12 Gorgeous Animals of the Coral Reef

A coral reef filled with clownfish, sea anemone, and red and white corals

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Coral reefs across the globe host the widest variety of living creatures in the ocean, providing sea life with food, homes, and protection from predators. Shallow tropical seas boast some of the world’s most colorful animals. Here are 10 beautiful animals that make their homes in the intricate ecological coral reef system.

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Bartlett's Anthias

A violet and yellow Bartlett's anthias on a reef

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Many fish find solace in the coral reef, but Bartlett's anthias travel in large groups, finding shelter in the branches of coral. Found in the Western Pacific Ocean, all anthias fish start out as female, and some turn into males — but only the most colorful male leads the pack, or harem. Males tend to be more brightly colored, with yellow and violet bodies, while females are yellow and lavender.

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Six golden butterflyfish on a coral reef filled with pink, green, red, and blue corals

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Butterflyfish primarily occur in the shallow, warm tropical waters of the Indian and West Pacific oceans, as well as the Atlantic Ocean and the eastern Pacific. They tend to be bright yellow or white in color, with a false eye spot to ward off predators. Butterflyfish, which form monogamous pairs, have a unique courtship ritual, swimming in circles up close to the surface of the ocean to release eggs and sperm into the water. When the eggs hatch, the young find shelter in the reefs.

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Clown Anemonefish

Three clown anemonefish in a large green sea anemone

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Clown anemonefish are bright orange fish with three white bands. These fish are well known for finding shelter in sea anemone on the ocean’s floor. The two have a symbiotic relationship: The stinging anemones protect the anemonefish, while the fish’s waste provides food for the anemone. Clown anemonefish are found in the warm tropical waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

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A bright orange and white lionfish next to a large orange coral reef

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With its flare of long, venemous fins, the lionfish is an impressive (and beautiful) predator. Although native to the Indo-Pacific, the lionfish has flourished since its introduction to the East Coast of the United States. The lionfish is considered a global invasive species with a negative impact on native species and habitat. They are at the top of the food chain and have few natural predators.

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Yellow Tang

A yellow tang near a purple and white reef

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Found on the reefs in the shallow, subtropical waters in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Japan, the yellow tang shows off its brightest yellow color in the daytime. The only part of the yellow tang that is not yellow is its white spine located on its tail that can be used for defense. At night, the yellow tang’s color dulls to a grayer shade of yellow.

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Harlequin Shrimp

A white and blue spotted harlequin shrimp with an orange face on a reef

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Harlequin shrimp might look tiny, but they are fierce predators of their primary food source: Linckia sea stars. Found in the intertidal region of the Indo-Pacific oceans, these spotted shrimp have flattened front claws and a strong sense of smell. The two-inch long harlequin shrimp live and work in pairs, and can take down even the intimidating crown-of-thorns starfish.

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A bright blue, green, and gold Mandarinfish on an algae-covered reef

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Also known as the Mandarin dragonet, this multicolored fish is so named because of its resemblance to a traditional Imperial Chinese robe. With a native range that includes the western Pacific regions of the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Guinea, these fish tend to feed near the bottom of reefs, so they can be quite elusive. Male mandarinfish are primarily green and orange in color. Due to their lack of scales, mandarinfish are protected by their thick, smelly mucus coating.

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Banded Pipefish

A pair of black and yellow striped banded pipefish on a pink, yellow, and lavender reef

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Found throughout the western Atlantic from Bermuda to Brazil, including the east coast of Florida, banded pipefish are associated with reef, coarse rock, and seagrass habitats. Banded pipefish tend to have black and white rings or bars in shades of yellow, white, and brown. When it comes to parenting, banded pipefish switch roles: the male gives birth after transferring the female's eggs into his pouch. Their long, thin bodies allow them to hide within their reed and reef habitat.

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Moon Jellyfish

Several translucent moon jellyfish floating in bright blue water

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Moon jellyfish, though translucent, look majestic as they capture the light around them. They are found in the warm tropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. They are a valuable part of the food chain in coral seas, eating shrimp, fish eggs, and larvae and, in turn, becoming food for leatherback and other sea turtles. Unfortunately, marine animals looking for food often mistake plastic bags for moon jellies.

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Harlequin Tuskfish

An orange and white4 striped harlequin tuskfish swimming near green seagrass

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Found throughout the outer edges of reef areas in the Indo-Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef, harlequin tuskfish are a bright and colorful fish with blue and orange body stripes and a yellow fin. They are also carnivores, with sharp blue teeth that allow them to easily eat their prey of choice, which includes crustaceans, mollusks, and other fish found in their habitat.

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Moorish Idol

A black, white, and yellow Moorish idol swimming on a coral reef

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With a black and white anterior body and a yellow and black posterior, the Moorish idol is so named for the Moors of Africa, who were said to believe that the fish brought happiness. Moorish idols are widely distributed throughout the subtropical waters of the Indo-Pacific and eastern Pacific oceans. Adults mate for life, and male Moorish idols show aggression toward other males that invade their territory.

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Blue Tang

A bright violet blue tang with a yellow tail swimming on a coral reef

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Blue tang are surgeonfish that inhabit the coral reefs of the Caribeean Sea. Best known as Dory in Finding Nemo, blue tang rely on the coral reef for safety when they are alarmed. Blue tangs range from blue to deep purple in color, with white or yellow fins. They are herbivores and keep the surfaces of coral reefs clean by feasting on the algae that can damage the reef.