Heterotrophy in tropical scleractinian corals

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2009 Feb;84(1):1-17. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2008.00058.x. Epub 2008 Nov 22.


The dual character of corals, that they are both auto- and heterotrophs, was recognized early in the twentieth Century. It is generally accepted that the symbiotic association between corals and their endosymbiotic algae (called zooxanthellae) is fundamental to the development of coral reefs in oligotrophic tropical oceans because zooxanthellae transfer the major part of their photosynthates to the coral host (autotrophic nutrition). However, numerous studies have confirmed that many species of corals are also active heterotrophs, ingesting organisms ranging from bacteria to mesozooplankton. Heterotrophy accounts for between 0 and 66% of the fixed carbon incorporated into coral skeletons and can meet from 15 to 35% of daily metabolic requirements in healthy corals and up to 100% in bleached corals. Apart from this carbon input, feeding is likely to be important to most scleractinian corals, since nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients that cannot be supplied from photosynthesis by the coral's symbiotic algae must come from zooplankton capture, particulate matter or dissolved compounds. A recent study showed that during bleaching events some coral species, by increasing their feeding rates, are able to maintain and restore energy reserves. This review assesses the importance and effects of heterotrophy in tropical scleractinian corals. We first provide background information on the different food sources (from dissolved organic matter to meso- and macrozooplankton). We then consider the nutritional inputs of feeding. Finally, we review feeding effects on the different physiological parameters of corals (tissue composition, photosynthesis and skeletal growth).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization
  • Animals
  • Anthozoa / physiology*
  • Carbon / metabolism
  • Ecosystem
  • Eukaryota / physiology*
  • Nitrogen / metabolism
  • Nutritional Requirements
  • Phosphorus / metabolism
  • Species Specificity
  • Stress, Physiological
  • Symbiosis
  • Tropical Climate
  • Zooplankton / physiology*


  • Phosphorus
  • Carbon
  • Nitrogen