Coral Reefs

, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp 505–507

Orange Cup Coral Tubastraea coccinea invades Florida and the Flower Garden Banks, Northwestern Gulf of Mexico


    • Australian Institute of Marine Sciences
  • Kenneth Banks
    • Broward County Dept. of Planning and Environmental Protection

DOI: 10.1007/s00338-004-0422-x

Cite this article as:
Fenner, D. & Banks, K. Coral Reefs (2004) 23: 505. doi:10.1007/s00338-004-0422-x


InvasionFloridaCurrentsTubastraeaWreckDiademaFlower Garden Banks


The azooxanthellate scleractinian coral Tubastraea coccinea has recently been reported to have invaded the Gulf of Mexico (Fenner 2001) and Brazil (Castro and Pires 2001; Ferreira 2003; Figueira de Paula and Creed 2004). It may have been spreading in the Caribbean since it was reported there by Vaughan and Wells (1943), based on material from Curaçao and Puerto Rico, and may even have been introduced into the Caribbean from the Pacific (Cairns 2000; Humann and DeLoach 2002, p. 164). No Caribbean fossils of this species are known (Cairns 1999). Most Caribbean reef building corals (88%) were described before T. coccinea was reported from the Caribbean in 1943, with the median date of description being 116 years earlier. All other genera had been found in the Caribbean before Tubastraea, the last having been found 75 years before Tubastraea was found. The type locality of T. coccinea is Bora Bora, date 1829. Its range includes most or all of the tropical Indo-Pacific (Cairns 2000). Alternatively, it may have come from the Cape Verde Islands or Gulf of Guinea in the eastern Atlantic, where it is also known (Laborel 1974; Cairns 2000). It has not been reported from Florida (Wheaton and Jaap 1988; Jaap and Hallock 1990; Cairns 2000; Fenner 2001; Dawson 2002; see also, and in the Gulf of Mexico it has only been reported from oil platforms (Fenner 2001). It is reported here for the first time in Florida and the Flower Garden Banks of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico.

Results and discussion

T. coccinea was first observed on October 20, 2001 by one of us (KB) on the steel tugboat “Donal G. McAllister,” which was placed as an artificial reef at 21-m depth about 2.2 km offshore from Hollywood, Florida. A single orange-red colony, about 6-cm diameter was observed on April 18, 2002, growing on the outside of the cabin facing south at 16-m depth. Subsequently, numerous colonies were discovered on 12 other sites in southern Florida: nine other ships, one set of oil rig jackets, a floating dock, and a limestone boulder reef (Table 1). Many colonies were on the hulls of the ships, in shaded areas. The coral was abundant on all four wrecks that were examined for abundance: RSB-1, Tenneco, Jay Scutti, and Capt. Dan (colonies were not counted). The only non-shipwreck or dock sighting of T. coccinea was a single colony on limestone boulders (Port of Miami Mitigation Reef, Tim Mcintosh, personal communication). These boulders came from upland quarries so the coral colony must have recruited recently. The largest colonies observed on the artificial reefs were about 6-cm diameter. A colony that was collected was identified by Steven Cairns as T. coccinea. The date at which T. coccinea first settled on these structures has not been determined. Although growth rates have not been reported in this species, aquarium observations suggest they may reach a diameter of 5 cm in about one year, and growth may slow in adults as energy is put into reproduction with maximum sizes reached of about 10–15-cm diameter (Julian Sprung and Daniela Stettler, personal communication). The oil rig jackets were transported to Florida on barges, making the survival of any T. coccinea previously living on them unlikely though perhaps not impossible (if parts were immersed in water in the barge hull). Colonies on the hulls of ships could have arrived with the ships. Surprisingly, no colonies have been found on the first artificial reef, the Mercedes, sunk in March 1985.
Table 1

Florida Artificial Reefs with Tubastrea coccinea





Date deployed

Donal G McAllister


21 m

26°00.548’ N, 80°05.650’ W


Princess Anne


27 m

26°47.608’ N, 80°00.260’ W


Tenneco Towers

Oil rig jackets

32 m

25°58.952’ N, 80°05.100’ W




33 m

25°49.252’ N, 80°05.087’ W


Rodeo 25


37 m

26°13.878’ N, 80°03.813’ W


Jay Scutti


20 m

26°09.520’ N, 80°04.760’ W




35 m

26°13.642’ N, 80°03.896’ W


Capt. Dan


33 m

26°13.857’ N, 80°03.960’ W


Ancient Mariner


21 m

26°18.117’ N, 80°03.745’ W




36 m

24°59.388’ N, 80°22.888’ W




8 m

24°37.391’ N, 81°58.912’ W

About 1962

Palm Beach Inlet

Floating dock

1 m

26°47.610’ N, 80°02.690’ W


Port of Miami Mitigation Reef

Limestone boulders

11 m

25°44.894’ N, 80°05.683’ W


T. coccinea was first observed on the wreck of the Duane off Key Largo by J. Sprung about 1999. Colonies’ Were already numerous on it at that time. Colonies about 5–10 cm diameter are now common on vertical surfaces. This 100-m long steel ship’ W’ Which was sunk in 1987, sits in water about 36-m deep with its top deck at about 30-m depth. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) website page (, last updated January 1, 2000, lists “Cup Coral” ( T. coccinea) as being on the Duane. The FKNMS website also reports Cup Coral on another wreck, the Amesbury (, last updated January 1, 2000). The Amesbury is located 8 km west of Key West in 8 m of water. J. Sprung also observed one colony of about the same size on the underside of a floating dock next to the seawall inside Palm Beach Inlet.

