Mushroom Coral
(Heliofungia actiniformis)
Unlike most Scleractinian corals, adult polyps of Heliofungia are solitary and free living. This means that the polyps, which may reach around 21cm across are not actually attached to substrate but are mobile. The appearance of these polyps is also distinctive. Adult specimens possess a thick, disc like morphology with a single central mouth. The soft tissue surrounding this mouth, known as the oral disc, is striped and colourful. Moreover, the polyp is adorned with a large number of long tubular tentacles, each of which possesses a swollen, alternatively coloured tip. These tentacles catch small morsels of food such as zooplankton or small fish and guide them towards the polyp’s central mouth. The morphology of this species makes it a suitable home for many reef species such as the popcorn shrimp. Unfortunately, it is also attractive to those in the live coral trade, through which it is heavily exploited.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Heliofungia actiniformis is receiving conservation attention as part of an EDGE Fellowship project.
A widespread species found across the Indo-Pacific including Sri Lanka, Japan and Australia.

A single polyp of Heliofungia actiniformis has been found to simultaneously support 3 shrimp species in symbiotic relationships.
Associated Blog Posts
4th Jun 14
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13th Jul 12
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25th Feb 11
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Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Scleractinia
Family: Fungiidae
The Fungiidae are a highly distinct coral family consisting of 13 coral genera. This family is distinct in many aspects ranging from their biogeography to their taxonomy. Furthermore Heliofungia actiniformis itself is distinct within its family. As a monospecific species, it is the sole representative of its genus. This species shares a close evolutionary relatedness to just one other species.

Polyps reach 21cm in diameter.
As juveniles, polyps of Heliofungia are vase shaped and are attached to substrate though a mushroom like stalk.

As adults the polyps develop a disc shaped morphology and break away from their stalk to become free living organisms. These free living polyps may reach 21cm in size and are particularly conspicuous. The oral disc, which in this species composes the majority of the polyp, possesses a stripy surface pattern the colour of which may be anything from pale blue to grey to dark green. Each polyp also possesses a large number of long tubular tentacles. These tentacles may vary in colour from the main coral body with tips that are slightly enlarged and brightly coloured, perhaps yellow, pink or white. Each polyp has just one central mouth for feeding; about 3cm long.
Heliofungia is a solitary, Scleractinian coral. As this species is free living, the skeleton of dead specimens does not typically contribute to the growth of reef systems as do colonial coral species.

Other free living corals in the family have been shown to relocate as a response to contact with toxic sponges. Such a flight response is important in solitary corals as these are more likely to come into contact with competing organisms. It is hypothesized that polyp inflation is the mechanism through which motile corals travel.

As with all zooxanthellate coral, this species obtains much of its energy requirements through a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae (zooxanthellae). Additionally, this coral obtains energy through predation and scavenging food from the water column. Small stinging cells on the surface of the mantle allow this coral to immobilize and collect microscopic prey such as zooplankton but also larger prey such as damselfish.

Polyps of Heliofungia are gonochoric brooders. This means that they produce either male (sperm) or female (egg) gametes and that fertilization occurs internally, allowing the release of developed larvae. This species, like all corals, can also develop asexually through a process known as budding.

Heliofungia coral supports many associated species including the colourful Periclimenes kororensis, commonly known as popcorn shrimp and a species of pipefish, Siokunichthys nigrolineatus that live among the coral’s tentacles.

The potential for symbiotic relationships between this coral and other species is particularly high. On a single polyp of Heliofungia actiniformis, three different shrimp species have been shown to live simultaneously by occupying different parts of their host.
Associated Species
Shrimp such as popcorn shrimp (Periclimenes kororensis)

Pipefish (Siokunichthys nigrolineatus)
This species typically inhabits flat terrain and can be found persisting on soft or rubble substrates in reef lagoons and in more turbid, shallow environments. As a free living species, Heliofungia actiniformis is found at a wide range of depths from 1-25m.
A widespread species found across the Indo-Pacific. Mushroom coral polyps have been found from Sri Lanka in the west to New Caledonia in the southeast and Japan in the north.
Population Estimate
No population estimate has been made for this species however it is considered common.
Population Trend
The population of this species is thought to be in decline. Worldwide some 19% of coral cover has already been lost whilst high proportions, particularly in this species range, are under continued threat. A reef at Hainan Island in China for example experienced a rapid 95% decline in size before being designated a marine reserve.
Vulnerable (VU) 2012.2 IUCN Red List
The major threat to Heliofungia actiniformis is that of their harvesting for the aquarium trade, within which they are very popular. Problematically, the species is particularly sensitive to its habitat and thus has a poor captive survival rate. A result of this is that specimens may require frequent replacement.

In 2012 an export quota of 40,000 specimens was set by CITES for Indonesia, the only country permitted to trade the species. This number, although still exceptionally high, has dropped from an allowance of 54,000 specimens in 2000. A matter of concern is that these quotas are not set as a response to scientific data and as such it is not known whether such extensive trade is adversely impacting the species population as a whole. Moreover, free living species such as this are easy to extract from reefs and it is likely that a large number of specimens are traded unbeknown to CITES enforcers.

