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Coral reef at Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia Nusa Lembongan Reef.jpg
Coral reef at Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia
Pamalican island with surrounding reef, Sulu Sea, Philippines PamalicanAfterLiftOff.jpg
Pamalican island with surrounding reef, Sulu Sea, Philippines
A reef surrounding an islet Reef.jpg
A reef surrounding an islet

A reef is a ridge or shoal of rock, coral or similar relatively stable material, lying beneath the surface of a natural body of water. [1] Many reefs result from natural, abiotic processes—deposition of sand,[ citation needed ] wave erosion planing down rock outcrops, etc.—but there are also reefs such as the coral reefs of tropical waters formed by biotic processes dominated by corals and coralline algae, and artificial reefs such as shipwrecks and other anthropogenic underwater structures may occur intentionally or as the result of an accident, and sometimes have a designed role in enhancing the physical complexity of featureless sand bottoms, to attract a more diverse assemblage of organisms. Reefs are often quite near to the surface, but not all definitions require this. [1]


Earth's largest coral reef system is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, at a length of over 2,300 kilometres (1,400 miles).


Part of Great Barrier Reef Great-Barrier-Reef-2018-Luka-Peternel.jpg
Part of Great Barrier Reef

There is a variety of biotic reef types, including oyster reefs and sponge reefs, but the most massive and widely distributed are tropical coral reefs. [1] Although corals are major contributors to the framework and bulk material comprising a coral reef; the organisms most responsible for reef growth against the constant assault from ocean waves are calcareous algae, especially, although not entirely, coralline algae.

The preferred substrate for oyster larvae is the shells of oysters so they tend to settle on adult oysters and thereby develop layers building upwards, eventually forming a fairly massive hard stony calcium carbonate structure on which other reef organisms like sponges and seaweeds can grow, and provide a habitat for mobile benthic organisms. [1]

These biotic reef types take on additional names depending upon how the reef lies in relation to the land, if any. Reef types include fringing reefs, barrier reefs, and atolls. A fringing reef is a reef that is attached to an island. A barrier reef forms a calcareous barrier around an island resulting in a lagoon between the shore and the reef. An atoll is a ring reef with no land present. The reef front (ocean side) is a high energy locale whereas the internal lagoon will be at a lower energy with fine grained sediments.


One useful definition distinguishes reefs from mounds as follows: Both are considered to be varieties of organosedimentary buildups – sedimentary features, built by the interaction of organisms and their environment, that have synoptic relief and whose biotic composition differs from that found on and beneath the surrounding sea floor. Reefs are held up by a macroscopic skeletal framework. Coral reefs are an example of this kind. Corals and calcareous algae grow on top of one another and form a three-dimensional framework that is modified in various ways by other organisms and inorganic processes. By contrast, mounds lack a macroscopic skeletal framework. Mounds are built by microorganisms or by organisms that don't grow a skeletal framework. A microbial mound might be built exclusively or primarily by cyanobacteria. Examples of biostromes formed by cyanobacteria occur in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and in Shark Bay on the coast of Western Australia.[ citation needed ]

Cyanobacteria do not have skeletons, and individuals are microscopic. Cyanobacteria can encourage the precipitation or accumulation of calcium carbonate to produce distinct sediment bodies in composition that have relief on the seafloor. Cyanobacterial mounds were most abundant before the evolution of shelly macroscopic organisms, but they still exist today; stromatolites are microbial mounds with a laminated internal structure. Bryozoans and crinoids, common contributors to marine sediments during the Mississippian, for instance, produced a very different kind of mound. Bryozoans are small and the skeletons of crinoids disintegrate. However, bryozoan and crinoid meadows can persist over time and produce compositionally distinct bodies of sediment with depositional relief.[ citation needed ]

The Proterozoic Belt Supergroup contains evidence of possible microbial mat and dome structures similar to stromatolite and chicken reef complexes. [2]


