Corals are marine invertebrates within the class Anthozoa of the phylum Cnidaria. They typically live in compact colonies of many identical individual polyps. Corals species include the important reef builders that inhabit tropical oceans and secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton.
Although some corals are able to catch plankton and small fish using stinging cells on their tentacles, most corals obtain the majority of their energy and nutrients from photosynthetic unicellular dinoflagellates of the genus Symbiodinium that live within their tissues. These are commonly known as zooxanthellae and gives the coral color. Such corals require sunlight and grow in clear, shallow water, typically at depths less than 60 metres (200 feet; 33 fathoms). Corals are major contributors to the physical structure of the coral reefs that develop in tropical and subtropical waters, such as the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. These corals are increasingly at risk of bleaching events where polyps expel the zooxanthellae in response to stress such as high water temperature or toxins.
The body of the polyp may be roughly compared in a structure to a sac, the wall of which is composed of two layers of cells. The outer layer is known technically as the ectoderm, the inner layer as the endoderm. Between ectoderm and endoderm is a supporting layer of gelatinous substance termed mesoglea, secreted by the cell layers of the body wall. The mesoglea can contain skeletal elements derived from cells migrated from ectoderm.
Soft corals vary considerably in form, and most are colonial. A few soft corals are stolonate, but the polyps of most are connected by sheets of tissue called coenosarc, and in some species these sheets are thick and the polyps deeply embedded in them. Some soft corals encrust other sea objects or form lobes. Others are tree-like or whip-like and chem a central axial skeleton embedded at its base in the matrix of the supporting branch. These branches are composed either of a fibrous protein called gorgonin or of a calcified material.
The zooxanthellae benefit from a safe place to live and consume the polyp's carbon dioxide, phosphate and nitrogenous waste. Due to rising ocean temperatures the strain on the coral, often drives them to eject the algae. Mass ejections are known as coral bleaching because the algae contribute to coral coloration; some colors, however, are due to host coral pigments, such as green fluorescent proteins (GFPs). Ejection increases the polyp's chance of surviving short-term stress and if the stress subsides they can regain algae, possibly of a different species, at a later time. If the stressful conditions persist, the polyp eventually dies. Zooxanthellae are located within the coral cytoplasm and due to the algae's photosynthetic activity the internal pH of the coral can be raised; this behavior indicates that the zooxanthellae are responsible to some extent for the metabolism of their host corals.
Division forms two polyps that each become as large as the original. Longitudinal division begins when a polyp broadens and then divides its coelenteron (body), effectively splitting along its length. The mouth divides and new tentacles form. The two polyps thus created then generate their missing body parts and exoskeleton. Transversal division occurs when polyps and the exoskeleton divide transversally into two parts. This means one has the basal disc (bottom) and the other has the oral disc (top); the new polyps must separately generate the missing pieces.
Tabulate corals occur in limestones and calcareous shales of the Ordovician and Silurian periods, and often form low cushions or branching masses of calcite alongside rugose corals. Their numbers began to decline during the middle of the Silurian period, and they became extinct at the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago.
Submarine springs found along the coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula produce water with a naturally low pH (relatively high acidity) providing conditions similar to those expected to become widespread as the oceans absorb carbon dioxide. Surveys discovered multiple species of live coral that appeared to tolerate the acidity. The colonies were small and patchily distributed, and had not formed structurally complex reefs such as those that compose the nearby Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.
Certain species form communities called microatolls, which are colonies whose top is dead and mostly above the water line, but whose perimeter is mostly submerged and alive. Average tide level limits their height. By analyzing the various growth morphologies, microatolls offer a low resolution record of sea level change. Fossilized microatolls can also be dated using Radiocarbon dating. Such methods can help to reconstruct Holocene sea levels.