The Gorgonian is a modular organism, a colony comprised of a myriad of tiny individual cloned polyps. They can grow to a few meters high and wide, though just a few centimetres thick. There are many brightly coloured Gorgonians, occasionally in shades of red, purple and yellow.
The Gorgonian, known as the sea fan and sea whip, are classified in the Phylum Cnidaria, together with hard corals, jellyfish and anemones; and of the order Alcyonacae, closely related to soft corals. There are over 500 known species of Gorgonians and they are found in all oceans world-wide, from shallow coral reefs to the abyssal planes thousands of meters deep.
The Gorgonian skeletons are formed from a flexible, horny substance called gorgonin, a complex protein. Scientists use measurements of the gorgonin to reconstruct past changes in the earth’s climate.
The Gorgonia are filter feeder, normally found on the reef crest and slopes, in current-prone sites, fanning the water capturing the smallest of drifting animals and organic matter. Many shallow-water species rely on the photosynthesis products for their diets, derived from micro-algae living symbiotically in their tissue.
The Gorgonians play some important ecological roles, by helping maintaining the water quality in check in providing habitat to a verity of fish and other invertebrates, such as the pictured feather-star clutching on the Gorgonian, getting a better spot in the prey-rich current.
In the last few decades Gorgonians have been prone to different assaults, causing mass mortalities of these marvellous creatures. In the Caribbean Sea, diseases derived from different sources, including sewage and land-based pollution, had been the main cause for the widespread demise of Gorgonians through-out the sea, had impacted greatly the community structure of many coral reefs.
Gorgonians are collected and sold as decorations, further threatening some species due to overexploitation by this market.