Rocky reefs are underwater outcrops of rock projecting above the adjacent unconsolidated surface with varying relief. They can be found in depth ranges from intertidal to deep water, and provide a substrate for a large range of sessile benthic organisms, and shelter for a large range of mobile organisms. [3]


Reefs off Vanatinai in the Louisiade Archipelago Vanatinai, Louisiade Archipelago.jpg
Reefs off Vanatinai in the Louisiade Archipelago

Ancient reefs buried within stratigraphic sections are of considerable interest to geologists because they provide paleo-environmental information about the location in Earth's history. In addition, reef structures within a sequence of sedimentary rocks provide a discontinuity which may serve as a trap or conduit for fossil fuels or mineralizing fluids to form petroleum or ore deposits.

Corals, including some major extinct groups Rugosa and Tabulata, have been important reef builders through much of the Phanerozoic since the Ordovician Period. However, other organism groups, such as calcifying algae, especially members of the red algae Rhodophyta, and molluscs (especially the rudist bivalves during the Cretaceous Period) have created massive structures at various times. During the Cambrian Period, the conical or tubular skeletons of Archaeocyatha, an extinct group of uncertain affinities (possibly sponges), built reefs. Other groups, such as the Bryozoa have been important interstitial organisms, living between the framework builders. The corals which build reefs today, the Scleractinia, arose after the Permian–Triassic extinction event that wiped out the earlier rugose corals (as well as many other groups), and became increasingly important reef builders throughout the Mesozoic Era. They may have arisen from a rugose coral ancestor. Rugose corals built their skeletons of calcite and have a different symmetry from that of the scleractinian corals, whose skeletons are aragonite. However, there are some unusual examples of well-preserved aragonitic rugose corals in the Late Permian. In addition, calcite has been reported in the initial post-larval calcification in a few scleractinian corals. Nevertheless, scleractinian corals (which arose in the middle Triassic) may have arisen from a non-calcifying ancestor independent of the rugosan corals (which disappeared in the late Permian).


An artificial reef is a human-created underwater structure, typically built to promote marine life in areas with a generally featureless bottom, to control erosion, block ship passage, block the use of trawling nets, [4] or improve surfing. [5]

Many reefs are built using objects that were built for other purposes, for example by sinking oil rigs (through the Rigs-to-Reefs program), scuttling ships, or by deploying rubble or construction debris. Other artificial reefs are purpose built (e.g. the reef balls) from PVC or concrete. Shipwrecks become artificial reefs on the seafloor. Regardless of construction method, artificial reefs generally provide stable hard surfaces where algae and invertebrates such as barnacles, corals, and oysters attach; the accumulation of attached marine life in turn provides intricate structure and food for assemblages of fish.

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Atoll Ring-shaped coral reef

An atoll, sometimes known as a atoll, is a ring-shaped island, including a coral rim that encircles a lagoon partially or completely. There may be coral islands or cays on the rim. Atolls are located in warm tropical or subtropical oceans and seas where corals can grow. Most of the approximately 440 atolls in the world are in the Pacific Ocean.

Coral Marine invertebrates of the class Anthozoa

Corals are marine invertebrates within the class Anthozoa of the phylum Cnidaria. They typically form compact colonies of many identical individual polyps. Coral species include the important reef builders that inhabit tropical oceans and secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton.

Coral reef Outcrop of rock in the sea formed by the growth and deposit of stony coral skeletons

A coral reef is an underwater ecosystem characterized by reef-building corals. Reefs are formed of colonies of coral polyps held together by calcium carbonate. Most coral reefs are built from stony corals, whose polyps cluster in groups.

Scleractinia Order of Hexacorallia which produce a massive stony skeleton

Scleractinia, also called stony corals or hard corals, are marine animals in the phylum Cnidaria that build themselves a hard skeleton. The individual animals are known as polyps and have a cylindrical body crowned by an oral disc in which a mouth is fringed with tentacles. Although some species are solitary, most are colonial. The founding polyp settles and starts to secrete calcium carbonate to protect its soft body. Solitary corals can be as much as 25 cm (10 in) across but in colonial species the polyps are usually only a few millimetres in diameter. These polyps reproduce asexually by budding, but remain attached to each other, forming a multi-polyp colony of clones with a common skeleton, which may be up to several metres in diameter or height according to species.

