Corals are marine invertebrates in class Anthozoa of phylum Cnidaria typically living in compact colonies of many identical individual "polyps". The group includes the important reef builders that inhabit tropical oceans and secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton.
A coral "head" is a colony of myriad genetically identical polyps. Each polyp is a spineless animal typically only a few millimeters in diameter and a few centimeters in length. A set of tentacles surround a central mouth opening. An exoskeleton is excreted near the base. Over many generations, the colony thus creates a large skeleton that is characteristic of the species. Individual heads grow by asexual reproduction of polyps. Corals also breed sexually by spawning: polyps of the same species release gametes simultaneously over a period of one to several nights around a full moon.
Although some corals can catch small fish and plankton, using stinging cells on their tentacles, like those in sea anemone and jellyfish, most corals obtain the majority of their energy and nutrients from photosynthetic unicellular algae called zooxanthellae that live within the coral's tissue. Such corals require sunlight and grow in clear, shallow water, typically at depths shallower than 60 metres (200 ft). Corals can be major contributors to the physical structure of the coral reefs that develop in tropical and subtropical waters, such as the enormous Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Other corals do not have associated algae and can live in much deeper water, with the cold-water genus Lophelia surviving as deep as 3,000 metres (9,800 ft). Examples live on the Darwin Mounds located north-west of Cape Wrath, Scotland. Corals have also been found off the coast of the U.S. in Washington State and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.
In biology, a colony refers to individual organisms of the same species living closely together, usually for mutual benefit, such as stronger defense or the ability to attack bigger prey. Some insects (ants and honey bees, for example) live only in colonies. The Portuguese man o' war is an example of a colony of four different polyp forms.
A colony of single-cell organisms is known as a colonial organism . Colonial organisms were probably the first step toward multicellular organisms via natural selection. The difference between a multicellular organism and a colonial organism is that individual organisms from a colony can, if separated, survive on their own, while cells from a multicellular lifeform (e.g., cells from a brain) cannot. Volvox (technically a coenobium) is an example of the border between these two states.
A bacterial colony is defined as a visible cluster of bacteria growing on the surface of or within a solid medium, presumably cultured from a single cell. Because all organisms within the colony descend from a single ancestor, they are genetically identical (except for mutations that occur at a low, unavoidable frequency, as well as the more likely possibility of contamination). Obtaining such genetically identical organisms (or pure strains) can be useful in many cases; this is done by spreading bacteria on a culture plate and starting a new stock of bacteria from a single colony.