Staghorn coral (Acropora monticulosa)

Close up of Acropora monticulosa
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Staghorn coral fact file

Staghorn coral description

GenusAcropora (1)

The colonies of Acropora monticulosa form thick, tapering, finger-like branches, which are usually blue, cream or brown, with paler tips (3) (4) (5) (6). The branches may measure up to 11 centimetres in length and 5 centimetres in diameter (5), but those exposed to strong wave action are usually shorter and more conical (3). Some studies have identified a ‘branching’ form of this species, with green-tinged branches of variable lengths, and a ‘digitate’ (finger-like) form, with short, evenly-sized, pale to dark brown branches (7). Acropora monticulosa sometimes grows as large domes, which may measure over three metres across and are composed of many branching sub-colonies (3).

As in other corals, the colonies of Acropora monticulosa are made up of numerous tiny, anemone-like animals known as polyps, which secrete a hard coral skeleton. The skeleton of an individual polyp is known as a ‘corallite’ (3). Acropora species differ from most other corals in having two types of polyp: a central or ‘axial’ polyp, which grows at the tip of a branch, and ‘radial’ polyps, which bud from the sides of the axial polyp as it grows. Further branching may occur when a radial polyp turns into an axial polyp and begins to extend and bud (3) (4) (8). In Acropora monticulosa, the axial polyp is small, and the radial polyps are uniform in size and usually arranged in rows (3) (4) (5) (6).

Budding from the axial polyps allows Acropora species to grow quickly and out-compete other corals, often making them the dominant species on reefs. It also allows the colonies to grow in a great variety of shapes, including the typical branching pattern which gives the group the name of ‘staghorn corals’ (3) (4) (8). These corals are quite delicate, and are easily damaged by storms (8).

Madrepora monticulosa.

Staghorn coral biology

Acropora monticulosa is a ‘zooxanthellate’ coral, meaning that it receives most of its nutrition from symbiotic algae, known as zooxanthellae, which live within its tissues. The zooxanthellae provide the coral with nutrients through photosynthesis, and in return receive a safe and stable environment in which to live. Although this restricts the coral to living in relatively warm, clear, shallow waters, it enables it to grow faster and form large reef structures. The polyps of Acropora monticulosa are also able to feed on tiny zooplankton, which are caught using stinging cells on the numerous tentacles which surround the polyp’s central ‘mouth’ (3). The tentacles of Acropora corals are usually only extended at night (3) (4).

Like other Acropora species, Acropora monticulosa is able to reproduce asexually by budding, a process in which polyps divide to form one or more new polyps (3). Acropora corals are also able to reproduce by ‘fragmentation’, in which branches that have been broken off by storms or other disturbances survive and grow into a new colony (9).

Sexual reproduction in Acropora monticulosa involves the simultaneous release of eggs and sperm into the water. The fertilised eggs develop into larvae, which eventually settle and grow into polyps (3) (4) (9). Acropora monticulosa has been recorded spawning in May in the Northern Hemisphere and in November in the Southern Hemisphere (9). On the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia, it may take part in mass spawning events, which involve many Acropora species and usually occur between October and December (4).


Staghorn coral range

Acropora monticulosa is widely distributed in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It occurs around the east coast of Africa and Madagascar, in the northern Indian Ocean around India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the British Indian Ocean Territory, around Southeast Asia and Australia, and into the western and central Pacific Ocean (1) (3) (4) (5).


Staghorn coral habitat

This species occurs in shallow, tropical reefs to depths of about 12 metres (1). It is usually found on the upper slopes of reefs (1) (3) (4) (5), from around the low tide mark to just below the tide, on shallow reefs subject to wave action and strong tidal currents (1) (5).


Staghorn coral status

Acropora monticulosa is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (2).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened


Staghorn coral threats

Although it is a widespread species and is sometimes common around Australia, Acropora monticulosa is generally uncommon elsewhere in its range (1) (3) (4) and is likely to be affected by the many threats facing corals worldwide (1). The major threat to corals is climate change, which may lead to increased water temperatures and more frequent, severe storms, which can damage reefs. Rising sea temperatures increase the risk of coral bleaching, in which the stressed coral expels its zooxanthellae, often leading to death. Increasing ocean acidity may also affect the ability of a coral to secrete its hard skeleton, and the combined effects of these stresses can make the coral more vulnerable to disease and parasites (1) (10) (11) (12). Like many Acropora species, Acropora monticulosa has a low resistance to bleaching and disease, and is slow to recover (1).

