Pillar Coral

Photograph from Coral Kingdom Photo: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/photos/corals/#/reef_3322_600x450.jpg. Photograph courtesy Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary/NOAASay hello to one of our islands’ most beautiful coral species, Pillar Coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus). This grey-brown hard coral species occurs in shallow reefs at depths of one to twenty meters. Pillar Coral gets its common name from the tall, pillar-like columns that the coral colonies build over decades on flat or gently sloping sea floors. When undisturbed, the cylindrical columns can reach impressive heights of up to three meters. Because pillar coral is a type of digitate coral, it does not have any secondary branching, and small colonies are often compared to fingers or clumps of cigars.

Pillar Coral differs from most hard coral species in two ways: firstly, it is one of the few hard coral species that has its polyps extended out for feeding during the day (most hard corals feed at night), which is why many people think pillar coral is covered with hair; secondly, while most hard corals are hermaphroditic, pillar coral individuals are either male or female and release either eggs or sperm into the water column for fertilization during spawning events.

Sadly, juveniles have low levels of survivorship, which means that Pillar Coral populations are slow to recover from damage. In an age where coral reefs are under threat from a wide number of pressures, this is not good news. Pillar Coral is currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and the Caribbean population is believed to have declined by 80% over the past 30 years. Pillar Coral is especially at risk from coral disease, notably white plague disease.

Our five Dutch Caribbean marine protected areas offer corals some form of protection, but even there they are quite vulnerable. Like all coral species, Pillar Coral is very fragile and just one kick of your fin can kill a colony that took years to build. So add this to your list of New Year’s resolutions – “When in the water, I will be extra careful not to touch, kick and cause damage to these wonderful animals that so many people from all around the world come to see.”