Water Quality/Marine and Estuary Macroorganism List

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This page lists the Marine and Estuary indicator organisms on the Water Quality macroorganism list in the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons. These organisms are broken up into three categories: organisms found in Indo-Pacific region only, organisms found in Atlantic region only, and organisms found everywhere.

Example table:

Importance as Indicators Ecology Life Cycle Feeding Habits Extra Information
Things that are shown about the quality of water by the presence or absence of the organism General ecology information Information about immature and adult forms of organism (Carnivore/Herbivore/Omnivore)-more information important information about organism not listed in other charts. Not required for all organisms

Marine and Estuary Species

Banded Coral Shrimp (Stenopus hispidus)

Importance as Indicators Ecology Life Cycle Feeding Habits Extra Information
Indicator organism for aquarium fish collecting. The banded coral shrimp removes/consumes rejected food particles from certain organisms with its 3 pairs of claws. Lives below the intertidal zone (up to 210 m or 690 ft). Cleaner shrimp advertise to fish by slowly waving its white antennas. Antennas are also used to help navigate in the nighttime. Uses its three pairs of claws to remove parasites, fungi, and damaged tissue from the fish. Monogamous organism. 9 larval stages, eggs hatch after 16 days of laying. The male form of the banded coral shrimp is larger than the female (sexual dimorphism).

Has a hard exoskeleton made of chiton. In order to increase their size they must replace their confining exoskeleton with a larger one and grow to fill in it. 4 main stages: Ecdysis, Proecdysis, Metedysis, Anecdysis. The cycles of molting occur about every 16 days in 26-30 degrees Celsius and are very important for mating purposes because mating can only occur when the female is vulnerable in the ecdysis period.

5 steps to Reproduction:

  1. Antennule contact: Male to female antennae contact and waving of each other’s claws.
  2. Erection of the female body: the female turns around and raises its abdomen.
  3. Grasping: the male approaches the female with its abdomen raised and holds the female against him.
  4. Mating: the male turns himself 180 degrees to the female so his head is at the females tail still remaining abdomen to abdomen.
  5. Spawning: The male leaves and the female begins to spawn 10 to 15 minutes after the mating. The eggs appear as a greenish mass and are placed on the swimmerets underneath the female’s abdomen and hatch 16 days later at night. After the hatching of the eggs, the larvae remain attached to the female for some weeks and then become planktonic, undergoing seven metamorphosis in order to become an adult.

An adult S. hispidus does not seem to have any natural predators and the symbiotic between the shrimp and the reef community is highly developed to a point where the shrimp can safely enter the mouth and gills of a fish without being eaten.

Primarily a carnivore; eats invertebrates such as zooplankton along with the things cleaned off organisms.

Symbiotic relationship between host for cleanliness and shrimp for food. Similar to other cleaner shrimps, S. hispidus relies heavily on their host for food but can be omnivorous to a certain degree. In order to obtain food, the shrimp has to make it obvious that it is working for it by cleaning its host. One way of doing this is by performing a dancing behavior where it stands in a visible spot on the reef near its home and whips its antenna while swaying side to side. This serves as a signal to let hosts like fish know that their station is open to be fed/cleansed. The host signals back to the shrimp (e.g flashing colors).

Life expectancy: 2 to 3 years

Crown of Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci)

Importance as Indicators Ecology Life Cycle Feeding Habits Extra Information
The crown of thorns starfish is an indicator for overfishing. Helpful to reef health because it eats fast growing coral (slower growing can compete). Hurtful to reef health because infestations can cause major reef damage. Not territorial. Uses toxins called asterosaponins to protect self.

The starfish preys on coral by digesting the surface of living tissue from the coral system. These skeletons persist, together with the mass of coralline algae that is essential for reef integrity. The loss of the veneer of living coral tissue comes from the first order effect.

Releases chemicals and spawns. Eggs develop into planktonic larvae which eat larvae when going through three stages. larvae settle on a hard surface and morphs into a juvenile starfish.

