Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae

Geographic Range

The Carribean sea plume, Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae, is found in the tropical Caribbean portion of the Atlantic Ocean. Countries that have documented its presence are the United States (Florida Keys), Honduras, San Salvador, Nicaragua, Columbia, the Bahamas, Belize, and Mexico. This species, as well as other gorgonian octocorals, are found most extensively in this region of the world. (Humann and Deloach, 2002; Mulzer, 2005)


Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae is usually found at deeper and calmer fore reef sites, up to depths of about 100 feet (31 m), and along reef drop offs. (Humann and Deloach, 2002; Lasker, 2006; Mulzer, 2005)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • reef
  • Range depth
    25 to 30 m
    82.02 to 98.43 ft

Physical Description

Pseudopterogorgonia elisabethae is frequently found as a bushy aggregation of feather-like branches, each resembling a plume, around a central axis. The branches are long, with pinnate, distichous branchlets. Orientation is often across the usual current direction to maximize surface exposure to the currents of the water column. This tall feathery morphology is more suitable for the deeper waters where the water movement is slower because the gentle currents will not uproot the structure. (Humann and Deloach, 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range length
    0.3 to 2 m
    0.98 to 6.56 ft


Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae has three phases to the life cycle. As a result of the asychronous spawning, the unfertilized eggs are held by the female on reproductive polyps which are exposed to the currents to come into contact with sperm. The fertilized egg then develops into its larval stage over a time period of 1-2 days. Larvae are brooded first on the parental colony for a duration of 2-4 days and then are free swimming, ciliated, bilaterally symmetric planulae that are negatively buoyant. Settlement is frequently within a few hundred meters of the parent colony because of this negative buoyancy. The larva then settles on free space and continues to reproduce asexually to increase the number of zooids and take the adult form of long branches with pinnate branchlets. (Gutiérrez-Rodríguez and Lasker, 2005; Lasker, 2006)


After the larval form of Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae settles, it reproduces asexually to increase the number of zooids. Once it becomes the adult form it is separated into male and female colonies where it reproduces sexually. Males release sperm into the water which is taken up by the female colonies. (Gutiérrez-Rodríguez and Lasker, 2005; Lasker, 2006)

Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae reproduces asexually to increase the number of zooids. When sexually spawning, male colonies release sperm into the water column and the female colonies remain stationary, catching sperm on the their unfertilized eggs as the currents pass through the females. This occurs one to three times a day for any individual colony. Colonies that are closer together are more probable to mate with each other than those colonies at further distances because of the mode of sperm transmission. The spawning of the species is asynchronous, meaning the releasing and producing gametes is not done in mass at one particular time but continues to happen throughout the year. However, spawning is higher on average between the months of November to January. (Gutiérrez-Rodríguez and Lasker, 2005)

  • Breeding interval
    Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae spawns throughout the year but is highest from November to January.
  • Breeding season
    Reproduction occurs throughout the year.

Some parental care is exhibited by the female colonies as they brood their fertilized eggs on the branches of the mother colony for 1-2 days, while the eggs develop into the planula larval stage. The brooding of the fertilized egg/developing planula is generally for their protection against predators. Pre-fertilization care may also be present as the female of this species does not release her eggs into the currents but instead holds them on her branches to better increase the chance that they will be fertilized instead of eaten. (Gutiérrez-Rodríguez and Lasker, 2005; Lasker, 2006; Walker and Bull, 1983)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female


The life span of this species is unknown.


Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae is motile as a planula larval stage and a sessile, colonial species as an adult. Colonies are distinctly sexed. The soft body holds many polyps that remain retracted during the day and expel outwards at night to feed on nutrients in the water column.

This species has a symbiotic relationship with various clades of zooxanthellae with each polyp of the organism. The coral receives both oxygen and energy from this mutualism, whereas the zooxanthellae are provided with shelter, protection and some nutrients from the coral. (Humann and Deloach, 2002)

Communication and Perception

The polyps of the colony can perceive the prescence of light. This is evident because the breeding and feeding cycles exhibited by this coral. Breeding occurs most abundantly for all members of the species at the time of the full moon so the amount of light must be able to be sensed. Ability to discern light is also concluded from the organisms nocturnal feeding habits. Like all cnidarians, a tactile response will be launched by triggering of the nematocyst system. (Gutiérrez-Rodríguez and Lasker, 2005; Lasker, 2006; Mulzer, 2005)

Food Habits

The extended tentacles on the polyps of Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae actively catch nutrients in the form of detritus, zooplankton and microbes from the water column. Nutrients are also received through the corals' symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae (mostly clade-B). Excess sugar products are manufactured for the coral by the zooxanthellae in return for the protection, habitat and some wastes produced by the coral. (Humann and Deloach, 2002)


Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae is well equipped for defense. This species produces a chemical compound called pseudopterosins, secondary toxic metabolites, which act as a deterrent for most predators and microbes. However, the flamingo tongue snail, Cyphoma gibbosums is an ectoparasite that feeds on the tissue of sea plumes, although P. elisabethae is not the snail's preferred species. The flamingo tongue snail is a specially adapted predator for Gorgoniidae and is largely not susceptible to the defenses that Pseudopterogorgia has against other predators. (Humann and Deloach, 2002; Okpala and Wood, 2002)

Ecosystem Roles

There is a common mutualism, shared by most coral, with zooxanthellae (Symbiodinium spp.). The extent of this species and its role in the building of new reefs has not been fully investigated but other octocoral gorgonians, because they are firmly "rooted", may provide a base for other coral colonies to expand.

