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What is Staghorn Coral?

By Angie Bates
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Staghorn coral is a type of stony coral found in the northern Atlantic ocean. Commonly found around the Caribbean islands, the Florida Keys, and the Bahamas, it can also be found in areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Venezuela. The scientific name for staghorn coral is Acropora cervicornis.

Also called antler coral, staghorn coral receives its common name from its superficial resemblance to deer antlers. As is typical for stony corals, staghorn coral consists of tiny polyps which secrete a hard skeleton and live together in a colony. The fastest growing coral in its native range, staghorn coral can have branches reaching up to 6.5 feet (2 m) long. Normally, individual branches will grow between 4–8 inches (10–20 cm) each year. Its age can be determined by counting the growth rings on the skeleton, just as with trees.

Living in symbiosis with photosynthetic microscopic algae called zooxanthellae, this coral receives its nutrients from the zooxanthellae. Since the algae needs sunlight for photosynthesis, staghorn coral is not found deeper than 98 feet (30 m) from the surface. Without the symbiotic algae, the coral cannot obtain sufficient nutrients.

Staghorn coral is able to reproduce both sexually and asexually. Its primary means of reproduction is asexual, by means of fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs when branches break off a colony and reattach somewhere else. This is especially advantageous when recovering from weather-based disasters which break large numbers of branches. One of the disadvantages, however, is a lack of genetic diversity when new coral is produced asexually.

Sexual reproduction occurs in staghorn coral by gametes which spawn, moving into the water column where they grow into larvae. The larvae live with plankton as they grow, eventually settling into a colony. Spawning only happens once a year however, in August and September, and few larvae survive to settle.

Staghorn coral is one of the most important corals in the Caribbean since it contributes significantly both to reef structure and fish habitats. It is, however, a threatened species, with populations declining at an alarming rate since the 1980s. In some places staghorn populations have declined by as much as 98 percent.

Factors which contribute to the decline of this coral include natural occurrences, like hurricanes, as well as human interference. The primary cause of the decline, however, is disease. Staghorn coral is often afflicted with bleaching, which causes the loss of zooxanthellae.

In an effort to combat the coral's decline, scientists have created several restoration efforts. One approach is to manually reattach fragmented coral. This does not help with disease issues, however, since asexually reproduced coral will have the same increased likelihood of disease as its parent coral. An additional approach is to introduce cultivated larvae into the reef environments in an effort to provide greater genetic diversity.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is staghorn coral and where can it be found?

Staghorn coral is a branching type of coral known for its antler-like appearance, belonging to the genus Acropora. It thrives in shallow tropical reefs and is predominantly found in the Caribbean Sea and the Great Barrier Reef. These corals are vital to reef ecosystems, providing habitat for a myriad of marine species.

Why is staghorn coral important to marine ecosystems?

Staghorn coral plays a crucial role in marine ecosystems by building and stabilizing coral reefs, which are biodiversity hotspots. They provide shelter and breeding grounds for fish and invertebrates, support fishing industries, and protect coastlines from erosion. Their complex structures also facilitate diverse ecological interactions, underpinning the health of reef communities.

How does staghorn coral reproduce?

Staghorn coral reproduces both sexually and asexually. Sexually, they release eggs and sperm into the water column during synchronized spawning events, leading to the formation of free-swimming larvae. Asexually, they can propagate through fragmentation, where broken pieces of coral reattach to the substrate and grow, a process that is also used in reef restoration efforts.

What are the main threats to staghorn coral populations?

Staghorn coral populations are under threat from climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, overfishing, and destructive fishing practices. Rising sea temperatures can cause coral bleaching, where corals expel their symbiotic algae, leading to weakened corals and potential death. Disease outbreaks, such as white-band disease, have also significantly impacted staghorn coral numbers.

How are conservationists working to protect staghorn coral?

Conservationists are employing strategies like coral gardening and outplanting, where fragments of staghorn coral are grown in nurseries and then transplanted back into the wild. Efforts also include establishing marine protected areas, enforcing sustainable fishing practices, and reducing carbon emissions to mitigate climate change impacts on coral reefs.

Can staghorn coral recover from bleaching, and how?

Staghorn coral can recover from mild bleaching if stressors are removed quickly and conditions improve. Recovery involves the re-establishment of symbiotic algae within the coral's tissues, which is essential for their nutrition. However, severe or prolonged bleaching can lead to coral death, emphasizing the importance of addressing the root causes of global coral reef decline.

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Discussion Comments

By Lostnfound — On Jun 25, 2014

It would truly be a shame for these beautiful coral reefs to disappear and I hope efforts to save it are successful. Something Alabama has done in its Gulf waters is to sink old ships and attach coral to them, in hopes of building natural coral reefs. So far, these efforts have been pretty successful. It might be something to think about for those who are looking for ways to save the staghorn coral.

We need all of our native corals in their native waters. That's the way it was meant to be.

By Grivusangel — On Jun 24, 2014

When we went to Aruba, we found a lot of staghorn coral pieces in the shallows of the beach. It had long since broken off the parent coral and had been worn smooth. I brought a couple of pieces home. It was really beautiful.

I saw a lot of wonderful shells in Aruba. Most of them were very smooth, unlike the shells I'm accustomed to seeing in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Those shells usually have ridges and are frequently kind of rough on the outside. The shells in Aruba almost looked polished.

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