Underwater photograph of staghorn coral.

About The Species

Staghorn coral is one of the most important corals in the Caribbean. It, along with elkhorn coral and star corals (boulder, lobed, and mountainous) built Caribbean coral reefs over the last 5,000 years. Staghorn coral can form dense groups called “thickets” in very shallow water. These provide important habitat for other reef animals, especially fish.

In the early 1980s, a severe disease event caused major mortality throughout its range and now the population is less than 3 percent of its former abundance. The greatest threat to staghorn coral is ocean warming, which cause the corals to release the algae that lives in their tissue and provides them food, usually causing death. Other threats to staghorn coral are ocean acidification (decrease in water pH caused by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) that makes it harder for them to build their skeleton, unsustainable fishing practices that deplete the herbivores (animals that feed on plants) that keep the reef clean, and land-based sources of pollution that impacts the clear, low nutrient waters in which they thrive.

NOAA Fisheries and our partners are dedicated to conserving and recovering the staghorn coral populations throughout its range. We use a variety of innovative techniques to study, protect, and restore these threatened corals. We engage our partners as we develop regulations and management plans that foster healthy coral reefs and reduce the impacts of climate change, unsustainable fishing, and land-based sources of pollution.


Staghorn coral used to be a dominant coral on Caribbean reefs and was so abundant that an entire reef zone is named for it. Beginning in the 1980s, the staghorn coral population declined 97 percent from white band disease. This disease kills the coral’s tissues. Populations appear to consist mostly of isolated colonies or small groups of colonies compared to the vast thickets once prominent throughout its range, with thickets still a prominent feature at only a handful of known locations. Successful reproduction is very rare, so it is hard for staghorn coral populations to increase.

ESA Threatened

throughout its range

CITES Appendix II

throughout its range


Staghorn coral colonies are golden tan or pale brown with white tips and they get their color from the algae that lives within their tissue. Staghorn corals have antler-like branches and typically stem out from a central trunk and angle upward. Branches are typically 1 to 3 inches thick. Individual colonies can grow to at least 4 feet in height and 6 feet in diameter. Staghorn coral colonies can grow in dense stands and form an interlocking framework known as thickets.  Each staghorn coral colony is made up by many individual polyps that grow together. Each polyp is an exact copy of all the polyps on the same colony.

Behavior and Diet

Staghorn coral get food from photosynthetic algae that live inside the coral's cells. They also feed by capturing plankton with their polyp’s tentacles. Coral bleaching is the loss of the algae that live in coral tissue. This loss can lead to coral death through starvation or increased vulnerability to diseases.

Due to their bush-like growth form, staghorn corals provide complex habitat for fish and other coral reef organisms. When staghorn corals are abundant, they provide shoreline protections from large waves and storms.

Location Description
Staghorn coral is found typically in clear, shallow water (15 to 60 feet) on coral reefs throughout the Bahamas, Florida, and the Caribbean. The northern extent of the range in the Atlantic Ocean is Palm Beach County, Florida, where it is relatively rare. Staghorn coral lives in many coral reef habitats including spur and groove, bank reef, patch reef, and transitional reef habitats, as well as on limestone ridges, terraces, and hardbottom habitats.

NOAA Fisheries has designated four critical areas determined to provide critical recruitment habitat for staghorn corals off the coast of Florida and off the islands of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Staghorn coral range map.
Lifespan and Reproduction

Staghorn coral reaches reproductive maturity at about 7 inches tall. Staghorn coral is a simultaneous hermaphrodite, meaning each colony produces both eggs and sperm, but usually does not self-fertilize. Staghorn coral sexually reproduces once per year after the full moon in late summer by “broadcast spawning” eggs and sperm into the water column. Fertilized eggs develop into larvae that settle on hard surfaces and form new colonies. Staghorn coral can also form new colonies when broken pieces, called fragments, re-attach to hard surfaces. Staghorn coral is one of the fasted growing corals—when healthy, it can grow up to 8 inches in branch length per year.

Diagram depicting lifecycle of Acropora corals.

Life cycle of Acropora spp. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.


Climate Change

Climate change is the greatest global threat to corals. Scientific evidence now clearly indicates that the Earth's atmosphere and oceans are warming, and that these changes are primarily due to greenhouse gases derived from human activities. As temperatures rise, mass coral bleaching events and infectious disease outbreaks are becoming more frequent. Additionally, carbon dioxide absorbed into the ocean from the atmosphere has already begun to reduce calcification rates in reef-building and reef-associated organisms by altering seawater chemistry through decreases in pH. This process is called ocean acidification.


Diseases can cause adult mortality, reducing sexual and asexual reproductive success, and impairing colony growth. Coral diseases are caused by a complex interplay of factors including the cause or agent (e.g., pathogen, environmental toxicant), the host, and the environment. Coral disease often produces acute tissue loss. Staghorn coral is particularly susceptible to white band and white plague diseases.

Unsustainable Fishing Pressure

Fishing, particularly unsustainable fishing, can have large scale, long-term ecosystem-level effects that can change ecosystem structure from coral-dominated reefs to algal-dominated reefs (“phase shifts”). This results from the removal of fish that eat algae and keep the reef clean to allow for space for corals to grow.  

Land-Based Sources of Pollution

Impacts from land-based sources of pollution—including coastal development, deforestation (clearing a wide area of trees), agricultural runoff, and oil and chemical spills—can impede coral growth and reproduction, disrupt overall ecological function, and cause disease and mortality in sensitive species. It is now well accepted that many serious coral reef ecosystem stressors originate from land-based sources, most notably toxicants, sediments, and nutrients.

Scientific Classification


What We Do

Conservation & Management

We are committed to the protection and recovery of staghorn coral through implementation of various conservation, regulatory, and restoration measures. Our work includes:

  • Protecting habitat and designating critical habitat.

  • Breeding staghorn corals in nurseries and planting them into the wild.

  • Increasing staghorn coral resilience to climate change.

  • Rescuing injured staghorn corals after ship groundings or major storm events.

Science Behind the Scenes

We conduct various research activities on the biology, behavior, and ecology of staghorn coral. The results of this research are used to inform management decisions and enhance recovery efforts for this threatened species. Our work includes:

  • Tracking individuals over time to understand population trends and causes of death.

  • Conducting spawning observations and collection of eggs and sperm for culturing staghorn coral larvae.

  • Conducting temperature and acidification experiments on eggs, sperm, larvae, and newly settled colonies.

  • Conducting experiments to enhance the success of staghorn coral propagation efforts.

How You Can Help

Conserve energy

Conserve Energy

Use energy efficient lighting, bike to work, or practice other energy saving actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is one of the leading threats to coral reefs.

Learn more about climate and corals >

Conserve water

Conserve Water

The less water you use, the less runoff and wastewater carrying nutrients, sediments, and toxins into the ocean.

Learn how toxins and other pollutants affect coral reefs >

Practice safe boating

Practice Safe Boating

Anchor in sandy areas away from coral and obey aids-to-navigation/signage to make sure you do not accidentally injure corals that are just below the surface.

Be reef smart >

Reduce chemical/sunscreen pollution

Reduce Chemical/Sunscreen Pollution

Choose sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide over those containing oxybenzone, which is toxic to corals.

Learn more about what you can do to protect coral reefs >