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Staghorn Coral (Acropora cervicornis)

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

  staghorn coral, underwater photo
Staghorn Coral
(Acropora cervicornis)
Photo: NOAA's Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

critical habitat map for staghorn coral
Staghorn Coral Critical Habitat
(click for larger view PDF)

staghorn coral range map
Staghorn Coral Range Map
(click for larger image)



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

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

Species Description
Length: branches can grow to over 6.5 feet (2 m)
Appearance:  their shape resembles male deer antlers ("stag horn")
Lifespan: unknown
Diet: organic byproducts of photosynthesis; they may eat live prey, such as small fish and zooplankton, using their tentacles
Behavior: 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

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

  • Florida
  • Puerto Rico
  • St. John/ St. Thomas
  • St. Croix

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, as detailed below. 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


  • disease, such as white band disease
  • hurricanes
  • predation
  • bleaching
  • algae overgrowth
  • sedimentation
  • temperature and salinity variation
  • low genetic diversity

The greatest source of region-wide mortality for staghorn coral has been disease outbreaks, mainly of white band disease. Other, more localized losses have been caused by hurricanes, increased predation, bleaching, algae overgrowth, human impacts, and other factors. This species is also particularly susceptible to damage from sedimentation and is sensitive to temperature and salinity variation.

The dominant mode of reproduction for staghorn coral is asexual fragmentation; this life history trait allows rapid population recovery from physical disturbances such as storms. However, this mode of reproduction makes recovery from disease or bleaching episodes (in which entire colonies or even entire stands are killed) very difficult. The large role of asexual reproduction for this species also increases the likelihood that genetic diversity in the remnant populations is very low. Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned for this species based on its demographic paramaters; specifically, how species recruitment and genetic diversity affect recovery potential.

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:

  • enhancing sexual recruitment
  • reestablishing ecological roles within reef systems (e.g. herbivorous urchins)
  • controlling predators and disease

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 NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list elkhorn (Acropora palmata), staghorn (A. cervicornis), and fused-staghorn (A. prolifera) coral under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). On June 23, 2004, NMFS found that listing these species may be warranted [pdf] and initiated a formal review of their biological status. NMFS convened the Atlantic Acropora Biological Review Team (BRT) to summarize the best available scientific and commercial data available for these species in the status review report.

The BRT completed the status review [pdf] [4.9 MB] on March 3, 2005. On March 18, 2005, NMFS determined that elkhorn and staghorn corals warrant listing [pdf] as "threatened" under the ESA. However, NMFS 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, NMFS proposed adding elkhorn and staghorn coral to the Endangered Species list [pdf].

NMFS 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.

NMFS 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 August 2014 that they would remain listed as threatened.

Key Documents
(All documents are in PDF format.)

Title Federal Register Date
Draft Recovery Plan filed 09/2014

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

More Information

* 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.

Updated: September 18, 2014

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