Coral Reef Plant Adaptations Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Jennifer Lowery

Jennifer has taught elementary levels K-3 and has master's degrees in elementary education and curriculum/instruction and educational leadership.

Corals are ancient animals that grow in groups called reefs. In this lesson, learn about different plants that live in coral reefs and how those plants have adaptations that help them survive.

Marine Gardens

Did you know that there are large cities in shallow ocean waters? While these aren't cities with skyscrapers and traffic, they are elaborate structures that are full of activity. These cities are reefs created by underwater creatures called coral. The coral reefs are home to many plants that have some pretty cool adaptations, which are characteristics that help the plants survive in sometimes harsh marine environments.


Coral reefs are home to microscopic algae called zooxanthellae (pronounced: zoo-zan-thel-eye). This type of algae lives within the crevices of the reef, and it has a good reason for choosing to live there. Coral exist in shallow waters, which means the algae living in them can be very close to sunlight. And sunlight is an important ingredient in photosynthesis, the process in which plants make their own food.

The cracks and crevices of corals provide a great home for algae and other plants.
sea animal

Corals and zooxanthellae depend on one another. Their relationship is an example of symbiosis, which is when two plants or animals have relationships that benefit both of them. You see, during photosynthesis, oxygen and carbohydrates are produced. This is a goldmine for the corals, because they need both oxygen and carbohydrates to survive. In return, the coral produces ammonia and carbon dioxide, which are gobbled up by the algae. So, because of the relationship, the coral and algae both save a lot of energy. Jackpot!


Seagrasses are other types of plants that find their home in coral reefs. These plants look a lot like regular grass that you might see in your front yard, but they have some special features that enable them to live in marine environments.

This seagrass meadow is located within a coral reef made of staghorn coral.
marine plant

In order to withstand strong ocean waves, seagrasses have special roots that grow horizontally and spread out. These roots are called rhizomes, and they keep seagrasses anchored so the plants don't get uprooted and float away when the currents in the water are strong.

These plants have also evolved to adapt to the salt water. If you put a regular plant in a glass of salt water, it would not be able to live very long. However, seagrasses can grow in oceans because they have developed a high tolerance to the salt found in ocean water.

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