Coral Fossils

Victorian Marine Fossils series

What are corals?

Corals belong to a group of animals that also includes sea anemones and jellyfish, all of which have a radially symmetrical body, like the spokes of a wheel. In corals this body plan is in the form of a more or less cylindrical polyp having a mouth surrounded by feeding tentacles on its upper surface, just like a sea anemone. However, unlike anemones, corals form a hard skeleton which is commonly fossilized. Coral polyps may be either solitary or joined together to form large colonies. Colonial corals form reefs, such as the massive Great Barrier Reef of Queensland. Extensive deposits of fossil corals indicate that large coral reefs existed at many times during the history of life on Earth, although the earliest fossil reefs were built by corals that were very different from those living today.

Illustration of fossil coral colony, Lithostrotion sp.

Fossil coral colony, Lithostrotion sp.
Artist: Kate Nolan / Source: Museum Victoria

Where are fossil corals found?

Corals were abundant throughout the Palaeozoic Era, between 545 and 251 million years ago (mya). In eastern and central Victoria both colonial and solitary corals are found in Palaeozoic sedimentary rocks, especially limestones, that were deposited during the late Silurian and early Devonian periods (420 to 400 mya). Fossils of small solitary corals occur in much younger Tertiary clays and marls between 30 and 5 million years old, especially in the Torquay, Geelong and Mornington districts.

Photo of fossil solitary coral, Placotrochus magnus

Fossil solitary coral, Placotrochus magnus
Source: Museum Victoria

Fossil and living corals

Two groups of corals are prominent fossils in Palaeozoic sedimentary rocks: rugose corals, which included forms that constructed colonies as well as solitary forms; and the tabulate corals, which were exclusively colonial. Both groups were involved in the formation of reefs. Rugose and tabulate corals became extinct at the end of the Palaeozoic (251 mya), after which the modern reef-building corals, or scleractinians, arose early in the Mesozoic Era. Rugose and tabulate corals are believed to have lived in warm, clear, shallow seas, as do the scleractinians that build reefs at the present day.

Although the tropical waters of Queensland and other parts of the world are famous for their vast coral reefs, corals also inhabit cold seas. Living examples of solitary coral polyps and also small coral colonies can be found on reefs in southern Australia, including Port Phillip Bay.

Visitor Information

Common species of fossil coral from Victoria are exhibited in the Marine Invertebrate Fossil Drawers in the Melbourne Museum Discovery Centre.

Further Reading

Edgar, G. J. 1997. Australian marine life. Reed Books, Kew, Victoria. [Photographs of six species of living corals from southern Australia]

Comments (7)

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Jasmine 13 September, 2010 19:10
It would be better if you actually posted a short text about the different corals, especially during the Carboniferous period. It's hard to find information about Lithostrotion on the net, based on simple reading for teenagers.
NOTPUBLISHING!!!! 8 March, 2016 13:54
Are coral fossils marine fossils? I doing it for a project and I don't know if they are or not.
RUSSELL BECKERS 8 May, 2016 02:14
Hello, i have what I'm told is a coral bloom, it is approx. 2" wide and 4" long with what looks like a spine or vertibrate,kind of like rolling sand dunes, it's chalky white color, is this piece considered a marine fossil or what is it's category?? THANK YOU for your time and consideration Sincerely, RUSSELL BECKERS
Discovery Centre 8 May, 2016 10:50
Hi Russell; we can't do much with that information, I'm sorry - in order to comment, we will need to see a clear image (or perhaps several images) which would also include an object that indicate the size of the specimen, along with any known information as to where it was found. You can forward this data to us via the Ask the Experts page found here and we will be happy to investigate for you.
Sally 21 September, 2016 06:01
Thank you for the art work, Kate Nolan! I finally know what I have! My Lithostrotian was given to me many years ago by a friend.
Jade 29 November, 2016 15:15
Could you by any chance help me with a physical description of what lithostrotion (star stone) coral would have looked like when it was alive? Thanks
Discovery Centre 9 December, 2016 11:32

Hello Jade

Thank you for your question and of course it is impossible to say absolutely what these corals looked like when alive because they became extinct so long ago (over 200 million years).  However they were rugose corals and a useful likely description for you is found here.  Note that they may often be termed Siphonodendron now rather than Lithostrotion for the name of the genus.  The animals would have been likely to be colourless though colours may have been associated with them and their colonies or reefs, due to the presence of algae living there also.

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