Embryonic development begins about 1.5 hours after fertilization. The embryo is later hatched and develops as a ciliated gastrula stage.The larvae stage continues from there all the way to the late brachiolaria stage. In the late brachiolaria stage, brachiolaria arms can be seen. Further into development and growth, the late brachiolaria starts to undergo metamorphosis and initially becomes a 5-armed juvenile starfish. After this, early juvenile starfish can be seen feeding on algae and form a full set of arms and madreporites. Within 5-7 months of juvenile growth, the starfish is able to feed off of hard corals with small polyps. Rapid sexual maturity occurs leading to the end of the second year. Gonad development occurs rapidly and developmental growth tends to decline after 4 years. Senile = aging

Eat a lot of coral. A. planci indiscriminately feeds off of coral reefs, harming the distribution of coral species and colony sizes, thus ruining the aquatic ecosystem.

COTS can consume live coral at a rate of 5-13 m^2/year. COTS may eat sponges, hard and soft corals, algae, and encrusting organisms. Feeding preferences and behavior patterns vary with population density, water motion, and species composition. They prefer to feed on branching and table corals (e.g. Acropora), which are the same genera that are most vulnerable to coral bleaching.

Preyed on by Triton's Trumpet.

Butterfly Fish (Chaetodon spp)

Importance as Indicators Ecology Life Cycle Feeding Habits Extra Information
The butterfly fish is a marine indicator for overfishing, poison fishing, and aquarium fish collecting. Butterfly fish have bright colors during the day that blend in at night. Some act as cleaner fish. Social species.

Monogamous mating; courtship is long-lasting and quite energetic. Exhibits a unique and interesting mating behavior (male’s beak circles around the rear end of the female). Often found in schools.

Juvenile appearance is different from adults. They are brownish to yellow in color and have a ringed black spot (“false eye”) at the bottom of the dorsal fin used to confuse predators. Adults use visual and tactile cues to flee from predators. Communication is achieved by swimming up and down to attract their partner’s attention.

Pelagic spawners; release buoyant eggs in the water which become part of plankton, floating with the currents before hatching. They go through the tholichthys stage, part of the postlarval fish is covered in large, bony plates. They lose the plates as they mature.

Up to 3,000-4,000 small pelagic eggs can be released and hatched in a day to tholitchtys larvae, where these Fries (baby butterfly fishes) are protected by their developed armored plates. No parental care is given and they become juveniles.

Diurnal; feed on plankton, coral, sea anemones, and small crustaceans.

A benthic foraging predator and can be a carnivore or omnivore. Feeds mostly on tube worms, sea anemones, crustaceans, corals, etc. About 11.5 hours per day are spent in feeding activity; varies if foraging as a pair.

Found in seagrass beds. Lifespan is 7-10 years.

Fleshy Algae

Importance as Indicators Ecology Life Cycle Feeding Habits Extra Information
Fleshy algae is an indicator organism for nutrient pollution. Red algae are extremely important reef building organisms. Green algae contain chlorophyll and favor stressful environments (also contribute to sandy sediment). Brown algae are abundant in temperate seas and are primary producers forming the basis of marine food chains; they provide habitat/refuge for organisms. Fleshy algae are used to monitor nutrient concentration in water. Can contribute to reef degradation (especially during algal blooms).

Seaweeds are macroalgae that are required to live in seawater or brackish water and light sufficient environments to support photosynthesis; some genera seaweeds do not however. Most commonly inhabit the littoral zone (nearshore waters) and within the zone’s rocky shores; not really on sand or shingle.

Occupies various ecological niches. For example, seaweeds are only wetted by the tops of sea spray (influences plant growth and species distribution in coastal ecosystems). Other types of seaweed can live in the deepest of seas (red algae).

Macroalgae are a major food source for a wide variety of herbivores and build the foundation for the basis of the reef food web. They are major reef formers, and they create habitat for invertebrates and vertebrates of ecological and economic importance. They also play a critical role in reef degradation, when abundant corals are often replaced by abundant macroalgae. This can result in pollution from excess nutrients and sediments caused by algal blooms. This increased macroalgae on a coral reef is often undesirable, although this depends on the type of algae.

