Interactive Identification Guide to South Florida Octocorals

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Octocorals ...

  • are the sea fans, sea plumes, soft corals, sea pens, sea rods, gorgonians and their relatives;
  • belong to the major group, or phylum, of the Animal Kingdom that also includes the stony corals, sea anemones, black corals, jellyfishes, hydroids, and Portuguese man o' war;
  • like other members of the phylum, have cells that produce microscopic stinging capsules called cnidae (“NYE-dee”) for feeding and defense, although none cause a painful reaction in humans;
  • grow as colonies of small, interconnected, bag- or cup-like polyps, each composed of two tissue layers, with a mouth surrounded by a ring of tentacles, but no anus;
  • have polyp anatomy arranged radially around the mouth like wheel spokes: eight pinnate tentacles and an interior digestive/circulatory chamber divided by eight partitions (thus, “octo” corals);
  • like stony corals and anemones, lack the swimming medusa (“jellyfish”) stage found in many hydroids and fire coral;
  • include many reef-dwellers that harbor symbiotic, single-celled dinoflagellate algae called zooxanthellae, that contribute to the colony’s nutrition;
  • also include many deep-water species that feed chiefly on plankton;
  • chiefly grow as either male or female colonies, although just under 10% of species are hermaphroditic;
  • can in some cases reproduce asexually through fragments that can give rise to another colony;
  • grow into a distinctive shape or vary depending upon factors such as currents and light;
  • live exclusively in the ocean, cemented to the seafloor (although a few deep-sea species, and the sea pens, anchor in sand or mud, and their larvae can crawl or swim);
  • range from small mats that encrust rocky seafloors to tree-like colonies 3 meters tall (a few species are small solitary polyps);
  • number over 3,100 species;
  • often require microscopic examination of skeletal structures for identification.
Octocorals in South Florida ...
  • are widespread, common and often dominant components of shallow-water marine communities on hard substrates, including reefs and rocky bottoms;
  • number over sixty species;
  • often outnumber stony coral species and may represent a greater percent of living biomass in local reef and rocky bottom habitats;
  • are well known but in some cases are difficult to distinguish.


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Character and Character State Guides

South Florida Octocorals - All Images

South Florida Octocorals - Full Species List