Corals are marine animals from the class Anthozoa and exist as small sea anemone-like polyps, typically in colonies of many identical individuals.
The group includes the important reef builders that are found in tropical oceans, which secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton.
A coral "head", commonly perceived to be a single organism, is actually formed of thousands of individual but genetically identical polyps, each polyp only a few millimeters in diameter.
Over thousands of generations, the polyps lay down a skeleton that is characteristic of their species.
A head of coral grows by asexual reproduction of the individual polyps.
Corals also breed sexually by spawning, with corals of the same species releasing gametes simultaneously over a period of one to several nights around a full moon.
Although corals can catch plankton using stinging cells on their tentacles, these animals obtain most of their nutrients from symbiotic unicellular algae called zooxanthellae.
Consequently, most corals depend on sunlight and grow in clear and shallow water, typically at depths shallower than 60 m (200 ft).
These corals can be major contributors to the physical structure of the coral reefs that develop in tropical and subtropical waters, such as the enormous Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
Other corals do not have associated algae and can live in much deeper water, such as in the Atlantic, with the cold-water genus Lophelia surviving as deep as 3000 m.
Corals have also been found off the coast of Washington State and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.
While a coral head appears to be a single organism, it is actually a head of many individual, yet genetically identical, polyps.
The polyps are multicellular organisms that feed on a variety of small organisms, from microscopic plankton to small fish.
Polyps are usually a few millimeters in diameter, and are formed by a layer of outer epithelium and inner jellylike tissue known as the mesoglea.
They are radially symmetrical with tentacles surrounding a central mouth, the only opening to the stomach or coelenteron, through which both food is ingested and waste expelled.