Primary productivity is the overall amount of organic matter that is made through photosynthesis and produced in the ecosystem. The mutualistic relationship between planktonic microalgae and zooxanthellae contribute to coral reef and overall reef productivity (corals provide protection for microscopic organisms and in return corals obtain nutrients).

Nitrogen Fixation is the process by which atmospheric (inorganic) nitrogen is converted (fixed) into organically available nitrogen, usually by blue-green algae. Much of the organic nitrogen in coral reefs is fixed by filamentous blue-green algae, which are common components of algal turf communities. These blue-green algae have rapid growth rates, but are intensely grazed, so that the fixed nitrogen is rapidly distributed throughout the reef ecosystem. Rates of nitrogen fixation on the Reef appear high, particularly on substrates exposed to fish grazing.

Construction is contributed by most macroalgae to the reef framework by depositing CaCO3. Crustose calcareous algae (CCA) build and cement the carbonate framework of coral reefs as they bind adjacent substrata and provide a calcified tissue barrier against erosion.

Know "Phase Shift" causes and factors

Gametes -> Fertilization -> Zygote -> Growth development -> Diploid/Haploid stage -> Mitotic divisions occur.

Quite complex; there are various modes of reproduction. Most algae reproduce by releasing sexually or asexually produced games and/or spores. Also, they can reproduce by vegetative spread and/or fragmentation (breaking off of plant pieces to produce new individuals).

Oedogonium is a form of filamentous green algae that is capable of performing various types of reproduction given the surrounding conditions.

Asexual Reproduction: Can occur when the oedogonium fragments and produces zoospores. These zoospores are able to move spontaneously through the water. Once the zoospore is produced, it is released and is free to find a viable substrate where the zoosporic cells can divide and form a new filament of oedogonium.

Sexual Reproduction: Zygote Production can occur when the filament portion of the oedogonium (antheridium), produces and releases sperm. The sperm sinks through the water until it meets with the filament portion of the oedogonium (oogonium (contains a large egg)). Fertilization then may occur to produce a zygote.

Uses photosynthesis to make glucose for food; autotrophs. Plays important roles in the ecology of coral reefs. Sea urchins, parrot fish, and limpets and chitons (both mollusks) feed on coralline algae. none yet!

Grouper; >30 cm (Serranidae)

Importance as Indicators Ecology Life Cycle Feeding Habits Extra Information
Groupers are large apex predators that feel the effects of pollution more pronouncedly than lower-level consumers. They are a good indictor of an area being overfished. Groupers spawn in shallow offshore reefs, then move to progressively deeper reefs as they mature.

They include many of the top-level predators in warm-temperate & tropical ecosystems, associated with deep-water and shallow hardbottom reefs, following pleistocene shorelines of the continental shelf and shelf edge.

Groupers are not long-distance or fast swimmers but rather choose to lie, wait, and ambush their prey with a quick flash of their powerful jaws.

Their relationships with the places they live are so striking in some cases that they appear to be acting as keystone species and ecosystem engineers-- species which by their very presence or behaviors enhance the complexity of the habitat and thus the diversity of the communities within which they live.

Information about immature and adult forms of organism.

Groupers, like many reef fish, spawn offshore on shelf and shelf-edge reefs. Groupers are rarely found in packs or schools, and tend to only group together when it is time to aggregate or reproduce.

Planktonic Larvae: 40-60 days. Their pelagic larvae remain the open ocean for 40-60 days before reaching inshore nursery grounds.

Juveniles inshore: Seagrass beds - 6 months. Once there, they transform into small juveniles, and remain in their nursery habitat for periods that vary from 5-6 months (Gag) to 5 to 6 years (Red Grouper & Goliath Grouper).

Migrate offshore: Long-lived; Slow to mature; Complex social behavior; Spawn in large groups. They then move offshore to join adult populations. As they move from habitat to habitat, each life stage has very different requirements for being successful, occupying different niches relative to their size and their position in a food web, whether they eat plankton, bottom-dwelling crustaceans, or other fish.

