Coral reefs are the most diverse and beautiful of all marine habitats. Large wave resistant structures have accumulated from the slow growth of corals. The development of these structures is aided by algae that are symbiotic with reef-building corals, known as zooxanthellae. Coralline algae, sponges, and other organisms, combined with a number of cementation processes also contribute to reef growth.

The dominant organisms are known as framework builders, because they provide the matrix for the growing reef. Corals and coralline algae precipitate calcium carbonate, whereas the framework- building sponges may also precipitate silica. Most of these organisms are colonial, and the slow process of precipitation moves the living surface layer of the reef upward and seaward.

The reef is topographically complex. Much like a rain forest, it has many strata and areas of strong shade, cast by the overtowering coral colonies. Because of the complexity, thousands of species of fish and invertebrates live in association with reefs, which are by far our richest marine habitats. In Caribbean reefs, for example, several hundred species of colonial invertebrates can be found living on the undersides of platy corals. It is not unusual for a reef to have several hundred species of snails, sixty species of corals, and several hundred species of fish. Of all ocean habitats, reefs seem to have the greatest development of complex symbiotic associations.