The elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) is a species of coral found in reefs in the Carribean. It is a fast growing species and is one of the most important reef-building species in the Caribbean. It was formerly one of the most common corals on reefs throughout its range. Today, it is very rare and is considered critically endangered by reef scientists.
Elkhorn coral colonies can also reproduce through fragmentation. When a storm or some other disturbance breaks apart a colony, each piece is able to reattach to the reef surface and begin growing again. Through this process, and as a result of its fairly rapid growth rate, the elkhorn coral was historically responsible for building large areas of Caribbean Reefs. Numerous species (including caribbean spiny lobsters, parrotfishes, tube blennies, and others) directly rely on elkhorn coral as their primary habitat.
According to Oceana, “cells, providing the corals with excess energy that they make via photosynthesis. Nearly all species of shallow-water corals and several other groups of reef invertebrates have symbiotic relationships with these algae, so it is important that they live in clear, shallow water. Like all stony corals, the elkhorn coral builds a skeleton of calcium carbonate – a compound that will become increasingly more rare as the ocean acidifies.”
As a result of disease, pollution, coral bleaching, and storm damage, populations of elkhorn corals have crashed. Throughout its range, it has become more and more rare, and scientists now consider it to be critically endangered. As it is a keystone species and ecosystem engineer, its endangerment threatens many other coral reef species.