Rugosa Extinct order of corals

The Rugosa, also called the Tetracorallia, are an extinct order of solitary and colonial corals that were abundant in Middle Ordovician to Late Permian seas.

Live rock Rock from the ocean introduced into a saltwater aquarium

Live rock is rock from the ocean that has been introduced into a saltwater aquarium. Along with live sand, it confers to the closed marine system multiple benefits desired by the saltwater aquarium hobbyist. The name sometimes leads to misunderstandings, as the "live rock" itself is not actually alive, but rather is simply made from the aragonite skeletons of long dead corals, or other calcareous organisms, which in the ocean form the majority of coral reefs. When taken from the ocean it is usually encrusted with coralline algae and inhabited by a multitude of marine organisms. The many forms of micro and macroscopic marine life that live on and inside of the rock, which acts as an ideal habitat, give it the name "live rock".

Coralline algae Order of algae (Corallinales)

Coralline algae are red algae in the order Corallinales. They are characterized by a thallus that is hard because of calcareous deposits contained within the cell walls. The colors of these algae are most typically pink, or some other shade of red, but some species can be purple, yellow, blue, white, or gray-green. Coralline algae play an important role in the ecology of coral reefs. Sea urchins, parrot fish, and limpets and chitons feed on coralline algae. In the temperate Mediterranean Sea, coralline algae are the main builders of a typical algal reef, the Coralligène ("coralligenous"). Many are typically encrusting and rock-like, found in marine waters all over the world. Only one species lives in freshwater. Unattached specimens may form relatively smooth compact balls to warty or fruticose thalli.

Bioerosion Erosion of hard substrates by living organisms

Bioerosion describes the breakdown of hard ocean substrates – and less often terrestrial substrates – by living organisms. Marine bioerosion can be caused by mollusks, polychaete worms, phoronids, sponges, crustaceans, echinoids, and fish; it can occur on coastlines, on coral reefs, and on ships; its mechanisms include biotic boring, drilling, rasping, and scraping. On dry land, bioerosion is typically performed by pioneer plants or plant-like organisms such as lichen, and mostly chemical or mechanical in nature.

Carbonate platform Sedimentary body with topographic relief composed of autochthonous calcareous deposits

A carbonate platform is a sedimentary body which possesses topographic relief, and is composed of autochthonic calcareous deposits. Platform growth is mediated by sessile organisms whose skeletons build up the reef or by organisms which induce carbonate precipitation through their metabolism. Therefore, carbonate platforms can not grow up everywhere: they are not present in places where limiting factors to the life of reef-building organisms exist. Such limiting factors are, among others: light, water temperature, transparency and pH-Value. For example, carbonate sedimentation along the Atlantic South American coasts takes place everywhere but at the mouth of the Amazon River, because of the intense turbidity of the water there. Spectacular examples of present-day carbonate platforms are the Bahama Banks under which the platform is roughly 8 km thick, the Yucatan Peninsula which is up to 2 km thick, the Florida platform, the platform on which the Great Barrier Reef is growing, and the Maldive atolls. All these carbonate platforms and their associated reefs are confined to tropical latitudes. Today's reefs are built mainly by scleractinian corals, but in the distant past other organisms, like archaeocyatha or extinct cnidaria were important reef builders.

Chazy Formation

The Chazy Reef Formation is a mid-Ordovician limestone deposit in northeastern North America.

Fire coral Genus of hydrozoans

Fire corals (Millepora) are a genus of colonial marine organisms that exhibit physical characteristics similar to that of coral. The name coral is somewhat misleading, as fire corals are not true corals but are instead more closely related to Hydra and other hydrozoans, making them hydrocorals. They make up the only genus in the monotypic family Milleporidae.


