Coral Reef NOAA
June 01, 2016  

How does coral eat?

close-up image of a coral polyp where the brownish-yellow round zooxanthellae cells are visible within the clear coral tissue
Close-up image of coral polyps feeding with tentacles extended. One polyp in the bottom left has captured some type of marine worm (which is many times the size of the polyp) and is in the midst of ingesting it
Top: Zooxanthellae within a polyp of Porites astreoides. Photo Credit: National Coral Reef Institute; Bottom: Coral polyps use their tentacles to capture food, such as the polyp shown here ingesting a marine worm. Photo credit: George Cathcart

Coral utilizes the organic byproducts of photosynthesis and/or captures prey.

Tropical Coral Species

Tropical shallow coral reef species—those you might typically picture when you think of a coral reef—get as much as 90 percent of their energy from the organic byproducts of photosynthesis thanks to a symbiotic relationship with algae. [a] Most tropical shallow coral species also capture and consume live prey using their tentacles. This type of feeding usually occurs at night. [b]

Deep-sea Corals

Because they live at depths which make light penetration—and thus photosynthesis—impossible, deep-sea corals capture plankton and organic matter for much their energy needs.

To learn more, visit our Coral Feeding Habits and Deep-sea Corals pages.