The flamingo tongue snail, Cyphoma gibbosums is an ectoparasite on Pseudopterogorgia sea plumes although P. elisabethae is not the preferred host species. (Gutiérrez-Rodríguez and Lasker, 2005; Humann and Deloach, 2002; Okpala and Wood, 2002)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat
Mutualist Species
  • Symbiodinium spp. (Clade B)
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Flamingo tongue snail, Cyphoma gibbosums

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

This species has been studied for medicinal uses. The pseudopterosins that are produced have been used in medications such as analgesics, cosmetic creams and as a non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drug. The main compound isolated is pseudopterosin A, which is being studied because of the selectivity it exhibits as an analgesic. This species is also cultivated for fish tanks in the pet trade industry. ("Drugs From the Sea Index", 2011; Look, et al., 1986; Mulzer, 2005; Puyana, et al., 2004)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae on humans.

Conservation Status

This species is harvested for medicinal uses off of Caribbean Islands where it is native. However, Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae is not currently endangered, threatened or protected.


Allison Huggan (author), Rutgers University, David V. Howe (editor), Rutgers University, Renee Mulcrone (editor), Special Projects.


Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

World Map


reproduction that is not sexual; that is, reproduction that does not include recombining the genotypes of two parents


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

colonial growth

animals that grow in groups of the same species, often refers to animals which are not mobile, such as corals.


an animal that mainly eats decomposed plants and/or animals


particles of organic material from dead and decomposing organisms. Detritus is the result of the activity of decomposers (organisms that decompose organic material).


a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


a method of feeding where small food particles are filtered from the surrounding water by various mechanisms. Used mainly by aquatic invertebrates, especially plankton, but also by baleen whales.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

indeterminate growth

Animals with indeterminate growth continue to grow throughout their lives.


A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


photosynthetic or plant constituent of plankton; mainly unicellular algae. (Compare to zooplankton.)


an animal that mainly eats plankton


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

radial symmetry

a form of body symmetry in which the parts of an animal are arranged concentrically around a central oral/aboral axis and more than one imaginary plane through this axis results in halves that are mirror-images of each other. Examples are cnidarians (Phylum Cnidaria, jellyfish, anemones, and corals).


structure produced by the calcium carbonate skeletons of coral polyps (Class Anthozoa). Coral reefs are found in warm, shallow oceans with low nutrient availability. They form the basis for rich communities of other invertebrates, plants, fish, and protists. The polyps live only on the reef surface. Because they depend on symbiotic photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae, they cannot live where light does not penetrate.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.


non-motile; permanently attached at the base.

Attached to substratum and moving little or not at all. Synapomorphy of the Anthozoa


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


uses touch to communicate


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


animal constituent of plankton; mainly small crustaceans and fish larvae. (Compare to phytoplankton.)


2011. "Drugs From the Sea Index" (On-line). Resources. Accessed April 09, 2013 at

Gutiérrez-Rodríguez, C., H. Lasker. 2005. Reproductive biology, development, and planula behavior in the Caribbean gorgonian Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae. Invertebrate Biology, 123: 54-67.

Humann, P., N. Deloach. 2002. Coral reef identification. Jacksonville, Florida, USA: New World Publications, Inc.

Lasker, H. 2006. High fertilization success in a surface brooding Caribbean gorgonian. The Biological Bulletin, 210: 10-17.

Look, S., W. Fenicle, R. Jacobs, J. Clardy. 1986. The pseudopterosins: anti-inflammatory and analgesic natural products from the sea whip Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A., 83: 6238-6240.

Mulzer, J. 2005. Natural product synthesis: targets, methods, concepts. The Netherlands: Spring-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.

Okpala, D., J. Wood. 2002. "Marine Invertebrates of Bermuda" (On-line). Accessed February 23, 2013 at

Puyana, M., G. Narvaez, A. Paz, O. Osorno, C. Duque. 2004. Pseudopterosin content variability of the purple sea whip Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae at the islands of San Andres and Providencia (SW Caribbean). Journal of Chemical Ecology, 6: 1183-1187.

Walker, T., G. Bull. 1983. A newly discovered method of reproduction in gorgonian coral. Marine Ecology, 12: 137-143.