Sharpen your ID skills for the most in­trigu­ing coral species

Scuba Diving - - Ascend - BY NI­COLE HELGASON

cor­nis cylin­dri­cal with lite each Acropora at a branch. the large grows tip branches cervi- coral- of This into is coral­lite called the and ax­ial 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.

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