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How to Identify Staghorn Coral

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How to Identify Staghorn Coral

staghorn coral

Learn how to identify staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis, with this marine-ID guide.

Nicole Helgason

Acropora cervicornis grows into cylindrical branches with a large corallite at the tip of each branch. This is called the axial corallite and is a key feature that distinguishes Acropora from other corals.

If you can identify a single large corallite at the tip of a branch, you found an Acropora.

  • Pointed branches of Acropora cervicornis rise from the reef like antlers, and its common name is the staghorn coral. As the colony grows, the staghorn branches create a three-dimensional lattice where baby fish can easily hide and avoid larger predators.

  • As a staghorn coral reaches toward the sun, the tissue from its lower branches dies off as new tissue is growing up. The structure of the older branches below remains and becomes a fortress for juvenile fish. In a healthy, mature staghorn reef, the top 12 inches or so of the reef is living coral tissue, but below is a labyrinth of branches several generations deep.

  • Acropora cervicornis is the only Caribbean species that grows into sturdy branches capable of creating a complex network of habitat. But while the branches are strong, they can be damaged by heavy anchors, storms or even a diver’s stray fin kick.

  • Colonies can grow quite large, with branches up to 6 feet in length with a diameter up to 3 inches. Healthy stands of staghorn coral can ­contain hundreds of colonies that grow into fields. This coral prefers the upper sun-drenched limits of the reef.