Corals are marine organisms from the class Anthozoa
A coral 'head', commonly perceived to be a single organism, is formed from many individual but genetically identical polyps, each polyp being only a few millimeters in diameter. Over thousands of generations, the polyps lay down a skeleton that is characteristic of their species. An individual head of coral grows by asexual reproduction of the individual polyps. Corals also breed sexually by spawning, with corals of the same species releasing gametes simultaneously over a period of one to several nights around a full moon.
Although corals can catch small fish and animals such as plankton using stinging cells on their tentacles, these animals obtain most of their nutrients from photosynthetic unicellular algae called zooxanthella. Consequently, most corals depend on sunlight and grow in clear and shallow water, typically at depths shallower than 60 meters (200 ft). These corals can be major contributors to the physical structure of the coral reefs that develop in tropical and subtropical waters, such as the enormous Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Other corals do not have associated algae and can live in much deeper water, with the cold-water genus ophelia surviving as deep as 3,000 meters (9,800 ft). Examples of these can be found living on the Darwin Mounds located north-west of Cape Wrath, Scotland. Corals have also been found off the coast of Washington State and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Corals coordinate behavior by communicating with each other.
Corals belong to the class Anthozoa and are divided into two subclasses, depending on the number of tentacles or lines of symmetry, and a series of orders corresponding to their exoskeleton, nematocyst type and mitochondrial genetic analysis. Those with eight tentacles are called octocorallia or Alcyonaria and comprise soft corals, sea fans and sea pens. Those with more than eight in a multiple of six are called hexacorallia or Zoantharia. This group includes reef-building corals, sea anemones.
Initially believed to be a plant, William Herschel used a microscope to establish in the 18th Century that Coral had the characteristic thin cell membranes of an animal.
While a coral head appears to be a single organism, it is actually a head of many individual, yet genetically identical, polyps. The polyps are multicellular organisms that feed on a variety of small organisms, from microscopic plankton to small fish.