Adults spawn offshore: They are slow to mature and have complex social systems that provide cues for sex change. They also exhibit a high degree of site fidelity (loyalty) within their home ranges and to their spawning aggregation sites where they are easy to capture, particularly with the remarkable improvements in navigational gear that allows targeting very discrete locales.

Sex Change

Sex change in groupers is a one-way street, from female to male. For Gag (Mycteroperca microlepis)-- one of the more important species fished in the eastern Gulf of Mexico—the period in which sex change is initiated is brief, occurring only during the late winter or early spring. At other times, males and females are separated, with males staying offshore on spawning sites while females move to shallower water. All of the reproduction in the population takes place in the brief time the sexes co-occur. So do all the cues for sex change. If there are two few males, then dominant females will change sex so that by the following spawning season, more males are available.


This combination of traits make them highly vulnerable to exploitation and habitat loss. There are currently no management plans in effect to adequately protect either their social structure or their nursery habitat. While marine reserves have proved an effective tool for protecting offshore spawning grounds, they have not been applied to nursery habitat which remains vulnerable to the effects of eutrophication, development, and industrial contamination.


Reproduction in groupers is a very unique and interesting process and varies from species to species as well. They are known to be solitary creatures except during the spawning season. During spawning season groupers are well known for aggregating in very large numbers, some reported at 100,000 individuals, at specific areas during the winter full moon. They do this, much like corals do, in order to increase the probabilities of successful mating and to increase the chance of surviving. Males are known to be able to spawn many times during the breeding period; however females on the other hand can only spawn once a year. Recent studies have shown that some groupers tend to be protogynous hermaphrodite, meaning that the majority of juvenile groupers are female and transform into males as they grow larger.


Interestingly enough, after spawning as a female for one or more years a female grouper may be subject to a change of sex and will become a male. At sexual transition, the oocytes degenerate, the spermatogonia proliferate, and the ovary is transformed into a functional testis. This change of sex can also occur by larger female groupers if there is a drastic decline in the amount of large sexually mature male groupers. However one a female has been changed to a male they are unable to change back. This interesting adaptation that has taken place with groupers is one of the many ways that groupers have adapted overtime to ensure that they reproduce and survive.

Apex predators that can be ambush or active. Eat fish, octopuses, and crustaceans. Can engage in group hunting with moray eels. Their gills and jaws can form a suction system that sucks in their prey.

Many species of groupers have also been found following other fish such as moray eels as they forage over the reef, in order to catch the small fishes and crustaceans that are frightened from their hiding places by the eels. Most groupers don’t have teeth in their jaws to rip apart their prey, but instead are equipped with powerful mouths and gills that create a sucking system that pulls prey into their mouth from a long distance. In addition, they have teeth plates inside their pharynx to crush their prey and to prevent them from escaping after being swallowed.

Predators on the prowl for groupers are: barracuda, king mackerel, moray eels, the sandbar shark.

Mature groupers generally feed on a variety of fish, such as parrotfish, wrasses, damselfishes and snappers. In addition mature groupers are also known to prey on octopus, crab, lobster, and crustaceans. Juvenile groupers on the other hand tend to eat plankton, crustaceans, microalgae and other small microorganisms.

Since one of the groupers main prey is parrotfish, this increase in grouper populations has created fewer parrotfish in many areas which has lead to more algae overgrowing the coral reefs. This algae overgrowth leads to the eventual death of the coral reef, which will lead to the eventual extinction of the entire coral ecosystem in that niche.

Often a cause of ciguatera food poisoning when eaten. ID tip: looks like a fish-shaped rock with a frown.

