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What Is Zoanthid Coral?

By S. Mithra
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A member of the phylum Cnidaria, zoanthid coral is a colonial anemone closely related to single anemones. Zoanthid coral, including members from the species Palythoa and Zoanthus, have some characteristics we associate with plants and some with animals. They grow in the ocean as a group, permanently attach to reefs, feed like anemones, and propagate like coral.

Cnidarians are radially symmetric, which means they are shaped like a series of cylinders that could be rotated without being able to determine which side is the "front." Zoanthid coral grows in a colony, which means a bottom mat connects many tubules. Each tubule, called a stolon, resembles a single anemone. A top section has a ring of short tentacles surrounding its central mouth. This top is held up by an elongated column of tissue like the stalk of a mushroom, and this in turn connects to the collective mat.

Colonies can be made up of dozens of such stolons, each 1 - 1.5 inches (2.5 - 3.8 cm), to form carpets on or around reefs. Zoanthid coral prefer to grown on pieces of broken off coral that collect in valleys on tidepools or the ocean floor, but they can also survive on sand and rocks. Zoanthid coral grows in seemingly disparate ways. Some stolons are male and female, and release sperm and eggs to get fertilized and grow into a whole new colony. However, an existing colony can also propagate by branching off new polyps, like coral, that start from the carpet and grow upwards.

Zoanthid coral, since it can't perambulate (move around), feeds off nutrients that drift through the current, called detritus. Detritus is miniature pieces of food other creatures don't even notice, like bits of algae, plankton, or waste. Other nutrients are extracted from photosynthetic algae that live on zoanthid coral, called zooxanthellae. However, zoanthid coral is also equipped with poisonous toxins that can sting other creatures from the tips of their tentacles. This is solely for protection, not to paralyze animals for food.

Medical researchers are interested in zoanthid coral because it has symbiotic relationships with animals and plants, like algae and crabs, yet maintains production of toxic chemicals. Although the toxins are poisonous to the nervous system, they might be able to benefit humans against disease.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is zoanthid coral?

Zoanthid coral refers to a group of soft corals known for their bright colors and colonial growth form. They are cnidarians, related to sea anemones and jellyfish, and possess symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae that aid in photosynthesis. Zoanthids are popular in the aquarium trade and contribute to reef biodiversity and structure.

How do zoanthid corals differ from other types of coral?

Zoanthids differ from hard corals in that they do not build large calcium carbonate skeletons. Instead, they form smaller, sand-encrusted mats that connect individual polyps. Unlike solitary corals, zoanthids are colonial, and their polyps share a common tissue layer, making them a cohesive, interconnected community.

What kind of environment do zoanthid corals thrive in?

Zoanthid corals thrive in shallow, warm, and well-lit marine environments where sunlight can penetrate for photosynthesis. They prefer reef habitats with moderate water flow, which helps in nutrient uptake and removal of waste. These conditions are typically found in tropical and subtropical oceans around the world.

Are zoanthid corals easy to care for in an aquarium setting?

Zoanthid corals are considered one of the easier corals to care for in an aquarium due to their adaptability and hardiness. They require stable water conditions, moderate lighting, and water flow. However, they can be sensitive to changes in water quality, so regular monitoring and maintenance are essential for their well-being.

Can zoanthid corals be harmful to humans or other marine life?

Some zoanthid corals contain palytoxin, one of the most potent toxins in the natural world. Handling them without proper protection can lead to palytoxin poisoning in humans, causing severe health issues. In the marine environment, their aggressive growth can sometimes outcompete other coral species for space and resources.

What role do zoanthid corals play in the marine ecosystem?

Zoanthid corals play a crucial role in marine ecosystems by providing habitat and shelter for a variety of marine organisms. They contribute to the structural complexity of coral reefs, which supports biodiversity. Additionally, their symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae helps in the production of oxygen and the removal of carbon dioxide from the water.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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