Staghorn coral (Acropora selago)

Acropora selago colony
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Staghorn coral fact file

Staghorn coral description

GenusAcropora (1)

A branching coral with a delicate appearance, Acropora selago forms somewhat bushy colonies which vary from pale cream to brown, blue or pink (2) (4) (5). The branches of this species are short, slender and tapering, measuring around 0.3 to 0.8 centimetres in diameter and up to 4 centimetres in length (2).

The colonies of Acropora selago are composed of numerous tiny, anemone-like animals called polyps. The polyps secrete a hard skeleton, and the skeleton of each individual polyp is known as a ‘corallite’ (4). The Acropora corals are unusual in having two distinct types of polyp: ‘axial’ polyps, which are located at the tips of the branches, and ‘radial’ polyps, which bud from the side of the axial polyp as it grows. New branches may also form when a radial polyp turns into an axial polyp and begins to extend and bud (4) (5) (6). In Acropora selago, the axial polyps have long, tubular skeletons, while the radial polyps are scale-like, with a flaring outer rim to the skeleton. The radial polyps are crowded quite closely together on the branches (2) (4) (5).

Acropora corals have light skeletons, and growing by budding from the axial polyps enables them to grow quickly and out-compete other corals. As a result, Acropora species often become the dominant species on reefs. This pattern of growth also allows the colonies to develop into a variety of shapes, including the typical branching pattern that gives the group its name of ‘staghorn corals’ (4) (5) (6). However, Acropora corals are quite delicate, and are easily damaged by storms (6).

Acropora delicatula.
Colony diameter: up to 75 cm (2)

Staghorn coral biology

Acropora selago receives the majority of its nutrition from symbiotic algae, known as zooxanthellae, which live within its tissues. The algae provide the coral with nutrients through photosynthesis, and in return receive a stable environment in which to live. A dependence on photosynthesis restricts corals such as Acropora selago to living in relatively shallow, clear, warm waters, but enables them to grow quickly and form large reef structures (4). Acropora selago also feeds actively on tiny zooplankton, which it catches using stinging cells on the tentacles of the polyps (4). Unusually for an Acropora coral, Acropora selago frequently extends its tentacles during the day (4) (5).

Acropora selago is hermaphroditic, meaning that each polyp contains both male and female sex organs (7). This species releases eggs and sperm into the water for external fertilisation, and the resulting larvae drift in the water column before eventually settling onto the substrate and developing into polyps (2) (4) (5). Acropora selago has been recorded spawning in November in some parts of its range (2) (7), and is likely to take part in synchronised mass spawning events of Acropora corals on the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia (5) (7).

In addition to reproducing sexually, corals are able to reproduce asexually by budding, forming new polyps by the division of existing polyps. Acropora species also reproduce by ‘fragmentation’, in which branches broken from the colony by storms or other disturbances are able to survive and grow into new colonies (2).


Staghorn coral range

Acropora selago occurs in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Arabian Gulf, in the south-western and northern Indian Ocean, around Southeast Asia and Australia, and into the western and central Pacific Ocean (1) (2) (4) (5).


Staghorn coral habitat

Found in shallow, tropical reefs at depths of 5 to 25 metres (1), Acropora selago inhabits a wide range of reef environments, from upper reef slopes to lagoons (1) (2) (4) (5).


Staghorn coral status

Acropora selago is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened


Staghorn coral threats

Acropora selago is widespread but generally uncommon throughout its range, and is under threat from many of the factors affecting coral species worldwide (1). Of greatest concern is global climate change, with rising ocean temperatures likely to increase the rate of coral ‘bleaching’, in which the stressed coral expels its zooxanthellae, often leading to death. Bleaching can also increase the coral’s susceptibility to disease and parasites, particularly in combination with other stresses such as more severe, frequent storms, and increased water acidity due to rising carbon dioxide levels (1) (8) (9) (10). Acropora corals are reported to be particularly vulnerable to bleaching and disease (1).

Corals such as Acropora selago are also under threat from many localised impacts, including coastal development, pollution, sedimentation, destructive fishing practices, recreational activities and invasive species (1) (8) (9) (10). In addition, Acropora selago is collected for the aquarium trade, and Acropora corals are also a favourite food of the crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci), which is becoming a serious threat to many reefs (1).


Staghorn coral conservation

Parts of the range of Acropora selago fall within Marine Protected Areas (1), although enforcement within these can often be poor (8). It also occurs in the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia, where a range of conservation and research programmes are underway (11). International trade in Acropora selago should be carefully regulated under its listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (3).

Recommended conservation measures for Acropora selago include research into its populations, abundance, ecology and resilience to threats, as well as monitoring and regulation of its harvest for the aquarium trade (1). It would also benefit from the expansion of Marine Protected Areas, together with further research into coral diseases and efforts to combat climate change (1) (8) (10). Since Acropora corals are able to survive fragmentation and grow rapidly to colonise reefs, species such as Acropora selago make good candidates for reef restoration projects (2) (6).

ARKive is supported by OTEP, a joint programme of funding from the UK FCO and DFID which provides support to address priority environmental issues in the Overseas Territories, and Defra

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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.
Possessing both male and female sex organs.
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. Wallace, C.C. (1999) Staghorn Corals of the World: A Revision of the Coral Genus Acropora. CSIRO, Collingwood, Australia.
  3. CITES (March, 2011)
  4. Veron, J.E.N. (2000) Corals of the World. Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, Australia.
  5. Veron, J.E.N. (1993) Corals of Australia and the Indo-Pacific. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, Hawaii.
  6. Tomascik, T., Mah, A.J., Nontji, A. and Moosa, M.K. (1997) The Ecology of the Indonesian Seas. Part One. Periplus Editions, Hong Kong.
  7. Richmond, R.H. and Hunter, C.L. (1990) Reproduction and recruitment of corals: comparisons among the Caribbean, the Tropical Pacific, and the Red Sea. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 60: 185-203.
  8. Miththapala, S. (2008) Coral Reefs. Coastal Ecosystems Series (Volume 1). Ecosystems and Livelihoods Group Asia, IUCN, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Available at:
  9. 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.
  10. 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:
  11. UNEP-WCMC: Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia (March, 2011)

Image credit

Acropora selago colony  
Acropora selago colony

© Charlie Veron / From Coral ID (Veron and Stafford-Smith, 2002)

Charlie (J.E.N) Veron


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