Bleaching of reef corals is a phenomenon linked to temperature stress which involves loss of the symbiotic algae of the coral, which are known as zooxanthellae, and/or loss of algal pigments. The photosynthetic efficiency of zooxanthellae within the corals Montastrea annularis, Agaricia lamarki, Agaricia agaricites and Siderastrea radians was examined by pulse-amplitude modulation fluorometry (PAM) during exposure to elevated temperatures (30–36°C). Zooxanthellae within M. annularis and A. lamarki were found to be more sensitive to elevated temperature, virtually complete disruption of photosynthesis being noted during exposure to temperatures of 32 and 34°C. The photosynthetic efficiency of zooxanthellae within S. radians and A. agaricites decreased to a lesser extent. Differences in the loss of algal cells on an aerial basis and in the cellular chlorophyll concentration were also found between these species. By combining the non-invasive PAM technique with whole-cell fluorescence of freshly isolated zooxanthellae, we have identified fundamental differences in the physiology of the symbionts within different species of coral. Zooxanthellae within M. annularis appear to be more susceptible to heat-induced damage at or near the reaction centre of Photosystem II, while zooxanthellae living in S. radians remain capable of dissipating excess excitation energy through non-photochemical pathways, thereby protecting the photosystem from damage during heat exposure.