Octocorals ...
  • are the sea fans, sea plumes, soft corals, sea pens, sea rods, gorgonians and their relatives;

  • belong to the major group, or phylum, of the Animal Kingdom that also includes the stony corals, sea anemones, black corals, jellyfishes, hydroids, and Portuguese man o' war;

  • like other members of the phylum, have cells that produce microscopic stinging capsules called cnidae (“NYE-dee”) for feeding and defense, although none cause a painful reaction in humans;

  • grow as colonies of small, interconnected, bag- or cup-like polyps, each composed of two tissue layers, with a mouth surrounded by a ring of tentacles, but no anus;

  • have polyp anatomy arranged radially around the mouth like wheel spokes: eight pinnate tentacles and an interior digestive/circulatory chamber divided by eight partitions (thus, “octo” corals);

  • like stony corals and anemones, lack the swimming medusa (“jellyfish”) stage found in many hydroids and fire coral;

  • include many reef-dwellers that harbor symbiotic, single-celled dinoflagellate algae called zooxanthellae, that contribute to the colony’s nutrition;

  • also include many deep-water species that feed chiefly on plankton;

  • chiefly grow as either male or female colonies, although just under 10% of species are hermaphroditic;

  • can in some cases reproduce asexually through fragments that can give rise to another colony;

  • grow into a distinctive shape or vary depending upon factors such as currents and light;

  • live exclusively in the ocean, cemented to the seafloor (although a few deep-sea species, and the sea pens, anchor in sand or mud, and their larvae can crawl or swim);

  • range from small mats that encrust rocky seafloors to tree-like colonies 3 meters tall (a few species are small solitary polyps);

  • number over 3,100 species;

  • often require microscopic examination of skeletal structures for identification.

Octocorals in South Florida ...

  • are widespread, common and often dominant components of shallow-water marine communities on hard substrates, including reefs and rocky bottoms;

  • number over sixty species;

  • often outnumber stony coral species and may represent a greater percent of living biomass in local reef and rocky bottom habitats;

  • are well known but in some cases are difficult to distinguish.

This guide ...

  • offers practical identifications of the shallow-water octocorals of southern Florida from Indian River Lagoon through the Florida Keys, Florida Bay and the Dry Tortugas;

  • includes color photographs of whole colonies and close-ups, of both living and preserved specimens, documenting both typical growth forms and variations;

  • offers descriptions with simplified technical terms suitable for non-specialists including environmental managers, marine biologists, teachers and advanced students;

  • provides several layers of features both for quick overview assessments and more detailed investigations;

  • was funded by grants from the National Coral Reef Institute (Nova Southeastern University) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.

To use this guide ...

  • click the link to Identification; you will find a series of character menus that refer to different octocoral characteristics;

  • click on any character menu, e.g., Growth Form, to activate a drop-down list of character state choices, e.g., Encrusting sheet or Candelabrum;

  • select one choice from multiple drop-down menus to narrow your search and click on the "Search for matching species" button. For example, selecting choices from Colony form (e.g., candelabrum), Branch shape (e.g., Cylindrical), Calice (e.g., Tubular) and Living Color (e.g., orange, red) will call up images of fewer species than fewer choices;

  • you do not have to select a choice from every menu;

  • choose from either the Non-plumose colony branches only or Plumose colony branches only menu as part of your selection, not both;

  • choose from either the Living Color or Dried Color menu as part of your selection, not both;

  • click on any image produced by your search to bring up that species' page, which includes a description, images, habitat and ecological data. Pages may also have images linked to other similar species;

  • you can also go directly to a particular species page by clicking on a name on the species list.

  • click on the "Reset all category values" button to clear your search and start another;

  • click on information (I) buttons if you are uncertain about a character state to activate pages that describe the character choices in greater detail with images (because one person's "beige, putty" color might be another's "yellow, ochre"). Not all menus have this feature.


Charles G. Messing, National Coral Reef Institute, Oceanographic Center, Nova Southeastern University

Howard R. Lasker, Graduate Program in Evolution, Ecology & Behavior, University at Buffalo

Juan A Sánchez Muñoz, BIOMMAR, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia

John Reed, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University

Vanessa Brinkhuis, Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, St. Petersburg FL

Paola Espitiah, National Coral Reef Institute, Oceanographic Center, Nova Southeastern University

Matthew W. Johnston, National Coral Reef Institute, Oceanographic Center, Nova Southeastern University

Luisa Fernanda Dueñas Montalvo, BIOMMAR, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia

Márcio Coelho, Graduate Program in Evolution, Ecology & Behavior, University at Buffalo

Vanessa Smilansky, Graduate Program in Evolution, Ecology & Behavior, University at Buffalo