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Corals are part of a group of animals called Cnidaria (nid-AIR-ee-a), also called Coelenterata (sel-EN-ter-AH-ta), which includes sea anemones, corals, jellyfish, and hydras. All of these animals are soft bodied and have multiple arms or tentacles, with which they grab food from the surrounding sea water. All Cnidaria (including corals) live in water and most are marine animals. The soft, jelly-like body of an individual cnidarian animal is called a polyp.

Coral polyps secrete a rock-like skeleton of calcium carbonate around them. Calcium carbonate is also the dominant consituent of the rock, limestone. Because modern corals live in large colonies, these skeletons can become quite large, sometimes forming reefs. When the polyp dies, its soft tissue decays, but the hard skeleton is left behind. The hard skeleton of ancient corals is what is preserved as a fossil.

All modern corals belong to the order Scleractinia (SCLER-ac-TIN-ee-a). In the past, fossils indicate that there were two other orders of corals, which are now extinct. The order Rugosa was dominated by solitary corals in which each coral polyp had its own skeleton. Rugose means wrinkled or rough, and the outer surfaces of most rugose coral skeletons has a wrinkled appearance. Because some of the solitary rugose corals formed horn-shaped skeletons, they are called horn corals. Some Rugose corals also formed colonies and coral heads. The order Tabulata consisted entirely of groups of coral animals that lived in large colonies with a shared skeleton. These colonial corals grew in mounds, branching shapes, as chain-like shapes, and even in shapes resembling pipe organs.

Both types of corals are abundant in Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, and Mississippian rocks in Kentucky, and are rarely found in Pennsylvanian rocks in Kentucky

Click on the picture to see more information about each of these types of fossil corals in Kentucky

Diorama at Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center
KGS publication "Fossil beds of the Falls of the Ohio."

Perhaps the most famous exposures of fossil corals in the world are the Falls of the Ohio, near Louisville, Kentucky. Millions of solitary and colonial coral fossils can be seen in the rocks exposed in this protected area. The fossil beds are part of Falls of the Ohio State Park in Indiana, although most of the fossil beds are actually in Kentucky, as the Kentucky border extends to the north shore of the Ohio River. Collecting is not allowed at the park, which is also a World Heritage Site and Federally Protected Waterway. The illustration to the left is the cover of a popular publication concerning the fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio, which can be ordered through the Kentucky Geological Survey. Many of the examples used in the types of corals section on this web site are also illustrated in this publication.

Links to other sites

Corals, Reefs:

References for corals:

Chain and organ pipe corals Tabulate branching corals tabulate mound corals Rugose colonial corals Rugose horn corals