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Southeast Florida Coral Reefs Highlights

Florida's coral reefs came into existence 5,000 to 7,000 years ago when sea levels rose following the last Ice Age. Reef growth is extremely slow; an individual colony grows 1/2 inch to 7 inches (1 cm to 18 cm) a year, depending on the species. Stony corals are the major reef architects. Polyps, the living portion of corals, extract calcium from seawater and combine it with carbon dioxide to construct the elaborate limestone skeletons that form the reef backbone.

Though corals are classified as animals, microscopic plants live within the animal tissues in a symbiotic relationship. The animals benefit from the energy that the plants provide through photosynthesis. The plants are protected within the coral tissues and gain nutrients from animal wastes. Coral reefs create specialized habitats that provide shelter, food and breeding sites for numerous plants and animals. They lay the foundation of a dynamic ecosystem with tremendous biodiversity.

Coral reef development occurs only in areas with specific environmental characteristics: a solid structure for attachment, warm water temperatures, clear waters low in phosphate and nitrogen nutrients, and moderate wave action to disperse wastes and bring oxygen and plankton to the reef. Most of Florida's sport fish species and many other marine animals spend significant parts of their lives around coral reefs.

Southeast Florida's reefs form the northern extension of the Florida reef tract. Generally, the reefs occur in a series of one to three discontinuous reef lines (terraces) that parallel the shoreline, extending north from Miami-Dade County to Martin County. Different reef organisms characterize the type of habitats found along southeast Florida reefs, typically transitioning from a cover of algae and small octocorals nearshore to numerous octocorals and varied hard coral populations at the outer reefs. The various reef architectural and compositional components create an environment that is ecologically diverse and productive, one that supports many other aquatic plants and animals that make southeast Florida reefs their home.

Coral polyps close-up

Close-up detail of coral polyps on a great star coral (Montastrea cavernosa)
Photo: Dave Gilliam, National Coral Reef Institute

Staghorn coral

A coral reef off Fort Lauderdale, FL with federally threatened staghorn corals (Acropora cervicornis) in the right foreground
Photo: Dave Gilliam, National Coral Reef Institute

Palm Beach County reefA Coral reef off Palm Beach County, Florida
Photo: Peter Welling

If you are interested in receiving updates or would like to sign up as a stakeholder, please contact us at Coral@dep.state.fl.us

Last updated: June 24, 2016

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