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Staghorn Coral (Acropora cervicornis)

Status | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution | Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview | Taxonomy | Key Documents | More Info


ESA Threatened - throughout its range
CITES Appendix II - throughout its range

Species Description

branches can grow to over 6.5 feet (2 m)
their shape resembles male deer antlers ("stag horn")
organic byproducts of photosynthesis; they may eat live prey, such as small fish and zooplankton, using their tentacles
branched colonies of Acropora have exhibited competitive behavior, gradually extended over colonies of other corals, such as Montipora

Staghorn coral is a branching coral with cylindrical branches.

The dominant mode of reproduction for staghorn coral is asexual fragmentation, with new colonies forming when branches break off a colony and reattach to the substrate. Sexual reproduction occurs via broadcast spawning of gametes into the water column once each year in August or September. Individual colonies are both male and female (simultaneous hermaphrodites) and will release millions of "gametes".

The coral larvae (planula) live in the plankton for several days until finding a suitable area to settle, but very few larvae survive to settle and metamorphose into new colonies. The preponderance of asexual reproduction in this species raises the possibility that genetic diversity is very low in the remnant populations.

This coral exhibits the fastest growth of all known western Atlantic corals, with branches increasing in length by 4-8 inches (10-20 cm) per year. Staghorn coral has been one of the three most important Caribbean corals in terms of its contribution to reef growth and fish habitat.

How do coral eat? Tropical corals, like staghorn coral, get as much as 90 percent of their energy from the organic byproducts of photosynthesis thanks to a symbiotic relationship with algae. They may also capture and consume live prey, such as small fish and zooplankton, using their tentacles.

Some massive coral species reach sexual maturity when their colonies grow to about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, which occurs when they are about 8 years old. Acropora, which are faster-growing, likely reach sexual maturity at a younger age.


Staghorn coral occur in back reef and fore reef environments from 0-100 feet (0 to 30 m) deep. The upper limit is defined by wave forces, and the lower limit is controlled by suspended sediments and light availability. Fore reef zones at intermediate depths of 15-80 feet (5-25 m) were formerly dominated by extensive single species stands of staghorn coral until the mid 1980s.

Critical Habitat


We designated critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn corals in November 2008 in four areas:


Staghorn coral is found in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and western Gulf of Mexico (non-U.S. waters). Specifically, staghorn coral is found throughout the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, the Caribbean islands, and Venezuela. The northern limit of staghorn coral is around Boca Raton, FL.

Population Trends

Since 1980, populations have collapsed throughout their range from various threats. Populations have declined by up to 98% throughout their range, and localized "extirpations" have occurred.
staghorn coral
Staghorn Coral
(Acropora cervicornis)
Photo: Tom Moore, NOAA

staghorn coral branches

Staghorn Coral
(Acropora cervicornis)
Photo: Andy Bruckner, NOAA

 staghorn coral thicket
Staghorn Coral
(Acropora cervicornis)
Photo: Andy Bruckner, NOAA


Conservation Efforts

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), the largest coral reef management entity in the region, has developed a management plan for the Sanctuary's corals that includes protective activities, such as zoning and channel markings, as well as restoration efforts.

Efforts within the sanctuary to re-attach Acropora fragments generated by ship groundings and hurricane events have had mixed success. Similar efforts to re-attach coral fragments have also been made in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Attempts to culture and settle coral larvae have also had very limited success.

New techniques for restoring Acropora, however, are currently being pursued, including:

In 1998, the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force was established by Presidential Executive Order 13089 to coordinate and strengthen efforts for protecting coral reef ecosystems. The Task Force is co-chaired by the Departments of Commerce and Interior, and includes leaders of 12 federal agencies, 7 U.S. states and territories, and 3 freely associated states. In 2002, the Task Force adopted a resolution calling for the development of Local Action Strategies, which are locally-driven plans for collaborative and cooperative action among federal, state, territory, and non-governmental partners to reduce key threats on valuable coral reef resources. Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have developed Local Action Strategies. These strategies were implemented over a 3-year period (FY2005-FY2007).

Regulatory Overview

On March 4, 2004, the Center for Biological Diversity This link is an external site. petitioned us to list elkhorn (Acropora palmata), staghorn (A. cervicornis), and fused-staghorn (A. prolifera) coral under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). On June 23, 2004, we found that listing these species may be warranted [pdf] and initiated a formal review of their biological status. We convened the Atlantic Acropora Biological Review Team (Team) to summarize the best available scientific and commercial data available for these species in the status review report.

The Team completed the status review [pdf] on March 3, 2005. On March 18, 2005, we determined that elkhorn and staghorn corals warrant listing [pdf] as "threatened" under the ESA. However, we also concluded that listing fused-staghorn coral is not warranted, as it is a hybrid and does not constitute a "species" as defined under the ESA. On May 9, 2005, we proposed adding elkhorn and staghorn coral to the Endangered Species list [pdf].

We finalized the ESA listing of elkhorn and staghorn coral on May 4, 2006 (71 FR 26852 [pdf]). More information can be found in the press release [pdf] of the final listing.

We designated critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn corals in November 2008.

In December 2012, NMFS proposed reclassifying (77 FR 73219) the elkhorn and staghorn corals as endangered, but determined in September 2014 that they would remain listed as threatened (79 FR 53852).


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Cnidaria
Class: Anthozoa
Order: Scleractinia
Family: Acroporidae
Genus: Acropora
Species: cervicornis

Key Documents

(All documents are in PDF format.)
Title Federal Register Date
Final Recovery Plan 80 FR 12146 03/05/2015
Final Listing Rule (reaffirms Threatened status) 79 FR 53852 09/10/2014
Draft Recovery Plan 79 FR 53019 09/05/2014
Proposed Endangered Listing Rule 77 FR 73219 12/07/2012
Critical Habitat Designation 73 FR 72210 11/26/2008
Final 4(d) Rule 73 FR 64264 10/29/2008
Proposed Critical Habitat Designation 73 FR 6895 02/06/2008
Proposed 4(d) Rule 72 FR 71102 12/14/2007
ESA Listing Rule 71 FR 26852 05/09/2006
Proposed Listing Rule 70 FR 24359 05/09/2005
Status Review n/a 03/03/2005
Proceedings of the Caribbean Acropora Workshop* n/a 04/2002
 * Bruckner, A.W., 2002. Proceedings of the Caribbean Acropora Workshop: Potential Application of the U.S. Endangered Species Act as a Conservation Strategy. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-OPR-24, Silver Spring, MD 199 pp.

More Information

Updated: March 5, 2015