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Colony of Leptogorgia virgulata. Photo courtesy of: J. Reed, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution.

Species Name: Leptogorgia virgulata Lamarck, 1815
Common Name: Sea Whip
Colorful Sea Whip
Synonymy: None

    Kingdom Phylum/Division Class: Order: Family: Genus:
    Animalia Cnidaria Anthozoa Gorgonacea Gorgoniidae Leptogorgia

    Species Description

    Gorgonians, or soft corals, belong to the suborder Holaxonia. These colonial cnidarians are so named because they lack the permanent, rigid skeleton of hard corals. As octocorallians, they possess 8 tentacles and 8 complete mesentaries. Only a single siphonoglyph is present. Branches in gorgonians are arranged around a central axis. Leptogorgia virgulata colonies are moderately branching into whip-like stalks. Polyps occur in multiple rows along 2 sides of each branch. Branch color is variable and may range from shades of purple, red, orange or yellow. Polyps are white.

    Potentially Misidentified Species

    Leptogorgia setacea


    Regional Occurrence

    Leptogorgia virgulata occurs from New York and the Chesapeake Bay to Florida and Brazil.

    IRL Distribution

    In the Indian River Lagoon, L. virgulata occurs on ledges, in inlets, and intracoastal waterways.


    Age, Size, Lifespan

    Shallow inshore and offshore populations of Leptogorgia virgulata showed annual periodicity of concentric rings in the axial skeleton. However, no differences were observed in growth increments of colonies from either site (Mitchell 1993). Although spicule formation occurs throughout the colony, it is most rapid at the branch tip (Kingsley & Watabe 1989).

    Typical adult size of Leptogorgia virgulata is 15 - 20 cm.


    Common around the inlets of the IRL, and nearshore reefs.





    Recorded temperatures for Leptogorgia virgulata on nearshore reefs off Fort Pierce, FL ranged from 13 - 31 °C and averaged 24.6 °C.


    Salinity range for L. virgulata on nearshore reefs off Ft. Pierce, FL was 26 - 36.4 ppt.


    Trophic Mode

    Suspension feeding on plankton and other small animals that come within range of the polyp's tentacles.


    Leptogorgia virgulata exhibits both inhibitors and inducers of barnacle settlement (Standing et al 1984). Barnacle settlement inhibitors of L. virgulata are also effective against bryozoan larval settlement (Rittschof et al 1988). Antifouling agents against a benthic marine diatom are also exhibited by L. virgulata (Targett et al 1983). Laboratory experiments indicate that the combination of calcium carbonate spicules and secondary metabolites are effective against fish predation (Gerhart et al 1988). In addition, emitic properties of secondary metabolites from L. virgulata have induced learned aversions in several species of fish (Gerhart 1991).


    Preferred substrata for Leptogorgia virgulata are rock and limestone ledges. Depth range is 3 - 20 meters.

    Associated Species

    Associated species of Leptogorgia virgulata, occurring in a Thalassia testudinum meadow were dominated by a caprellid amphipod Caprella penantis, particularly when the seagrass dies off during the winter. When Caprella densities decreased on Leptogorgia, postlarval and decapod crustaceans increased (Caine 1983).


    No information is available at this time


    Caine EA. 1983. Community interactions of Caprella penantis Leach (Crustacea: Amphipoda) on sea whips. J Crust Biol 3: 497-504.

    Gerhart DJ. 1991. Emesis, learned aversion, and chemical defense in octocorals: a central role for prostaglandins?. Amer J Physio Reg Integ Compar Physio 260: R839-R843.

    Gerhart DJ, Rittschof D, Mayo SW. 1988. Chemical ecology and the search for marine antifoulants. J Chem Ecol 14: 1905-1917.

    Kingsley RJ, Watabe N. 1989. The dynamics of spicule calcification in whole colonies of the gorgonian Leptogorgia virgulata (Lamarck) (Coelenterata: Gorgonacea). J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 133: 57-65.

    Mitchell ND, Dardeau MR, Schroeder WW. 1993. Colony morphology, age structure, and relative growth of two gorgonian corals, Leptogorgia hebes (Verrill) and Leptogorgia virgulata (Lamarck), from the northerm Gulf of Mexico. Coral Reefs 12: 65-70.

    Rittschof D, Hooper IR, Branscomb ES, Costlow JD. 1985. Inhibition of barnacle settlement and behavior by natural products from whip corals, Leptogorgia virgulata (Lamarck, 1815). J Chem Ecol 11: 551-563.

    Standing JD, Hooper IR, Costlow JD. 1984. Inhibition and induction of barnacle settlement by natural products present in octocorals. J Chem Ecol 10: 823-834.

    Targett NM, Bishop SS, McConnell OJ, Yoder JA. 1983. Antifouling agents against the benthic marine diatom, Navicula salinicola Homarine from the gorgonians Leptogorgia virgulata and L. setacea and analogs. J Chem Ecol 9: 817-829.

Report by: J. Dineen, Smithsonian Marine Station
with thanks to J. Reed, HBOI
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Page last updated: July 25, 2001

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