IUCN threat status:

Near Threatened (NT)

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The organ pipe coral, Tubipora musica, is an alcyonarian (Octocorallia) coral that inhabits shallow (depths of 12 meters or 36 feet), sheltered waters of the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the central and western regions of the Pacific Ocean.  It is the only known species of the genus Tubipora

Most alcyonarian corals (commonly called “soft corals” as opposed to the hardened scleractinian “true corals”) live as colonies of polyps, their soft tissues somewhat stiffened by calcium carbonate (limestone) spicules.  Tubipora musica is unique in that its spicules fuse to create a hard skeleton of organ pipe-like tubes joined by platformlike projections which connect the polyps.  On a living coral, this bright red skeleton gets left behind, hidden as a solid core as the duller blue-gray living tissue grows from the outer edge of the colony, which can grow up to a meter (3 feet) across.  Although its skeleton resembles the hardness of scleractinian corals, and is also a major contributor to tropical coral reefs, T. musica is only distantly related to scleractinian corals.

As implied by the name Octocorallia, each Tubipora polyp has eight retractible feather-like tentacles, which resemble little flowers, or stars, on the surface of the colony.  Individual polyps are typically less than 3 mm wide and a few mm long and contain symbiotic photosynthesizing zooxanthella, which provide nutrition to the coral in addition to nutrition gained from filter feeding on plankton. 

The bright skeleton of Tubipora is attractive in the jewellery trade and used medicinally in some Arab countries, so has been extensively harvested, however this coral is reported as common and widespread in the Indo-Pacific.  The IUCN lists it as Near Threatened, and it is listed under Appendix I and II of CITES, due to a number of threats including multiple issues introduced by climate change, decline and degradation of overall reef habitat and susceptibility to harvesting. 

(Obura et al. 2008; Van Ofwegen 2014; Clipperton 2012; Kozloff 1990)

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© Dana Campbell

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