Coral reef | Description, Geochemistry, Origins, & Threats (2024)

Great Barrier Reef

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Key People:
Charles Darwin
James D. Dana
Alexander Agassiz
Sir John Murray
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platform reef
barrier reef
fringing reef

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coral reef, ridge or hummock formed in shallow ocean areas by algae and the calcareous skeletons of certain coelenterates, of which coral polyps are the most important. A coral reef may grow into a permanent coral island. Often called the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are home to a spectacular variety of organisms.


A coral reef is actually a complex of features, only part of which is a living coral or algal framework, although the other associated features result from this live segment. The accumulations of carbonate sand and mud provide a habitat for sea grasses and mangroves and for almost inconspicuous blue-green algal mats. These plants and algae trap and stabilize sediment, and their accumulations are also accreted to the whole reef complex. Storms and surf heap up fragmental material into beaches and shoals, and the shoals may develop into low sandy or rubbly islets or cays on top of the reef.

Corals and other reef-building organisms

Coral polyps resemble sea anemones, to which they are closely related, but, unlike most anemones, most reef corals are colonial. Initial polyps divide themselves into daughter polyps, and they divide in turn, growing into colonies that can be up to several metres in diameter, all held together in one continuous rigid calcareous skeleton. They remain attached to the seafloor and become so large and heavy that only storms disturb them. Under the right conditions, generally clear and well-circulating water that is not too rough, the corals grow profusely side by side, even on and over each other. The corals in effect build limestone because their skeletons are made of calcium carbonate.

Reef-building corals, chiefly the stony corals or Scleractinia, grow best in shallow sunlit water, between the low-water mark and a depth of 11 metres (36 feet), but they can still construct reefs in water as deep as 40 metres (about 130 feet), and they may have a sparse existence between 40 and 55 metres (130 and 180 feet). These corals prefer water of normal salinity with an annual maximum temperature above 22 °C (72 °F) but below 28 °C (about 82 °F). Their reef-building activities, however, may be carried on in waters whose minimum temperature in winter is not less than 15 °C (59 °F).

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A second group of corals in present-day seas grows in thickets and coppices that develop banks rather than reefs on the outer, deeper, colder, and darker parts of continental shelves and platforms. These organisms flourish in water with a winter minimum temperature ranging between about 4 and 15 °C (39 and 59 °F) at depths of about 60 to 200 metres (200 to 650 feet). In any one thicket there are commonly only two genera of delicately branching corals involved. Such coral banks are known along the eastern Atlantic shelf edge (or continental slope) from Norway to the Cape Verde islands and again off the Niger River delta and in the west Atlantic around the Gulf of Mexico, The Bahamas, and the Orinoco River delta. Off New Zealand such banks have been recognized on the Campbell Plateau and the Chatham Rise. They also occur in the northwest Pacific near Japan.

The third coral assemblage of the modern seas is associated with even colder or deeper seas. It consists of small, solitary corals of relatively few genera, known from the abyssal floors of the oceans and from the shelves around Antarctica, Patagonia, and the Falkland Islands in waters 2 to 6 °C (36 to 43 °F) in temperature.

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Calcareous algae (stony seaweeds), mollusks, echinoderms, and protozoans also contribute to the reef. Different organisms have different reef-building roles. Some, especially the corals, provide the main structural framework of the growing reef, although in parts of the world such as the central Pacific, where the surf is very strong, calcareous algae may be more important in the roughest places. Almost all shelly and calcareous organisms and those with spicules, such as sponges and sea cucumbers, provide fragments that wash into or fall into the gaps between corals. Other organisms, especially algae and protozoans, bind and cement everything together with sheetlike growth.

Orientation and arrangement

A typical coral reef generally faces the open sea. Seaward of it is the fore reef, descending into deeper water and floored deeper down by fragmental material derived from the reef. Behind the growing fore-reef edge (or reef crest), which rises to about mean high-water level, is a shallow platform formed partly by a now dead area of reef framework and partly of fragmental material and often colonized by sea grasses, algal mats, or mangroves. Patches of living framework occur intermittently. Cays may occur along the platform, or the reef may terminate against the shore of a landmass. If there is no immediately adjacent landmass, the reef descends again into deeper water, generally more gently, on this, its leeward side. There are usually live reef frameworks on this slope too, but these are often irregular and patchy.


The reef becomes true rock by an almost imperceptible dissolution, redeposition, recrystallization, and chemical transformation of reef material. The shape of coral reefs, while at least in part due to the tendency of reef builders to grow upward and outward toward the prevailing winds and currents, is also the result of changes of sea level during the last 2,000,000 years or more. Coral reefs that developed before the last glaciation were left above sea level, where they were eroded and subjected to solution weathering. As sea level rose again during the past 10,000 years, new reef growth mantled this older, drowned landscape but has still not masked it completely.

Types of coral reefs

Coral reefs take four principal forms. (1) Fringing reefs consist of flat reef areas that directly skirt a nonreef island, often volcanic, or a mainland mass. (2) Barrier reefs are also close to a nonreef landmass but lie several kilometres offshore, separated from the landmass by a lagoon or channel often about 50 metres (160 feet) deep. Some barrier reefs are more or less circular, surrounding an island, but larger barrier reefs, such as those along the Red Sea coast and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, are complex linear features consisting of chains of reef patches, some of them elongated into ribbon reefs. (3) Atolls are like circular barrier reefs but without their central landmass. (4) Finally, there are platform, or patch, reefs, which have irregular tablelike or pinnacle features. Smaller patches occur inside atoll lagoons. Larger patches occur as isolated parts of larger developments of any of the other three reef categories. They sometimes occur completely separate from other kinds of reefs.

Coral reef | Description, Geochemistry, Origins, & Threats (2024)
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