocks. Each polyp secretes a hard exoskeleton made up of calcium carbonate and a chalky internal skeleton that stays in place even after they die. As each generation of polyps dies and their exoskeleton remains, the coral grows a bit larger and because each polyp is so small, hard corals grow at a very very slow rate. Hard corals are scientifically known as “scleractinians”.

Types of Hard Coral

Staghorn Coral

Coral Identification- Types of Coral- Staghorn Coral
photo by Nick Hobgood on flickr

Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis): Staghorn coral is a branching coral with cylindrical branches ranging from a few centimeters to over 6.5 feet (2 m) in length.This coral exhibits the fastest growth of all known western Atlantic corals, with branches increasing in length by 4-8 inches (10-20 cm) per year and is one of the three most important Caribbean corals in terms of its contribution to reef growth and fish habitat.

Pillar Coral

Coral Identification- Types of Coral- Pillar Coral
photo by nashworld on flickr

Pillar corals (Dendrogyra cylindricus): This type of coral grows up from the sea floor, but without any secondary branching. They can grow to be up to 2.5 m (8 ft) tall. They can grow on both flat and sloping sea floors at a depth of between 1 and 20 m (65 ft). They are one of the few types of hard coral whose polyps can commonly be seen feeding during the day.

Table Coral

Coral Identification- Types of Coral- Table Coral
photo by doug.deep on flickr

Table Coral (Acropora):Table Coral is the same branching type of coral as Staghorn coral, however it grow as flat plates. The shape of table coral is ideal to expose as much of their surface as possible to sunlight. The usual color of table coral is a dull brown or green, but it is brightened up by the numerous reef fish that shelter under and around its plates.

Brain Coral

Coral Identification- Types of Coral- Brain Coral
photo by bob.bachand on flickr

Brain coral (family- Faviidae): Named because of this corals spheroid shape and grooved surface which resembles an animal brain. The life span of the largest brain corals is 900 years. Colonies can grow as large as 6 or more feet (1.8 m) high.

Blue Coral

Coral Identification- Types of Coral- Blue Coral
photo by Mindful One on flickr

Blue coral (Heliopora coerulea): Blue corals is named for their distinctive, permanently blue skeleton, which is generally hidden by greenish-grey or blue polyps. Blue corals occur in tropical waters, on intertidal reef flats and upper reef slopes.

Great Star Coral

Coral Identification- Types of Coral- Great Star Coral
photo by richard ling on flickr

Great star coral (Montastraea cavernosa): This type of coral is a colonial stony coral found in the Caribbean seas. It forms into massive boulders and sometimes develops into plates. It’s Polyps are the size of a person’s thumb and can be seen fully extend at night.

Tube Coral

Coral Identification- Types of Coral- Tube Coral
photo by Nick Hobgood on flickr

Tube Coral (Tubastraea): Tube Coral is a large polyp stony coral, and is found in a variety of colors and forms depending upon species. The tubastraea faulkneri is known as the Orange Cup or Sun Coral, pictured above.

Elkhorn Coral

Coral Identification- Types of Coral- Elkhorn Coral
photo by diver_meg on flickr

Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata): This coral is considered to be one of the most important reef-building corals in the Caribbean. This species of coral is structurally complex with many large branches. The coral structure closely resembles that of elk antlers. A popular choice as a home for lobsters, parrot-fish, snappers and other reef fish. Elkhorn coral colonies are incredibly fast growing with an average growth rate of 5 to 10 centimetres (2.0 to 3.9 in) per year and can eventually grow up to 3.7 metres (12 ft) in diameter.

Soft Corals continued in Coral Identification: Types Of Coral (Part 1)

Related Articles:
Understanding the Different Types of Reefs
Fish Identification Guides by Paul Humann
Marine Life Identification: Types of Shrimp

Clownfish Identification Part 1/2

Clownfish Identification Part 2/2


  1. Nick Hobgood says:

    The picture labeled tube coral is actually a tube sponge.

  2. yep

  3. Nick is right, that is a sponge, not a coral…… Aplysina fistularis, the coral below it seems to be Siderastrea siderea, but what do i know, im just an 800 lb gorilla in the room… ha

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