by B. N. Sullivan
When is a coral not a coral? When it is a fire coral.
Fire corals (Family: Milleporidae) look like corals, and that's how they came to be called corals, although some biological characteristics related to their life cycle set them apart distinctly from true corals.
Fire corals are reef builders just like true corals. They secrete a calcareous skeleton. They take on a variety of different shapes ranging from lacy branches (like the example in the first photo on this page), to plate-like structures, to crusts that can cover other things growing on the reef, such as sea fans.
Fire corals and true corals do belong to the same phylum (Cnidaria). A characteristic that all Cnidarians have in common are nematocysts.
Nematocysts are tiny structures on the surface tissue of the organism that are used to capture food, and to defend against predators. Nematocysts actually are very cool structures -- one of nature's engineering marvels. They consist of a fine tube, inside of which is a little coiled thread with microscopic barbs on the end. When something touches the end of the nematocyst it fires the barbed thread into whatever has touched it, just like a little harpoon fired from a harpoon gun.
The second photo on this page is an enlarged 1:1 macro shot of fire coral. The little hair-like structures on the surface (called dactylozooids) are armed with the nematocysts. Touching those little hair-like structures triggers the nematocysts to fire. Click on that photo to see an even larger, more magnified version.
The nematocysts of fire corals carry a toxin that is intended to paralyze the minute bits of plankton that are the fire coral's prey. The toxin also causes pain to predators. Divers who touch or even accidentally brush against fire coral, experience a painful sting that burns like all get out -- thus the name fire coral.
Marine biologists who study these kinds of organisms have discovered something that is useful to know. The nematocysts of fire coral (and their first cousins, the hydroids) are de-activated by acids. Thus, it's a very good idea for divers to include in their kits a small container of vinegar when they visit places where they may possibly encounter hydroids or fire coral. A little squirt of vinegar immediately stops the nematocysts that may still be stuck to the skin from firing.
Conversely, fresh water and soapy solutions actually aggravate the nematocysts. The last thing you want to do if you are stung by hydroids or fire coral is to rinse the skin with fresh water. It actually prompts any remaining nematocysts to fire.
If you are ever stung by hydroids or fire coral, you won't forget it. Usually a welt or rash arises immediately and stays for a week or more, burning again every time you take a shower or bath.
For the record, the fire coral in the first image on this page, is Millepora alcicornis, a Caribbean species. It was photographed in the Cayman Islands. The species in the second photo is Millepora dichotoma, photographed in the Red Sea near Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
UPDATE: Here are some more fire coral articles and photos on The Right Blue: