Does Coral Perform Photosynthesis

 Does Coral Perform Photosynthesis


Does Coral Perform Photosynthesis: Coral reefs are among the most diverse and vibrant ecosystems on our planet, providing shelter and sustenance to a multitude of marine species. But have you ever wondered how corals themselves obtain their energy and contribute to the reef’s delicate balance? One key question that often arises is whether coral performs photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis, the process by which plants and certain organisms convert sunlight into energy, is well-known in terrestrial ecosystems. However, corals are unique creatures that inhabit the underwater realms of our oceans. Unlike plants, corals are not plants but animals, belonging to the phylum Cnidaria. So, do they harness the power of photosynthesis to thrive in their sun-dappled habitats?

We delve into the fascinating world of coral biology and uncover the intricate mechanisms that govern their energy acquisition. We’ll examine the symbiotic relationship between corals and tiny algae called zooxanthellae, which plays a pivotal role in their survival. Join us as we unravel the mysteries surrounding coral’s potential for photosynthesis and gain a deeper appreciation for these remarkable oceanic architects.

Does Coral Perform Photosynthesis

How does coral use photosynthesis?

Coral polyps produce carbon dioxide and water as byproducts of cellular respiration. The zooxanthellae cells use the carbon dioxide and water to carry out photosynthesis. Sugars, lipids (fats) and oxygen are some of the products of photosynthesis which the zooxanthellae cells produce.

Coral, despite being animals, do not perform photosynthesis themselves. Instead, they rely on a remarkable partnership with symbiotic algae known as zooxanthellae to harness the benefits of photosynthesis. Here’s a detailed explanation of how coral utilizes photosynthesis through this unique relationship:

  1. Symbiotic Relationship: Corals house millions of single-celled algae called zooxanthellae within their tissues. These algae are photosynthetic, meaning they can convert sunlight into energy through the process of photosynthesis.
  2. Light Absorption: Corals are typically found in shallow, sunlit waters where sunlight can penetrate. The zooxanthellae within coral tissues contain pigments like chlorophyll that absorb light energy from the sun.
  3. Photosynthesis Process: When the zooxanthellae absorb sunlight, they undergo photosynthesis. During this process, they convert carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) into glucose (a type of sugar) and oxygen (O2). This glucose serves as an energy source for both the zooxanthellae and the coral host.
  4. Mutual Benefit: The relationship between coral and zooxanthellae is mutually beneficial. The coral provides a protected environment and nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, to the algae. In return, the algae supply the coral with sugars and oxygen, which are vital for the coral’s energy needs and calcium carbonate production.

Coral does not perform photosynthesis directly but relies on a partnership with photosynthetic zooxanthellae to obtain the energy needed for growth and survival. This unique relationship highlights the delicate balance of coral reef ecosystems and their susceptibility to environmental changes, making the conservation of both corals and their symbiotic algae crucial for the health of these vital marine ecosystems.

Does coral undergo photosynthesis and cellular respiration?

Among these metabolic processes experienced by coral, photosynthesis and respiration drive the internal inorganic and organic carbon fluxes between the symbiont and host coral animals at the cellular level.

Coral organisms do not undergo photosynthesis themselves, but they are closely associated with photosynthetic processes through a symbiotic relationship with algae known as zooxanthellae. However, corals do undergo cellular respiration to meet their energy needs. Here’s a detailed explanation of these processes: 

Photosynthesis in Coral (via Zooxanthellae):

  • Symbiotic Relationship: Corals host millions of single-celled algae called zooxanthellae within their tissues. These algae are photosynthetic, which means they can convert sunlight into energy.
  • Light Absorption: Corals are typically found in shallow, sunlit waters. The zooxanthellae contain pigments like chlorophyll that absorb light energy from the sun.

Cellular Respiration in Coral:

  • Energy Utilization: While the zooxanthellae provide corals with a significant portion of their energy needs through photosynthesis, corals also undergo cellular respiration.
  • Cellular Respiration Process: Cellular respiration is a biological process that occurs within the cells of organisms, including corals. It involves breaking down glucose and other organic molecules to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary energy currency of cells.