Hard Coral

Importance as Indicators Ecology Life Cycle Feeding Habits Extra Information
Hard Coral Grow in colonies and are the architects of coral reefs. Create skeletons out of calcium carbonate (limestone), a hard substance that eventually becomes rock. Has a symbiotic relationship (mutualistic) with tiny algae called zooxanthellae help hard corals to survive. These skeletons, made from calcium carbonate, protect the coral animals from predators and also offer a substrate on which new coral polyps can attach themselves. The process of growing the skeleton consumes a lot of energy, which is conveniently provided by the algae living in the corals’ tissues. Coral reproductive methods vary according to the species. Some species, such as brain and star corals, are hermaphrodites, meaning they produce both sperm and eggs at the same time. Other corals, such as elkhorn and boulder corals, are gonochoric, meaning that they produce single-sex colonies. In these species, all of the polyps in one colony produce only sperm, and all of the polyps in another colony produce only eggs.

Coral larvae are formed in two different ways. The larvae are either (1) fertilized within the body of a polyp or (2) fertilized outside of the polyp’s body in the water. Fertilization of an egg within the body of a coral polyp is achieved from sperm that is released through the mouth of another polyp. The sperm and egg merge and form a planula larva, which matures inside the body of its mother. When the larva is ready, it gets spit out into the water through the mouth of its mother.

Other species of coral reproduce by ejecting large quantities of eggs and sperm into the surrounding water. When this happens, the eggs and sperm fertilize in the water. This process is called coral spawning. In some areas, mass coral spawning events occur on one particular night per year and scientists can predict exactly when this will happen. Trillions of eggs and sperm are simultaneously released into the water in one of the most astounding acts of synchronicity in the natural world!

Once in the sea, larvae are naturally attracted to the light. They swim to the surface of the ocean, where they remain for days or even weeks. If predators do not eat the larvae during this time, they fall back to the ocean floor and attach themselves to a hard surface. An attached planula metamorphosizes into a coral polyp and begins to grow—dividing itself in half and making exact genetic copies of itself. As more and more polyps are added, a coral colony develops. Eventually the coral colony becomes mature, begins reproducing, and the cycle of life continues.

Most reef-building corals have a unique partnership with tiny algae called zooxanthellae. The algae live within the coral polyps, using sunlight to make sugar for energy. This energy is transferred to the polyp, providing much needed nourishment. In turn, coral polyps provide the algae with carbon dioxide and a protective home.

Corals also eat by catching tiny floating animals called zooplankton. At night, coral polyps come out of their skeletons to feed, stretching their long, stinging tentacles to capture critters that are floating by. Prey are pulled into the polyps’ mouths and digested in their stomachs.

none yet!

Long-Spined Black Sea Urchins (diadema spp)

Importance as Indicators Ecology Life Cycle Feeding Habits Extra Information
The long spines black sea urchin is an indicator for overfishing and nutrient pollution. Found in coral reef ecosystems in the east and west tropical Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This organism lives for 4-8 years. Its life cycle is: fertilized egg->development of tentacles->reproduction->fertilization and gestation in open water. Eats algae and decomposing matter. none yet!

Snapper (lutjanidae)

Importance as Indicators Ecology Life Cycle Feeding Habits Extra Information
Indicator of overfishing and blast fishing. Lives in tropical oceans. one of the most common species is the red snapper. During pelagic stages, eggs and larvae moved by currents for a week to months. When larvae settle at the bottom, they begin their demersal stage and begin juveniles which evolve into adults. A carnivore; eats crustaceans and other fish. none yet!

Parrotfish (Scaridae/Scarinae)

Importance as Indicators Ecology Life Cycle Feeding Habits Extra Information
This organism is an indicator organism for overfishing, blast fishing, poison fishing, and aquarium fish collecting. The parrotfish prevents coral reefs from being overgrown with seaweed and sponges. It also contributes to coral reefs by performing the task of scraping and cleaning inshore coral reefs. It produces coral particles and prevents coral from being smothered This organism is a type of hermaphrodite; it changes it’s sex from female to male in its lifetime. It is a pelagic spawner; it’s buoyant eggs are plankton before settling on coral. They then become juveniles and mature. (Carnivore/Herbivore/Omnivore)-more information important information about organism not listed in other charts. Not required for all organisms

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