How Do Stony Corals Grow?

animation of coral growth
Stony corals grow when individual polyps lift themselves up from the base of the stony cups in which they reside, and create a new base above it. Click the image for an animation of polyps growing.

Over the course of many years, stony coral polyps can create massive reef structures. Reefs form when polyps secrete skeletons of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Most stony corals have very small polyps, averaging 1 to 3 millimeters in diameter, but entire colonies can grow very large and weigh several tons. As they grow, these reefs provide structural habitats for hundreds to thousands of different vertebrate and invertebrate species.

The skeletons of stony corals are secreted by the lower portion of the polyp. This process produces a cup, or calyx, in which the polyp sits. The walls surrounding the cup are called the theca, and the floor is called the basal plate. Periodically, a polyp will lift off its base and secrete a new basal plate above the old one, creating a small chamber in the skeleton. While the colony is alive, CaCO3 is deposited, adding partitions and elevating the coral.

branching coral
Coral species number in the thousands, and stony corals take on several characteristic forms. Click the image to see a series of eight major coral growth patterns.

When polyps are physically stressed, they contract into their calyx so that virtually no part is exposed above their skeleton. This protects the polyp from predators and the elements (Barnes, R.D., 1987; Sumich, 1996). At other times, polyps extend out of the calyx. Most polyps extend the farthest when they feed.

Reef-building corals exhibit a wide range of shapes. For instance, Branching corals have primary and secondary branches. Digitate corals look like fingers or clumps of cigars and have no secondary branches. Table corals form table-like structures and often have fused branches. Elkhorn coral has large, flattened branches. Foliase corals have broad plate-like portions rising in whorl-like patterns. Encrusting corals grow as a thin layer against a substrate. Massive corals are ball-shaped or boulder-like and may be small as an egg or as large as a house. Mushroom corals resemble the attached or unattached tops of mushrooms.