The staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) is a branching, stony coral with cylindrical branches ranging from a few centimetres to over two metres in length and height. It occurs in back reef and fore reef environments from 0 to 30 m (0 to 98 ft) depth. The upper limit is defined by wave forces, and the lower limit is controlled by suspended sediments and light availability. Fore reef zones at intermediate depths 5-25 m (16-82 ft) were formerly dominated by extensive single-species stands of staghorn coral until the mid-1980s. This coral exhibits the fastest growth of all known western Atlantic fringe corals, with branches increasing in length by 10-20 cm (3.9-7.9 in) per year. This has been one of the three most important Caribbean corals in terms of its contribution to reef growth and fishery habitat.
Staghorn coral is found throughout the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean islands. This coral occurs in the western Gulf of Mexico, but is absent from U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as Bermuda and the west coast of South America. The northern limit is on the east coast of Florida, around Palm Beach, Florida. In South-East Asia, it grows rapidly and abundantly in the reefs of the coasts of Sabah, Malaysia.
The dominant mode of reproduction for staghorn corals is asexual, with new colonies forming when branches break off a colony and reattach to the substrate. This life history trait allows rapid population recovery from physical disturbances such as storms. However, it makes recovery from disease or bleaching episodes (where entire colonies or even entire stands are killed) very difficult.
Sexual reproduction is via broadcast spawning of gametes into the water column once each year in August or September. Individual colonies are both male and female (simultaneous hermaphrodites) and will release millions of gametes. The coral larvae (planula) live in the plankton for several days until finding a suitable area to settle; unfortunately, very few larvae survive to settle and metamorphose into new colonies. The preponderance of asexual reproduction in this species raises the possibility that genetic diversity in the remnant populations may be very low. These uncertainties as to recruitment/recovery potential and genetic status are the bases for increased demographic concerns for this species.
Over the last 50 years, we have seen a significant decline in the population of Acropora cerviconis caused by a combination of coral disease and bleaching as well as other stressors such as pollution and predation. In order to reduce the loss of this species, The Coral Restoration Foundation in conjunction with the NOAA Recovery Plan (NRP) started in 2007 outplanting coral projects to restore populations at sites where Acropora cerviconis was previously abundant.
On March 4, 2004, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned NMFS to list elkhorn (Acropora palmata), staghorn (A. cervicornis), and fused-staghorn (A. prolifera) coral under the ESA. On June 23, 2004, NOAA Fisheries found that listing these species may be warranted and initiated a formal review of their biological status. NMFS convened the Atlantic Acropora Biological Review Team (BRT) to summarize the best available scientific and commercial data available for these species in the status review report.
The BRT completed the status review March 3, 2005. On March 18, 2005, NMFS determined elkhorn and staghorn corals warrant listing as "threatened" species under the ESA. However, NMFS also concluded listing fused-staghorn coral is not warranted, as it is a hybrid and does not constitute a species as defined under the ESA. On May 9, 2005, NMFS proposed adding elkhorn coral to the endangered species list and the listing was finalized on May 9, 2006.
NMFS designated critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn corals in November 2008.
In December 2012, NMFS proposed reclassifying (77 FR 73219) the elkhorn and staghorn corals as endangered, but determined in September 2014 that they would remain listed as threatened (79 FR 53852).
Staghorn coral alive at Looe Key, Florida Keys, July 2010