Rhodoliths are colorful, unattached calcareous nodules, composed of crustose, benthic marine red algae that resemble coral. Rhodolith beds create biogenic habitat for diverse benthic communities. The rhodolithic growth habit has been attained by a number of unrelated coralline red algae, organisms that deposit calcium carbonate within their cell walls to form hard structures or nodules that resemble beds of coral.

Thrombolite Clotted accretionary structures formed in shallow water

Thrombolites are clotted accretionary structures formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding, and cementation of sedimentary grains by biofilms of microorganisms, especially cyanobacteria.

Algae scrubber Biological water filter

An algae scrubber is a water filtering device which uses light to grow algae; in this process, undesirable chemicals are removed from the water. Algae scrubbers allow saltwater, freshwater and pond hobbyists to operate their tanks using natural filtration in the form of primary production, much like oceans and lakes.

Shallow water marine environment

Shallow water marine environment refers to the area between the shore and deeper water, such as a reef wall or a shelf break. This environment is characterized by oceanic, geological and biological conditions, as described below. The water in this environment is shallow and clear, allowing the formation of different sedimentary structures, carbonate rocks, coral reefs, and allowing certain organisms to survive and become fossils.

Fossils of many types of water-dwelling animals from the Devonian period are found in deposits in the U.S. state of Michigan. Among the more commonly occurring specimens are bryozoans, corals, crinoids, and brachiopods. Also found, but not so commonly, are armored fish called placoderms, snails, sharks, stromatolites, trilobites and blastoids.

Mesophotic coral reef

A Mesophotic coral reef or mesophotic coral ecosystem (MCE), originally from the latin word meso meaning middle and photic meaning light, is characterised by the presence of both light dependent coral and algae, and organisms that can be found in water with low light penetration. Mesophotic Coral Ecosystem (MCEs) is a new widely adopted term use to refer mesophotic coral reefs that contrasting other similar terms like "deep coral reef communities" and "twilight zone", since those terms sometimes are confused due to a lot of intercept between them.

Ocean acidification in the Great Barrier Reef Threat to the reef which reduces the viability and strength of reef-building corals

Ocean acidification threatens the Great Barrier Reef by reducing the viability and strength of coral reefs. The Great Barrier Reef, considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a biodiversity hotspot, is located in Australia. Similar to other coral reefs, it is experiencing degradation due to ocean acidification. Ocean acidification results from a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is taken up by the ocean. This process can increase sea surface temperature, decrease aragonite, and lower the pH of the ocean. The more humanity consumes fossil fuels, the more the ocean absorbs released CO₂, furthering ocean acidification.

Euphylliidae Family of marine coral known as Euphylliidae

Euphylliidae are known as a family of polyped stony corals under the order Scleractinia.

Marine biogenic calcification

Marine biogenic calcification is the process by which marine organisms such as oysters and clams form calcium carbonate. Seawater is full of dissolved compounds, ions and nutrients that organisms can use for energy and, in the case of calcification, to build shells and outer structures. Calcifying organisms in the ocean include molluscs, foraminifera, coccolithophores, crustaceans, echinoderms such as sea urchins, and corals. The shells and skeletons produced from calcification have important functions for the physiology and ecology of the organisms that create them.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "Resource Library: Encyclopedic Entry: Reef". Washington, DC: National Geographic Society. 30 September 2011. Retrieved 15 March 2021.
  2. Schieber, Jürgen (1998). "Possible indicators of microbial mat deposits in shales and sandstones: Examples from the Mid-Proterozoic Belt Supergroup, Montana, U.S.A." (PDF). Sedimentary Geology . 120 (1–4): 105–124. Bibcode:1998SedG..120..105S. doi:10.1016/S0037-0738(98)00029-3.
  3. "Rocky Reef on the West Coast". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved 3 February 2021.
  4. Gray, Denis D. (2 June 2018). "Cambodia volunteers step up battle against illegal fishing". Nikkei Asia. Retrieved 17 March 2021.
  5. "Optimism at Boscombe surf reef's opening day". 3 November 2009. Archived from the original on March 18, 2012. Retrieved 19 June 2012.