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  • Writer's pictureBarefoot Dive Center

Coral Reefs in Cozumel

Updated: Mar 2

Are Coral Plants or Animals?

The coral reefs off the coast of Cozumel are part of the Mesoamerican Reef—the second-largest barrier reef system in the world.

Corals and wildlife are connected across the Mesoamerican Reef, so what happens in Cozumel can affect coral reefs and communities in other nearby countries.

But like in many areas along the Central American Caribbean coast, coral reefs in Cozumel are in trouble. Unsustainable tourism and overfishing damage critical habitat and remove important wildlife that help keep coral reefs healthy.

In 2019, Cozumel received 4.2 million visitors from cruise ships alone. While visitors come for the beautiful blue waters and white sand beaches, the influx of tourists and the businesses to support those tourists place a heavy burden on Cozumel’s coral reefs.

What are Coral Reefs

Appearing as solitary forms in the fossil record more than 400 million years ago, corals are extremely ancient animals that evolved into modern reef-building forms over the last 25 million years. Coral reefs are unique (e.g., the largest structures on earth of biological origin) and complex systems. Rivaling old growth forests in longevity of their ecological communities, well-developed reefs reflect thousands of years of history.

Corals and their Kind

Corals are anthozoans, the largest class of organisms within the phylum Cnidaria. Comprising over 6,000 known species, anthozoans also include sea fans, sea pansies and anemones. Stony corals (scleractinians) make up the largest order of anthozoans, and are the group primarily responsible for laying the foundations of, and building up, reef structures. For the most part, scleractinians are colonial organisms composed of hundreds to hundreds of thousands of individuals, called polyps (Barnes, R.D., 1987; Lalli and Parsons, 1995).

Close-up of Oculina varicosa polyps. (Photo: John Reed)

As members of the phylum Cnidaria, corals have only a limited degree of organ development. Each polyp consists of three basic tissue layers: an outer epidermis, an inner layer of cells lining the gastrovascular cavity which acts as an internal space for digestion, and a layer called the mesoglea in between.

Structure of a typical coral polyp.

All coral polyps share two basic structural features with other members of their phylum. The first is a gastrovascular cavity that opens at only one end. At the opening to this cavity, commonly called the mouth, food is consumed and some waste products are expelled. A second feature all corals possess is a circle of tentacles, extensions of the body wall that surround the mouth. Tentacles help the coral to capture and ingest plankton for food, clear away debris from the mouth, and act as the animal’s primary means of defense.

While coral polyps have structurally simple body plans, they possess several distinctive cellular structures. One of these is called a cnidocyte—a type of cell unique to, and characteristic of, all cnidarians. Found throughout the tentacles and epidermis, cnidocytes contain organelles called cnidae, which include nematocysts, a type of stinging cell. Because nematocytes are capable of delivering powerful, often lethal toxins, they are essential to capturing prey, and facilitate coralline agonistic interactions


Most corals, like other cnidarians, contain a symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae, within their gastrodermal cells. The coral provides the algae with a protected environment and the compounds necessary for photosynthesis. These include carbon dioxide, produced by coral respiration, and inorganic nutrients such as nitrates, and phosphates, which are metabolic waste products of the coral. In return, the algae produce oxygen and help the coral to remove wastes. Most importantly, they supply the coral with organic products of photosynthesis. These compounds, including glucose, glycerol, and amino acids, are utilized by the coral as building blocks in the manufacture of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, as well as the synthesis of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). The mutual exchange of algal photosynthates and cnidarian metabolites is the key to the prodigious biological productivity and limestone-secreting capacity of reef building corals.

Healthy staghorn coral.

Zooxanthellae often are critical elements in the continuing health of reef-building corals. As much as 90% of the organic material they manufacture photosynthetically is transferred to the host coral tissue.

If these algal cells are expelled by the polyps, which can occur if the colony undergoes prolonged physiological stress, the host may die shortly afterwards. The symbiotic zooxanthellae also confers its color to the polyp. If the zooxanthellae are expelled, the colony takes on a stark white appearance, which is commonly described as “coral bleaching”.

From Polyp to Reef

Massive reef structures are formed when each stony coral polyp secretes a skeleton of CaCO3. Most stony corals have very small polyps, averaging 1 to 3 mm in diameter, but entire colonies can grow very large and weigh several tons. Although all corals secrete CaCO3, not all are reef builders. Some corals, such as Fungia sp., are solitary and have single polyps that can grow as large as 25 cm in diameter. Other coral species are incapable of producing sufficient quantities of CaCO3 to form reefs. Many of these corals do not rely on the algal metabolites produced by zooxanthellae, and live in deeper and/or colder waters beyond the geographic range of most reef systems.

Two images of the same solitary coral Fungia sp. On the left is a living organism showing its outer covering of living tissue, and clearly visible central mouth. The image on the right shows the underlying skeletal structure of the same organism with the outer covering of living tissue stripped away.

The skeletons of stony corals are secreted by the lower portion of the polyp. This process produces a cup, called the calyx, in which the polyp sits. The walls surrounding the cup are called the theca, and the floor is called the basal plate. Thin, calcareous septa (sclerosepta), which provide structural integrity, protection, and an increased surface area for the polyp’s soft tissues, extend upward from the basal plate and radiate outward from its center. Periodically, a polyp will lift off its base and secrete a new floor to its cup, forming a new basal plate above the old one. This creates a minute chamber in the skeleton. While the colony is alive, CaCO3 is deposited, adding partitions and elevating the coral. When polyps are physically stressed, they contract into the calyx so that virtually no part is exposed above the skeletal platform. This protects the organism from predators and the elements