Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) is a branching, reef-building coral. Their branches are reminiscent of stag antlers, hence the name. This coral species exhibits the fastest growth of all known western Atlantic corals with branches increasing in length by 4-8 in/10-20 cm per year. Staghorn corals occur in both back reef and fore reef environments from 0-100 ft/0-30 m deep. The upper limit is defined by wave forces, and the lower limit is controlled by light availability and suspended sediment. When their environment maintains a healthy status, they can live for hundreds of years and grow together to form dense thickets, meters across.
Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) is a large, branching coral with thick and sturdy branches resembling elk antlers. Colonies are fast-growing with branches increasing in length by 2-4 inches/5-10 cm per year and colonies reaching their maximum size in approximately 10-12 years. Elkhorn coral was formerly the dominant species in shallow water (3 ft-16 ft/1-5 m deep) throughout the Caribbean and on the Florida Reef Tract, with large stands forming extensive, densely aggregated fields in areas of heavy surf.
Star corals are common reef-building corals found throughout the Caribbean. Though they may not be the most exquisite-looking coral, they are vital to developing strong and expansive reefs. Star corals grow in an encrusting fashion with different looks depending on the depths and light they grow at. If their growth is not interrupted, they can become massive colonies forming the base of the reef.
Lobed star coral (Orbicella annularis) grows in large, bulbous columns with domes at the top. They can grow to be approximately 5 ft and are found between 3-85 ft/1-25 m. The larger structures typically reside within the drop off zone, 32-67 ft/10-20 m.
Mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata) gets its name from the cone-like lumps that are uniformly distributed in vertical rows, making it look like small mountain peaks and ridges. They can grow to be up to 18 ft/6 m in size, and are found between 6-130 ft/2-40 m.
Great star coral (Monastraea cavernosa) has a puffy look to it relative to other species of star coral. They commonly grow to be between 2-8 ft/1-2 m, and are among the deepest occurring corals, as it can be found at depths reaching further than 90 m, though, it can also be found in very shallow waters, as well.
Shelter and Structure
Staghorn, elkhorn, and star corals have been paramount in reef growth throughout the Caribbean and Tropical Western Atlantic for the past 5,000 years. They provide shelter and structure for many species of reef inhabitants and are visually stunning representatives of coral reef systems. Part of what makes the reefs so beautiful and an effective home is how corals grow in various shapes. With the dense “ears” of the elkhorn creating a canopy, the intertwining branches of the staghorn forming a thicket, and the expansive star corals giving other organisms a solid base to grow on, there is plenty of nooks for fish to find a protective home.