In the large group known as stony corals, or true corals (Madreporaria), each polyp secretes a cup-shaped skeleton, the theca, around itself. Some solitary corals of that group may reach a diameter of 10 in. (25 cm); in the colonial forms the individual polyps are usually under 1/8 in. (3 mm) long, but the colonies may be enormous. The body of each polyp is saclike, consisting of a wall of jellylike material surrounding a digestive cavity, with a single opening, the mouth, at the unattached end. The mouth is surrounded by tentacles used to capture small prey and is invaginated to form a pharynx leading into the body cavity. Thin sheets of tissue (mesentaries) extend radially from the wall to the pharynx, dividing the cavity. A second set of radial divisions is created by folds (septa) of the outer skeleton and body wall, which extend upward from the floor of the body cavity. Reproduction occurs both sexually and by budding. Sexual reproduction is by means of eggs and sperm, which are produced in the mesentaries and shed into the water. Fertilization results in a free-swimming larva, which attaches to a surface and secretes a skeleton, becoming (in colonial forms) the parent of a new colony.
As new polyps are produced by budding they remain attached to each other by thin sheets of living tissue as well as by newly secreted skeletal material. The great variety in the form of various colonial corals, which may be treelike and branching, or rounded and compact, depends chiefly on the method of budding of the particular species. In the brain corals, for example, each theca merges with the one next to it on either side, forming long rows of polyps separated by deep channels. In some of the branching corals the polyps occupy small, discrete pits on the surface of the skeleton. As a colonial coral produces more polyps the lower members die and new layers are built up on the old skeleton, forming a large mass. In tropical and subtropical regions these massive corals, along with other plants and animals, may form a coral reef. Most of the reef-forming corals belong to the stony coral group.