Sea Whip

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Cnidaria
Class: Anthozoa
Order: Gorgonacae
Family: Gorgoniidae
Genus: Leptogorgia
Species: Leptogorgia virgulata

I’ve realized that so far the only corals I have mentioned have been hard corals—reef builders. I will admit, that I like more hard corals than soft, but that doesn’t mean soft corals aren’t worth talking about. Continuing with my Chesapeake Bay theme, I’m going to talk about a native soft coral, the Sea Whip.

Cue the 80s music: “Crack that whip!” “Just whip it!”

The major difference between hard and soft corals is the composition of their bodies. Hard corals have permanent, rigid exoskeletons that house the coral polyps. These structures require large amounts of energy to build, which is why it can take a year for hard corals to grow just an inch, at best. Soft corals, however, lack that rigid calcium carbonate skeleton. Instead, soft corals are mostly made of living tissue that allows the soft corals to assume more creative shapes.

Sea whips, Leptogorgia virgulata, have long, thin branches that can grow up to a meter long. Their coloring can vary from red, to tan or orange, to purple. The polyps are always white, so sea whips look like they’re covered in white fuzz. Most soft corals are more colorful than their harder cousins.

Sea whips are found in reef environments and can tolerate low levels of salinity, so they are most common in nearshore areas that are more influenced by the tide. They range from New York to the Chesapeake Bay and from Florida to Brazil. In the Chesapeake Bay they thrive in the salty waters of the lower section of the bay.

L. virgulata are suspension feeders, so the polyps use their long tentacles to snag plankton and other tiny particles that are suspended in the water. When sea whips are born, the tiny polyps are carried by waves and currents. When they reach adulthood, so to speak, they become sessile meaning they cannot move from the hard substrate they land on. So they rely heavily on water circulation to stir up the water and bring in more plankton and nutrients for them to feed on.

I have yet to see a sea whip while diving, which is something I wish to change. But I wanted to share this soft coral to show that not all corals are found in tropical places, and that corals can be a lot more diverse than we think. And I’m happy to report that as of this writing, the populations of sea whips in the Chesapeake Bay and other monitored areas are considered stable!

Sources and more info:
https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/whip_coral
http://www.dnr.sc.gov/marine/sertc/octocoral%20guide/Leptogorgia_virgulata.htm
https://naturalhistory2.si.edu/smsfp/IRLSpec/Leptog_virgul.htm

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