Each of the polyps which form the structure has eight tentacles, which catch plankton and particulate matter, which is then consumed. This process, called filter feeding, is facilitated when the ‘fan’ is oriented across the prevailing current to maximize water flow to the gorgonian and hence food supply. Most are nocturnal, only extending their polyps during the nighttime hours.
Some gorgonians contain algae, or zooxanthellae. This symbiotic relationship assists in giving the gorgonian nutrition via photosynthesis, producing organic compounds that the polyps require. Gorgonians possessing zooxanthellae are usually characterized by brownish polyps. This food source enables the corals to grow faster than they otherwise would; lacking this additional nutrition, they are more dependent on what they derive from filter feeding. Too, those without zooxantellae usually have more brightly colored polyps, with purple, red, and yellow predominating.
There are roughly 500 different species, found primarily in the shallow waters of the Atlantic near Florida, Bermuda, and the West Indies, though some have been found at depths of several thousand feet. The size, shape, and appearance of the gorgonians are highly correlated with their location. The more fan-shaped and flexible gorgonians tend to populate shallower areas with strong currents, while the ‘whips’ can be found in deeper, calmer waters.
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