While corals do not directly perform photosynthesis, they rely on a mutualistic relationship with zooxanthellae for photosynthetic energy production. Corals do undergo cellular respiration to utilize the energy derived from the glucose produced by their zooxanthellae symbionts, and they also release carbon dioxide as a byproduct. This interplay between photosynthesis and respiration is vital for the overall energy balance of coral organisms and their role in building and sustaining coral reef ecosystems.

Are photosynthetic plants found on coral reefs?

The term “coral reef plants” has been traditionally used to refer to all photosynthetic life forms (other than bacteria) commonly found within coral reef ecosystems. Such organisms have been also been traditionally divided into two major “plant” sub-divisions: “flowering plants” (angiosperms) and “algae“.

Photosynthetic plants, as we commonly think of them, are not typically found on coral reefs. Coral reefs are marine ecosystems characterized by shallow, sunlit waters, and they have some unique features and adaptations that differentiate them from terrestrial ecosystems. Here’s a detailed explanation of why photosynthetic plants are not a prominent feature of coral reefs:

  1. Coral Dominance: Coral reefs are primarily dominated by corals themselves. Corals are animals, not plants, belonging to the phylum Cnidaria. They form the foundational structure of the reef and provide  habitat and substrate for a diverse array of marine life.
  2. Competition for Space and Light: Corals compete intensely for space and access to sunlight in coral reef ecosystems. The growth of coral colonies often outcompetes other sessile organisms, including photosynthetic plants, for available substrate and light.
  3. Algal Components: While photosynthetic plants are scarce on coral reefs, various types of algae are present. Algae, including macroalgae (seaweed) and microalgae, can perform photosynthesis and are adapted to the reef environment. Some macroalgae may grow on the reef substrate or compete with corals for space, but their presence is generally limited.
  4. Symbiotic Algae: Corals themselves rely on a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae. These algae live within coral tissues and provide corals with a significant portion of their energy through photosynthesis.

While photosynthetic plants are not a common feature of coral reefs, various types of algae, including zooxanthellae within coral tissues, contribute to the photosynthetic processes in these ecosystems. Corals themselves are animals but have formed a remarkable mutualistic relationship with these algae, allowing them to thrive in the sunlit waters of coral reefs and create the diverse and vibrant marine habitats that we appreciate today.

Which coral is not photosynthetic?

Sun corals of the Genus Tubastraea get their name from their bright yellow coloration and sun-like appearance of each polyp. Despite their bright sunny name, these corals are non-photosynthetic which means they do not get any energy from the light.

Coral is a diverse group of organisms, and while the majority of corals are indeed photosynthetic, there are exceptions. The primary distinction lies in the coral’s reliance on photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae. Corals that do not have a significant dependence on these symbiotic algae are generally considered non-photosynthetic corals. Here are a few examples of non-photosynthetic corals:

  1. Ahermatypic Corals: Ahermatypic corals are coral species that do not form the large, reef-building structures characteristic of hermatypic, or reef-building, corals. These corals do not have as strong a reliance on photosynthetic processes because they are often found in deeper, darker waters where sunlight is scarce. Instead, they primarily capture prey using stinging cells called nematocysts and feed on zooplankton and other small organisms.
  2. Black Corals: Black corals belong to the order Antipatharia and are generally found in deep-sea environments, sometimes at depths exceeding 150 meters (500 feet). These corals are typically black or dark-colored, and they lack the photosynthetic symbiotic algae found in many reef-building corals. Instead, they rely on filter-feeding to obtain nutrients from tiny particles and organisms in the water column.
  3. Gorgonian Corals: Gorgonian corals, also known as sea fans or sea whips, are soft corals that are often found in shallow and deep-sea environments. While some gorgonians may have photosynthetic symbionts, many are non-photosynthetic and rely on filter-feeding to capture plankton and other small organisms from the water.

There are several coral species, such as ahermatypic corals, black corals, gorgonian corals, and azooxanthellate corals, that are not photosynthetic in the sense that they do not heavily rely on photosynthetic algae for their energy needs. Instead, they have adapted to their specific environments and obtain their energy through alternative means, such as filter-feeding or capturing prey.

