Types of coral reefs

Most reef scientists generally recognize three MAJOR types of coral reefs: Fringing ReefsBarrier Reefs, and Atolls.

The traditional and most widely recognized basis for differentiating these reef types is large-scale reef morphology; the size and shape of a reef, and its relation to nearby land (if any). This is usually (but not always) sufficient to clearly distinguish one type from the others.

Nonetheless, there is often a great deal of overlap among the major reef types (within a given biogeographic region) in terms of the dominant groups of animals and plants, as well as their ecological interactions.

Fringing Reefs (Shore Reefs)

Fringing reefs are reefs that grow directly from a shore, with no “true” lagoon (i.e., deep water channel) between the reef and the nearby land. However, there often are areas of shallow intertidal or sub-tidal sand bottom lying between the beach and the inshore edge of coral growth.

The fringing reef is by far the most common of the three major types of coral reefs, with numerous examples in all major regions of coral reef development.

Without an intervening lagoon to effectively buffer freshwater runoff, pollution, and sedimentation, fringing reefs tend to particularly sensitive to these forms of human impact. Thus, it is no surprise then that increasing human populations in coastal areas – and the accompanying increases in coastal development and intensive agriculture – have resulted in the decimation of fringing reefs throuout the world in recent years.

Barrier Reefs

WHAT IS A “LAGOON”? – A lagoon – as used in the context of coral reef typology – refers to a comparatively wide band of water that lies between the shore and the main area of reef development, and contains at least some deep portions.

Barrier reefs are far less common than fringing reefs or atolls, although examples can be found in the tropical Atlantic as well as the Pacific.

The 1200-mile long Great Barrier Reef off the NE coast of Australia is the world’s largest example of this reef type. The GBR is not actually a single reef as the name implies, but rather a very large complex consisting of many reefs.

The second largest Indo-Pacific barrier reef lies off New Caledonia’s NE coast – it is some 400 miles long with a lagoon 1-8 miles wide. Another large barrier reef extends for nearly 170 miles to the north of Fiji and Vanua Levu.

This reef type is even rarer in the Caribbean region, where only 2 true barrier reefs are found. The largest of these runs off the coast of Belize, and the other off the north coast of the island of Providencia (east of Nicaragua).

Classic barrier reef morphology


An atoll is a roughly circular (annular) oceanic reef system surrounding a large (and often deep) central lagoon.

In the South Pacific, most atolls occur in mid-ocean. Examples of this reef type are common in French Polynesia, the Caroline and Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and the Cook Islands.

The Indian Ocean also contains numerous atoll formations. Examples are found in the Maldive and Chagos island groups, the Seychelles, and in the Cocos Island group.

In contrast, atolls are relatively rare in the Caribbean. Published counts range from 10-27, depending upon who is doing the classification.

The far greater number of atolls in the Indo-Pacific region of coral reef development – as opposed the Greater Caribbean region – can be mainly attributed to the far greater size of the former region along with its unique geomorphology, which is far more conducive to volcanic island formation and subsequent subsidence (see below).

Indo-Pacific atolls

A Caveat on Reef Typology

Readers should be aware that identifying major reef types may not always be quite as simple as the above discussion may suggest. Some reefs seem to be intermediate versions that defy any simple “either or” classification scheme.

This is especially true in the Caribbean region, where some of the fringing reefs are separated from shore by open waters that may reach 6-8m in depth and extend a kilometer or more from shore. Are these fringing reefs, barrier reefs, or something else?

The answers to such questions depend on who you ask, but don’t let that bother you. Such issues are common in science when our human classification schemes simply fail to account for the seemingly infinite variability found in nature.

BEWARE THE OLD “FRINGING TO BARRIER REEF” PLOY. In the never-ending quest for Caribbean tourist dollars, it has become fashionable in recent years for local authorities to re-brand some of the larger fringing reefs of the region as “barrier reefs”. After all, why go diving or snorkeling on a “regular” reef when you can – for the same price – visit a (gasp!) BARRIER reef?

Development Of Major Reef Types

The basic coral reef classification scheme described above was first proposed by Charles Darwin, and is still widely used today.

Darwin spent most of his coral reef explorations in the Indo-Pacific region, and viewed the three types of coral reefs he described as simply different stages in the geological ‘evolution” of Pacific oceanic islands.

Darwin theorized that fringing reefs began to grow near the shorelines of new islands as ecological conditions became ideal for hard coral growth.

Then, as the island began to gradually subside into the sea, the coral was able to keep pace in terms of growth and remained in place at the sea surface, but farther from shore; it was now a barrier reef.

Eventually, the island disappeared below the sea surface, leaving only the ring of coral encircling the central lagoon; an atoll had formed (see right).

Darwin’s general “reef evolution” theory was finally verified for Indo-Pacific reefs in the early 1950s after analyses of the results of deep core drilling at Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls.

However, it has also now become apparent that each of the three major types of coral reefs (described above) is often also formed by quite different geomorphic processes as well. The atoll-like Bahama Banks are a prime example of such alternate forms of reef development.

The evolution of main types of coral reefs, as first proposed by Charles Darwin

A Note On Patch Reefs

The term “patch reef” is commonly used to refer to comparatively small, isolated outcrops of coral surrounded by sand and/or seagrass (see photo, below).

While patch reefs have sometimes been described as a fourth “coral reef type”, such comparisons are clearly not appropriate.

Rather, patch reefs are more properly considered regular microscale reef features of all three of the macroscale reef types first described by Darwin – fringing reefs, atolls and barrier reefs.

In the sense that Darwin described coral reefs – the same reef classification system widely in use today – patch reefs are not remotely comparable to the major coral reef types, and should not be confused with them.

patch reefs

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