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Many people think fire coral are plants, but they are animals! Each mass of fire coral that you see is actually hundreds of tiny animals living together. Each tiny animal is called a polyp. Hundreds of coral polyps living together are called a colony.
Fire coral are cnidarians. That means they have a sac-like body with a mouth and tentacles on top. Jellyfish and anemones are also cnidarians. One major thing that makes fire coral different from jellyfish is that they have skeletons. Their skeletons are on the outside, like our armor. They add to our armor every year, and that’s how they grow bigger and bigger. Fire coral only live in the top most layer of their skeleton. The parts underneath are just old skeleton. It’s this old skeleton that makes reef!
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Like all animals, corals need to eat food. They use their tentacles to catch tiny floating animals called zooplankton and then bring them to their mouths to eat. Since they only feed at night, you won’t see their polyps during the day. But at night, feeding makes their colony look fuzzy.
Corals live in tropical areas, but there aren’t many nutrients in tropical waters, which are kind of like deserts. That means there isn’t a lot of zooplankton to eat. And yet, corals grow really big. How is this possible, you ask? They have a trick—special algae called Zooxanthellae that live inside their cells. Zooxanthellae are plants that use photosynthesis to make food, and corals take this food and use it to grow. In return corals give the Zooxanthellae a safe place to live. This symbiotic, or close, relationship helps both of them, so it’s mutualistic.
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