Skip to content
For WHOI personnel, vendors, and visitors: COVID-19 Guidelines

Are corals plants, animals, or rocks?

The base of a coral reef is coral, but what is coral? If you look at a piece of coral that washed up on shore, it’s solid and tough with rough edges and little pits. It’s not smooth like many rocks, but it’s definitely not alive. The sand on a white beach is made up of tiny pieces of that tough coral (that were pooped out by parrotfish!). Based on this information, coral must be rock. Or is it?

If we look at that same piece of coral when it is still in the water and part of the reef, we find something quite different. That tough, rock-like structure is home to coral polyps. These tiny animals have a short, tube-like body that ends in a mouth ringed by tentacles. The polyps extend those tentacles to snag bits of food from the water, then shove the food into the central mouth. Hundreds, even thousands, of polyps might live on a single piece of that ‘rock.’

But it’s not rock. Corals are animals, and that hard structure is an external skeleton created by the polyps. They anchor themselves in the pits. When danger approaches, they pull their tiny bodies into the skeleton and out of harm’s way.

Corals are animals, but most reef-building corals don’t get energy only from the food they eat. They also rely on photosynthesis—the process of turning carbon dioxide and water into food. This is the same process that plants use to make food. Does that make them plants? No, but plant-like algae are a part of many corals.

Because corals are animals, they can’t photosynthesize. Instead, they have a special, symbiotic relationship with microscopic algae called zooxanthellae (zoo-zan-THEL-ee). This relationship is called a mutualism—it benefits both organisms. The plant-like zooxanthellae gain a protective home in the coral’s tissues. In exchange, the algae share the food they make through photosynthesis with the coral host. Corals with zooxanthellae get up to 90 percent of their food from their symbiotic algae.

Corals can survive without zooxanthellae. Photosynthesis requires sunlight. Deep-sea corals live in the dark, where they can’t photosynthesize. These corals don’t have algae. Corals in shallow waters that do normally have zooxanthellae can survive for a month or two without their symbiotic algae. This can happen when corals bleach due to warm water temperatures. But these shallow-water animals are strongest and healthiest when they have their plant-like companions.

RELATED VIDEOS

LEARN MORE

Coral

Many people think of coral as hard, rock-like formations that attract abundant, diverse marine life. In fact,…

Read More
deepseacoral_en1_198293.jpeg

Deep-sea Corals

When most people think of corals, they think od the big interconnected structures such as the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. But deep in the ocean much smaller coral formations lie past the point where light penetrates.

Read More

DIVE INTO MORE OCEAN FACTS

Blue Ocean

Why is the ocean blue?

One idea is that it reflects the sky. But if we sink below the surface, the blue color remains. Here, the water isn’t reflecting the sky. So why is the ocean blue?

Find out more

Why do corals bleach?

Corals have a symbiotic relationship with algae. The algae gives corals their color and provides them with food. In return, corals provide the algae with a place to live.

Find out more

What’s the difference between climate and weather?

We often hear about the weather. We also hear about climate. The two terms are related. But they are not the same thing. What’s the difference?

Find out more
Colorful Corals

Why are corals so colorful?

One of the most striking things about coral is its bright coloring. But many are a dull green or brown. So, what gives some corals their bright hues?

Find out more