The feeding behaviour of 35 species of Atlantic reef corals was examined in the laboratory and in the field. Observations were made during the day and at night, using freshly hatched brine shrimp nauplii and finely ground, filtered fresh fish as food sources. Three feeding strategies were observed: Group I–feeding by tentacle capture only; Group II–feeding by entanglement with a mucus net or mucus filaments; Group III–feeding by a combination of tentacle capture and mucus filament entanglement. Group I included corals of the families Poritidae and Pocilloporidae which were normally expanded during both day and night. Group II included corals of the family Agaricidae which were normally expanded at night and contracted during the day. Group III included corals of the other families examined which, with the exception of Dendrogyra cylindrus, were normally expanded only at night.
Feeding responses were elicited by both chemical and tactile stimuli. A preparatory feeding posture was assumed in response to chemical stimuli and consisted of horizontal positioning of the tentacles, elevation of the oral disk to form a cone-like mouth, a wide mouth opening and secretion of mucus by the epidermis of the oral disk. Following the assumption of the preparatory feeding posture, food capture and ingestive movements were elicited by tactile stimuli. However, food capture and ingestive movements were also elicited by chemical stimuli alone in those species which were normally contracted during the day.
While expanded corals captured food with their tentacles or with mucus filaments, contracted corals were able to feed by capturing fine particulate matter with mucus filaments only and thus acted as suspension feeders. By a combination of feeding strategies, reef corals were able to feed both day and night and a wide range of potential food ranging from fine particulate matter to large zooplankton was available to them.