How much photosynthesis occurs in coral reefs?

Experimentally, corals under typical irradiances of coral reefs (640 μmol photons m-2 s-1) dissipate 96% of the energy and use only 4% of absorbed light energy for photosynthesis (Brodersen et al., 2014).

Photosynthesis in coral reefs is a critical ecological process that provides a substantial portion of the energy required to support the entire reef ecosystem. The amount of photosynthesis that occurs in coral reefs can vary based on several factors, but it is generally significant. Here’s a detailed explanation of the factors influencing photosynthesis in coral reefs and the extent to which it occurs:

  1. Symbiotic Relationship: The primary source of photosynthesis in coral reefs is the symbiotic relationship between corals and photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae. These algae live within coral tissues and harness sunlight to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) into glucose (sugar) and oxygen (O2). This process is highly efficient and provides the corals with a substantial portion of their energy needs.
  2. Sunlight Availability: The availability of sunlight is a critical factor influencing the rate of photosynthesis in coral reefs. Corals are typically found in shallow, clear waters where sunlight can penetrate. Therefore, photosynthesis rates are higher in these shallow reef areas compared to deeper regions with reduced light penetration.
  3. Coral Species and Health: Different coral species have varying levels of dependence on photosynthesis. Reef-building or hermatypic corals, which form the massive structures of coral reefs, heavily rely on photosynthesis. Healthy coral colonies with thriving zooxanthellae populations have higher rates of photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is a vital process in coral reefs, supporting the growth and productivity of corals and contributing to the entire reef ecosystem’s energy flow. The extent of photosynthesis varies based on factors such as sunlight availability, coral health, water temperature, and nutrient levels. Protecting the health of coral reefs and the delicate balance of their ecosystems is crucial to ensuring the continued success of photosynthesis in these vibrant underwater environments.

Are bubble corals photosynthetic?

Bubble coral is unique because it has outsized vesicles that expand to absorb the sun’s rays so that they can complete photosynthesis.

Bubble corals (Plerogyra species) are fascinating organisms commonly found in reef aquariums and occasionally in the wild on coral reefs. They belong to the family Euphylliidae and are often referred to as “non-photosynthetic” or “low-light” corals. This means that bubble corals do not rely heavily on photosynthesis as their primary energy source. Here’s a detailed explanation of their feeding mechanisms and energy acquisition:

  1. Limited Photosynthesis: While bubble corals do contain zooxanthellae, the photosynthetic symbiotic algae found in many coral species, they have a limited role in the coral’s nutrition. Bubble corals are often found in lower-light or shaded areas of the reef, and their zooxanthellae are less abundant and less productive compared to other coral species that inhabit well-lit environments.
  2. Feeding Mechanisms: Bubble corals primarily rely on heterotrophic feeding, which means they capture and consume small planktonic organisms and particulate matter from the water column. They have specialized feeding tentacles covered in tiny stinging cells called nematocysts, which they use to capture prey, including zooplankton and detritus.
  3. Mucus Production: Bubble corals also produce mucus that can trap suspended particles and plankton from the water, enhancing their ability to capture food. This mucus can be sticky, aiding in the entrapment of prey.

Bubble corals are not considered primarily photosynthetic corals, as they have adapted to lower-light conditions and rely more on capturing and consuming small organisms from the water column. In aquariums, to provide them with appropriate feeding to meet their nutritional requirements. Understanding their specific feeding habits and providing proper care is crucial for maintaining healthy bubble corals in both aquarium and natural reef environments.

Do soft corals photosynthesize?

These pumping soft corals have been previously described as mainly autotrophic, portraying a reduced gastrovascular cavity and enhanced photosynthetic activity (Schlichter, Svoboda & Kremer, 1983; Kremien et al., 2013).