Overall it is estimate that 11-12 million live pieces of coral are exported every year.

The natural range of this species also pre-determines the localized threats to which it will be exposed. Southeast Asia, a significant portion of this species range, is home to the most threatened reefs in the world including exposure to sedimentation and destructive fishing.

There is a wealth of additional threats which likely impact this species to some extent. These additional threats to corals can be viewed here.

Conservation Underway
Like all corals Heliofungia actiniformis is protected by CITES regulations which regulate the export of coral. Currently Indonesia is the only country legally allowed to export Heliofungia actiniformis.

There are no other species specific conservation measures in place for Heliofungia actiniformis but there are Marine Protected Areas and programmes that promote the conservation of coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific where this species is found. For instance, re-zoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia in 2004 to include more no-take areas had the additional benefit of reducing the number of Crown-of-Thorn starfish outbreaks, a predator of coral, in the region. Strong surveillance and enforcement of the Great Barrier Reef MPA has improved the effectiveness of the marine reserve at conserving coral reefs and provides a good example for other MPAs to follow.

An ambitious conservation measure, the Coral Triangle Initiative has been set up to conserve coral reefs in the Coral Triangle which includes countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Solomon Islands. Activities include securing sustainable funding and encouraging integrated initiatives for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

The Green Fins Programme, established by the UNEP Coordinating Body for the Seas of East Asia, directly addresses the impacts of the diving and snorkeling industry in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. This programme is aimed at encouraging environmentally friendly practices in the diving community.

Moreover, Heliofungia actiniformis is a focal species within the EDGE Fellowship programme. A project initiated by EDGE fellow Gregorio Rosa of the Philippines is developing a conservation action plan specifically for this species in the Polillo Islands, Luzon.

This project supports in-country EDGE Fellows to help conserve relevant EDGE species

The project will develop and implement a conservation action plan for the mushroom coral (Heliofungia actiniformis), in the Polillo Islands in Luzon. This will act as a flagship for broader marine conservation action, including community and local government engagement and capacity building, as well as the implementation of coastal marine resource management plans.

Conservation Proposed
With no proposed conservation measures, the species would benefit from further research into all aspects of its ecology, therefore allowing for scientifically informed conservation proposals.

As a solitary and free living species, Heliofungia actiniformis is often found outside of traditionally protected reef habitats and therefore may miss out on the conservation protection offered within many marine protected areas. Important research is required to quantify the number of coral species that fall outside these traditional reserves so that a more representative range of habitats can be protected in the future.

More must also be done to curb global emissions of greenhouse gases in order to prevent global warming and ocean acidification.

Finally, having timely access to trade analysis reports will allow for more effective monitoring of the species and allow for quicker responses to threats as well as implementation of relevant management policies both for the species specifically and within protected areas.
Associated EDGE Community members

Marine and freshwater programme coordinator at ZSL with a passion for mangroves and corals

Works with local governments, academia, community-based organizations and NGOs in marine conservation.

Working on EDGE Coral Species in Southern Leyte, Philippines


Burke, L et al. 2011. Reefs at Risk Revisited. World Resources Institute. Washington DC.

CITES national export quotas for 2000-2012. Accessed < > 17th December 2012.

Hoeksema, B. W. and de Voogd, N. J. 2012. On the run: free-living mushroom corals avoiding interaction with sponges. Journal of the international Society for Reef Studies. 31 (2): 455-459.

Hoeksema, B. W. and Fransen, C. H. J. M. 2011. Space partitioning by shrimp species cohabiting in the mushroom coral Heliofungia actiniformis at Semporna, eastern Sabah. Coral Reefs. 30(2): 519.

Hoeksema, B., Rogers, A. & Quibilan, M. 2008. Heliofungia actiniformis. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. <>. Downloaded on 04 January 2013.

Knittweis, L. et al. 2009. Population dynamics of the mushroom coral Heliofungia actiniformis in the Spermonde Archipelago, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Coral Reefs28:793-804.

Knittweis, L. and Wolff, M. 2010. Live coral trade impacts on the mushroom coralHeliofungia actiniformis in Indonesia: Potential future management approaches. Biol Conserv 143:2722-2729. 

Knittweis, L. et al. 2009. Genetic structure of Heliofungia actiniformis (Scleractinia: Fungiidae) populations in the Indo-Malay Archipelago: implications for live coral trade management efforts. Conserv Genet 10:241-249.

Sisson, R. F.1973. Life Cycle of a Coral. National Geographic, Vol 143 No. 6: 780-793

Veron J.E.N. 2000. Corals of the World. Volume 2. Townsville. Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Wabnitz, C. et al. 2003. From ocean to aquarium. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge, UK.

Wilkinson, C. 2008. Status of coral reefs of the world: 2008. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and Center, Townsville, Australia.

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