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Discovering Florida's Coral Treasures: A Comprehensive Guide to Stony Corals of the Florida Keys

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Embarking on a Coral Odyssey with Appleseed Expeditions

Florida's shallow-water coral reefs, a treasure trove of marine life and biodiversity, have been profoundly impacted by the passage of time. As we embark on this enlightening journey, guided by Appleseed Expeditions, we invite you to delve into the intricate world of Scleractinian (stony) corals that grace the coastal waters of Florida. This comprehensive guide is not just a portal into understanding the common Scleractinian corals, but a part of the educational experience provided by Appleseed Expeditions.

While some of these corals may no longer be as common as they once were, their inclusion in this guide is a nod to their historical prevalence on Florida's reefs. It is important to emphasize that Florida's Coral Reef Protection Act and the federal protection status of several of these species under the Endangered Species Act forbid any disruption to these precious coral habitats. Hence, it is crucial to understand that these corals should remain undisturbed and untouched in their natural environment.

As we explore the diverse world of Scleractinian corals, it's essential to recognize that while some species are displaying increased adaptability and resilience, the overall health of coral reefs along Florida's coastline is under significant threat. The most critical reef-building corals are witnessing a decline, urging the need for increased awareness and conservation efforts.

A Journey into the Realm of Stony Corals

Scleractinia, a subgroup of the Hexacorallia subclass, is distinguished by its polyps with tentacles arranged in multiples of six. This guide primarily focuses on Scleractinian corals, commonly referred to as "stony" or "hard" corals, which are native to Florida. These remarkable corals weave intricate networks of colonial polyps, creating elaborate calcium carbonate skeletons. For a more in-depth understanding, Figure 1 illustrates the complex structure of the coral polyp and provides labels for essential terminology. A glossary, located at the end of this document, offers detailed explanations of these terms, along with other terminology used throughout this guide. The robust and intricate habitat constructed by Scleractinian corals plays a pivotal role in the formation of South Florida's primary reef structure (Figure 2).

Scleractinia can be further classified into six colony types, as described in Humann and DeLoach (2013). This guide delves into five colony types from the order Scleractinia:

  1. Branching and Pillar Corals

  2. Brain Corals

  3. Encrusting, Mound, and Boulder Corals

  4. Leafy, Plate, and Sheet Corals

  5. Flowering and Cup Corals

Every profile within this guide offers insights into the physical characteristics and habitat preferences of each species, in addition to details about their current distribution and population status. Appleseed Expeditions' Florida Keys trip allows you to explore these coral ecosystems firsthand, creating a profound connection between the knowledge gained from this guide and the vibrant coral landscapes you'll encounter. Each species profile includes two accompanying images, providing a full-colony perspective and a close-up view of the polyp and corallite structures. If available, the "Mov." tag beside the species name links to a video showcasing each species in its natural habitat, connecting the educational experience to the real-world adventure facilitated by Appleseed Expeditions.

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