T. coccinea was observed on the East Flower Garden Bank of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico by H. Lydersen-Bulman on August 28, 2002. A single colony about 15-cm diameter was photographed at about 26-m depth. T. coccinea was also observed on natural reef ledges at about 10-m depth at Fowl Cay Preserve (26°38.229 N 77° 02.310 W) north of Man of War Cay, Abaco, Bahamas, by KB in August of 2000, and abundant colonies were found in caverns off the north end of Guana Cay, Abaco (26°42.22 N 77°09.17 W) in 2003.

T. coccinea has now been reported to have invaded the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil, and Florida. This is consistent with the proposal that it has been expanding its range in the Caribbean, and was originally introduced into the Caribbean from the Indo-Pacific (Cairns 2000) or perhaps the eastern Atlantic. It has been observed on boat hulls in the Caribbean, where transport on boats was suggested as a mode of dispersal (Cairns 2000), and observed on ships in Brazil (Ferreira 2003, Ferreira et al. 2004). The dispersal route into the Gulf of Mexico was not identified, though most likely it reached airplane wrecks in the Caribbean by larval dispersal (Fenner 2001). It was first seen in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico in 1977, western Gulf in 1985, Texas in the northwestern Gulf in 1991, and Louisiana in the northern Gulf in 1994, so larvae may have drifted with currents clockwise along the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico (Fig. 1). The relatively recent invasion of Florida by T. coccinea could have occurred by transport on the hulls of one or more of the ship wrecks it now grows on, or it could have arrived as larvae on currents from the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean. The maps of Roberts (1997) show that larvae could have reached Florida from western Cuba in 1 month, and from Cozumel in 2 months. Dispersal to Brazil was by mobile oil drilling platforms (Castro and Pires 2001; Ferreira 2003; Figueira de Paula and Creed 2004). Mobile platforms could also have contributed to dispersal to the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas platforms, but that appears less likely in Florida. A second species in the genus, Tubastraea taguensis , has recently been reported to have invaded Brazil as well, and is easily distinguished in the field by its yellow color (Figueira de Paula and Creed 2004). In Brazil, both species of Tubastraea have invaded reefs, while in Florida only T. coccinea has been found. One colony has now been found on the East Flower Garden Bank, so it is now invading the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, most likely from nearby oil and gas platforms. Since it has been in the western and southern Gulf longer than in the northern Gulf, it is likely that it is already on reefs in the southern and western Gulf. It has now been found on a limestone boulder artificial reef in southeast Florida, so it is likely that it will soon be found on reefs in Florida, and reach Bermuda. Artificial structures are clearly preferred habitat, since in each area they are found first on artificial structures, and are prolific on some artificial structures in the Caribbean, Gulf, and Florida. There are no reports yet of the ecological effects of these invaders.
Fig. 1

Possible routes of the spread of Tubastraea coccinea in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Florida. Year of the earliest report in different areas is shown, along with possible routes of spread, based on dates and current paths. Small arrows present the generalized current paths in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Florida. Current paths taken from the Ocean Currents website (, Roberts 1997, and Gittings et al. 1992

The pattern of the spread of T. coccinea in the Western Atlantic is very similar to the pattern of spread of the die-off of the urchin Diadema antillarum in 1983–1984. The urchin die-off began in Caribbean Panama, and spread rapidly with the currents to the north and into the Gulf of Mexico and to Florida. The die-off also moved eastward from Panama and Florida to the eastern Caribbean. Lessios et al. (1984) reported that it was carried eastward by an eastward-flowing current along the northern shore of South America. Roberts (1997) reports that there are weak nearshore counter currents along most coastlines in the Caribbean. The die-off spread throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and to Florida and Bermuda all within 1 year (Lessios et al. 1984; Lessios 1988). In contrast, T. coccinea has required about 60 years to spread throughout the Caribbean and Gulf and reach Florida. Presumably this is because the time between infection of the urchins by the microbe and the subsequent release of large numbers of new microbes was probably only a few days (Bauer and Agerfer 1987), while the time from the settling of T. coccinea larvae until colonies can release larvae is probably a few years. Observations in aquaria suggest that larval release begins at about 18 months age (D. Stettler, personal communication). If T. coccinea requires about 18 months to begin releasing larvae, and it took 60 times as long for it to spread across the Western Atlantic as the urchin die-off, dividing 18 months by 60 might give an estimate of the time required for the microbe to be released from infected urchins. The resulting 9 days appears to at least be the right order of magnitude, which is consistent with the view that the time to release propagules is a controlling factor in the rate of spread. Transportation on boat hulls has the potential to have spread the coral through this area in much less than 60 years, and would likely produce a pattern that would follow shipping routes instead of current paths. The first known locations were Puerto Rico and Curacao. Dispersal by current from one of these to the other appears unlikely. However, Puerto Rico was a major coaling station and shipping port. T. coccinea might have been brought there first by a ship and carried on to Curaçao before subsequent dispersal by currents.


We would like to thank Pamela Fletcher, Keith Mille, Tim McIntosh, Janet Phipps, Rhett Butler, Julian Sprung, and Tim Mcintosh for observations of T. coccinea in Florida, and Emma Hickerson for observations of T. coccinea discovered by Heidi Lydersen-Bulman on the East Flower Garden Bank. We thank Rhett Butler for collecting the coral sample, and Daniela Stettler for aquarium observations.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004