A Beautful, Fragile Bryozoan Colony

Lace Bryozoan (Reteporelina denticulata)
Macro photo of a Lace Bryozoan (Reteporelina denticulata)
by B. N. Sullivan

This beautiful marine organism is a colony of Lace Bryozoa (Reteporelina denticulata).  Despite their appearance, Bryozoans are neither a coral nor a plant.  Taxonomically, the Bryozoa form a phylum all their own.  Most of the more than 4,000 species of Bryozoans live in the sea.

The name Bryozoa translates to "moss animal."  The individual animals that make up the colony are microscopic.  This species builds lacy calcareous structures of interconnected branches, made from the mineralized exoskeletons of thousands of tiny individuals.  The macro photo at the top of this page gives a good idea of how intricate and intertwined the branches can be.  It takes the colony of organisms a very long time to build these lovely structures.

The colonies are pretty, yet they are quite brittle and therefore very fragile.  If you come across a Bryozoan colony while diving, be careful not to touch it or bump it. The delicate structures will almost surely break if handled.

Almost all Bryozoans are sessile -- that is, the colonies are attached to some hard substrate like rock or hard coral.  The photo below shows a colony of Reteporelina denticulata growing on a hard coral (Porites lobata).  Once in awhile, a diver may come across a small Bryozoan colony that appears to be growing out of packed sand or mud, but closer inspection will almost certainly reveal that it is in fact attached to a rock or lump of coral rubble that is buried.

The Bryozoan species pictured here is rarely seen at depths of less than about 10 meters, but we have seen them on rocks below 40 meters.  In our experience, larger colonies are found at deeper depths -- perhaps because they are less likely to be disturbed and damaged by surge.

I photographed the Lace Bryozoan colonies shown here off the coast of Puako, Hawaii at depths between 20 and 30 meters.  The colonies pictured here are quite large for the species -- approximately four inches (10 cm) across.

Lace Bryozoan (Reteporelina denticulata)
Lace Bryozoan colony growing on coral in Hawaii

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