Coral reefs also face many localised threats, including human development, recreational activities, destructive fishing practices, invasive species, pollution and sedimentation (1) (10) (11) (12). Acropora monticulosa may also be collected for the aquarium trade, and is likely to be under threat from the crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci), which shows a preference for feeding on Acropora species (1).


Staghorn coral conservation

Acropora monticulosa is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning international trade in this species should be carefully regulated (2). Parts of its range fall within Marine Protected Areas (1), although enforcement within these can often be poor (10). It also occurs on the Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site where a range of research and conservation projects are underway (13).

Recommended conservation measures for Acropora monticulosa include further research into its populations, abundance, ecology and resilience to various threats (1). It would also benefit from the expansion of protected areas, research into diseases and parasites, reef restoration projects, and efforts to combat climate change (1) (10) (12). Although Acropora corals are vulnerable to a wide range of threats, the ability to grow rapidly and survive fragmentation makes these species good candidates for reef restoration projects (8) (9).

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Simple plants that lack roots, stems and leaves but contain the green pigment chlorophyll. Most occur in marine and freshwater habitats.
Type of asexual reproduction (reproduction that does not involve the formation of sex cells), in which new individuals develop from the parent organism, forming a swelling similar in appearance to a bud. The ‘bud’ slowly separates from the parent as it grows.
A group of organisms living together. Individuals in the group are not physiologically connected and may not be related, such as a colony of birds. Another meaning refers to organisms, such as bryozoans, which are composed of numerous genetically identical modules (also referred to as zooids or ‘individuals’), which are produced by budding and remain physiologically connected.
The fusion of gametes (male and female reproductive cells) to produce an embryo, which grows into a new individual.
Stage in an animal’s lifecycle after it hatches from the egg. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but usually are unable to reproduce.
Metabolic process characteristic of plants in which carbon dioxide is broken down, using energy from sunlight absorbed by the green pigment chlorophyll. Organic compounds are made and oxygen is given off as a by-product.
Typically sedentary soft-bodied component of cnidaria, a group of simple aquatic animals including the sea anemones, corals and jellyfish. A polyp comprises a trunk that is fixed at the base, and a mouth that is placed at the opposite end of the trunk and is surrounded by tentacles.
The production or depositing of large quantities of eggs in water.
Describes a relationship in which two organisms form a close association. The term is now usually used only for associations that benefit both organisms (a mutualism).
Tiny aquatic animals that drift with currents or swim weakly in water.


  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
  2. CITES (March, 2011)
  3. Veron, J.E.N. (2000) Corals of the World. Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, Australia.
  4. Veron, J.E.N. (1993) Corals of Australia and the Indo-Pacific. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, Hawaii.
  5. Dai, C.F. and Horng, S. (2009) Scleractinia Fauna of Taiwan. I. The Complex Group. National Taiwan University Press, Taipei, Taiwan.
  6. Riegl, B. (1995) A revision of the hard coral genus Acropora Oken, 1815 (Scleractinia: Astrocoeniina: Acroporidae) in south-east Africa. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 113: 249-288.
  7. Wolstenholme, J.K., Wallace, C.C. and Chen, C.A. (2003) Species boundaries within the Acropora humilis species group (Cnidaria; Scleractinia): a morphological and molecular interpretation of evolution. Coral Reefs, 22: 155-166.
  8. Tomascik, T., Mah, A.J., Nontji, A. and Moosa, M.K. (1997) The Ecology of the Indonesian Seas. Part One. Periplus Editions, Hong Kong.
  9. Wallace, C.C. (1999) Staghorn Corals of the World: A Revision of the Coral Genus Acropora. CSIRO, Collingwood, Australia.
  10. Miththapala, S. (2008) Coral Reefs. Coastal Ecosystems Series (Volume 1). Ecosystems and Livelihoods Group Asia, IUCN, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Available at:
  11. Carpenter, K.E. et al. (2008) One-third of reef-building corals face elevated extinction risk from climate change and local impacts. Science, 321: 560-563.
  12. Wilkinson, C. (2008) Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and Reef and Rainforest Research Center, Townsville, Australia. Available at:
  13. UNEP-WCMC: Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia (March, 2011)

Image credit

Close up of Acropora monticulosa  
Close up of Acropora monticulosa

© Dave Burdick /

Dave Burdick


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