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Education

INVASIVE CUP CORAL

Orange Cup Coral (Tubastraea coccinea) is a hard coral species from the Indo-Pacific that has established itself throughout the Tropical Western Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Orange cup coral.
Orange cup coral (Tubastraea coccinea) with tentacles extended. Photo: Joyce & Frank Burek

Although it is a hard coral, it is classified as ahermatypic, meaning that it is not considered a reef-building coral.

Orange cup coral also lacks any symbiotic algae and is, therefore, not dependent on photosynthesis for food production. In fact, it actually prefers shaded vertical areas such as dock pilings, small caves, and walls beneath overhanging ledges.

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The Invasion

Orange cup coral was first observed in Puerto Rico and Curacao in 1943. Since 1948 several specimens have been found attached to ship hulls, leading scientists to speculate that this is most likely how it arrived from the Indo-Pacific in the first place. Ship ballast water is another suspect.

From Puerto Rico and Curacao, orange cup coral spread via typical current patterns in the Caribbean, gradually migrating to the southeast along the coast of Brazil and northwest into the Gulf of Mexico.

Yellowish version of orange cup coral
In 2010, orange cup coral was beginning to establish
itself at Sonnier Bank
, about 60 miles east of East Flower Garden Bank. Photo: Hickerson/FGBNMS

In the Gulf, it seems to have found ideal habitat in the form of oil and gas production platforms, where it is the dominant coral species. Hundreds of thousands of colonies may exist on a single platform (Sammarco et. al. 2010).

With over 3500 of platforms in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico at any time, and about 100 within 25 miles of the sanctuary, it's easy to see how orange cup coral arrived at the Flower Garden Banks.

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The Concerns

Many studies of orange cup coral have been focused in Brazil where it has spread unchecked across much of their shallow reef ecosystem. Studies have also taken place in the Gulf of Mexico, focusing on oil and gas platforms. Through these studies, scientists have identified two main concerns.

  1. Orange cup coral displaces native corals and sponges. The more hard surface areas are colonized by invasive cup coral, the less space is available for native corals and sponges to establish themselves. In addition, some studies indicate that the cup coral uses chemical defenses to prevent other benthic invertebrates from settling nearby and predators from eating it.

    Orange cup coral colonies on the reef at Geyer Bank.
    Other area banks also show evidence of the orange cup coral invasion. This photo was taken in deep habitat at Geyer Bank. Photo: FGBNMS

  2. Orange cup coral reproduces at a young age. Orange cup coral can reproduce within about 1.5 years of settling. The reproductive process involves the release of planula larvae that may float with currents for up to 14 days before settling, allowing plenty of time for them to travel to new locations.

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The Response

The primary response to the presence of orange cup coral (Tubastraea coccinea) has been physical removal from the reef. By keeping the cup coral population from becoming too established, we hope to lessen its impact on native coral and sponge populations.

In July 2012, for example, sanctuary researchers discovered a section of reef at West Flower Garden Bank that was covered in orange cup coral and removed over 200 colonies of the invasive species in about 45 minutes.

Cup coral colonies visible under a ledge at West Flower Garden Bank.
Closed polyps of orange cup coral (Tubastraea coccinea) appear more yellow than orange in this section of reef at
West Flower Garden Bank
. Photo: FGBNMS

Two large, clear bags filled with orange cup coral colonies and water following removal from the reef.
Orange cup coral that was removed from the section of reef pictured above (West Flower Garden Bank, July 2012).
Photo: FGBNMS

Sanctuary regulations only allow for removal of invasive cup coral by sanctuary staff and others with appropriate permits.

At this time, there is no plan to remove colonies from artificial structures such as the platform located inside sanctuary boundaries at East Flower Garden Bank.

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How Can You Help?

You can help us monitor the situation by reporting any sightings of orange cup coral within the sanctuary. Please include the date, time, and location of the sighting as well as an approximate heading and distance from the nearest mooring buoy.

Closed polyps of orange cup coral.
Closed polyps of orange cup coral.

During the daytime, colonies are usually closed and may not be as recognizable. At night, orange cup coral is usually feeding so its tentacles will be extended. Color may range from pale yellow to brilliant orange.

To report a sighting, please email us at flowergarden@noaa.gov

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More Information

Global Invasive Species Database Orange Cup Coral Information

National Park Service Orange Cup Coral Fact Sheet

Benthic Community Composition Associated with a Petroleum Platform, High Island A-389-A, Located within theFlower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (5MB pdf) - poster presented by John Embesi at GCFI 2013

General Invasive Species Information

Invasive Lionfish Information

This discussion was part of a presentation on invasive species that was given by Dr. Michelle Johnston during the sanctuary's Seaside Chat series in 2012. (1:41)

For a full transcript of the presentation, please visit our Invertebrate Videos page.

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