Soft corals, also known as Alcyonacea, do possess the ability to photosynthesize, but their reliance on photosynthesis varies among different species. Soft corals are a diverse group of organisms within the phylum Cnidaria, and they exhibit a wide range of feeding strategies and adaptations. Here’s a detailed explanation of soft corals and their relationship with photosynthesis:

  1. Photosynthetic Capability: Many soft coral species host symbiotic algae, similar to reef-building or hard corals. These photosynthetic algae are known as zooxanthellae, and they reside within the tissues of the soft coral. Zooxanthellae perform photosynthesis, converting sunlight into energy in the form of sugars, and share a portion of this energy with their host coral.
  2. Light Requirements: Like reef-building corals, the photosynthetic activity of soft corals depends on the availability of light. Soft corals are commonly found in shallow, well-lit areas of coral reefs or on rocky substrates, where they can access sufficient sunlight for photosynthesis to occur. In these conditions, they can derive a substantial portion of their energy needs from photosynthesis.
  3. Supplemental Feeding: While photosynthesis plays a role in the energy budget of many soft corals, they are also capable of actively capturing planktonic organisms from the water column using specialized structures such as tentacles armed with nematocysts. This heterotrophic feeding complements their nutritional requirements and ensures that they receive adequate nutrients, especially in areas with lower light levels.

Soft corals are a diverse group of organisms within the coral family, and their ability to photosynthesize varies among species. Many soft corals do host photosynthetic zooxanthellae and can derive energy from photosynthesis, but they also possess feeding mechanisms to capture planktonic organisms. The balance between photosynthesis and feeding can vary depending on the species and environmental conditions in which they are found. 

Are deep sea corals photosynthetic?

Live in deep water that has little to no light, so they lack photosynthetic zooxanthellae and instead get all of their nutrients by using the tentacles on their polyps to filter food out of the surrounding waters. Most species grow very slowly, some only a few millimeters per year.

Deep-sea corals, which are found in the dark and cold depths of the ocean, are generally not photosynthetic. Unlike their shallow-water counterparts that rely heavily on photosynthesis through symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae), deep-sea corals have adapted to an environment where sunlight is scarce or absent. Here’s a detailed explanation of why deep-sea corals are not photosynthetic:

  1. Absence of Sunlight: Deep-sea corals inhabit ocean depths that can extend from several hundred meters to over 3,000 meters below the surface. At these depths, sunlight does not penetrate, and photosynthesis, which requires light energy, is not a viable energy source. The lack of sunlight in the deep ocean necessitates alternative strategies for obtaining energy and nutrients.
  2. Heterotrophic Feeding: Deep-sea corals are primarily heterotrophic, which means they obtain their energy by capturing and consuming particulate matter and small organisms suspended in the water column. They have specialized tentacles armed with stinging cells called nematocysts, similar to shallow-water corals, to capture prey such as zooplankton, tiny crustaceans, and other small organisms.
  3. Mucous Nets: Some deep-sea corals have evolved unique adaptations to enhance their feeding in the darkness of the deep sea. They can produce mucous nets or webs that trap drifting particles and organisms, allowing the corals to capture and consume them.

Deep-sea corals are not photosynthetic because they inhabit ocean depths where sunlight is absent. Instead, they have evolved a variety of feeding strategies, including heterotrophic feeding, mucous net production, and filter feeding, to obtain energy and nutrients from the surrounding water column. These adaptations enable deep-sea corals to thrive in one of the most challenging and mysterious environments on Earth, far removed from the sunlit shallows of coral reefs.

Does Coral Perform Photosynthesis


The question of whether corals perform photosynthesis requires a nuanced understanding. While corals themselves are not photosynthetic organisms, they have established a crucial symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae. These tiny algae live within the coral tissues and perform photosynthesis, converting sunlight into energy in the form of sugars. This energy is shared with the coral host, providing a significant portion of its nutritional needs.

This symbiotic partnership is the cornerstone of coral reef ecosystems. It not only sustains the coral but also supports the incredible biodiversity found within these underwater communities. Corals, through their zooxanthellae partners, play a pivotal role in building and maintaining coral reefs, which are habitats for countless marine species.

However, the health of coral reefs is under threat due to factors like rising sea temperatures, pollution, and ocean acidification, which can stress and bleach corals, disrupting their symbiotic relationship and affecting photosynthesis. Therefore, understanding and protecting this delicate balance between corals and photosynthetic algae is crucial for the conservation of these vital marine ecosystems.

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