Field of Science

Acervulinids: Reef Forams

Regular readers of this site will know that, contrary to common belief, not all representatives of the vaguely defined category of organisms known as 'protozoa' are too small to be seen with the naked eye. Some are very visible indeed, and many of the more visible forms can be found among the shell-constructing amoeboids known as Foraminifera. One group of giant forams, the xenophyophores, has become fairly famous in internet circles as one of the contenders for the title of 'largest single cell', though, as noted in the post linked to, the question is kind of a pointless one with regard to forams. Besides, as described later in this post, xenophyophores may not have even have always been the largest forams.

Encrusting nodules of Acervulina inhaerens from Rhodes, from M. Hesemann.

The Acervulinidae are a family of reef-inhabiting forams belonging among the rotaliids. Juvenile chambers of newly growing acervulinids are arranged in a flat spiral, but chambers of mature specimens may be arranged in one to several layers. The chambers do not have regular apertures, and instead their walls are only pierced by coarse pores (Perrin 1994). Genera and species of acervulinids are distinguished by the presence, arrangement and shapes of layers and chambers, but defining distinctions appropriately is challenging. Acervulinids do not have a determinate 'adult morphology'; instead, the final adult appearance can be affected by factors such as substrate relief and water movement. Properly identifying acervulinids therefore requires identification of features independent of these external factors.

Living crust of Gypsina plana, photographed by Hal Ray Tichenor.

Acervulinids can be abundant on tropical coral reefs, and may play a not insiginificant role in reef formation as binding organisms. They tend to be particularly prominent in deeper parts of the reef, as they can tolerate lower light levels than other organisms such as coralline algae; in shallower parts of the reef, they are found in more cryptic locations among the coral. Acervulinids may be free-living, or they may be directly attached to their substrate. Like the star-shaped calcarinids, their primary food source is benthic diatoms (that they may or may not live with symbiotically), and the abrupt disappearance of the modern Acervulina inhaerens below depths of 130 m probably corresponds to the lower limit of that food source (Bosellini & Papazzoni 2003).

Fossilised nodules from a Solenomeris reef, photographed by Stefano Dominici. Note that Stefano identifies these as Acervulina; due to the complications in distinguishing acervulinid taxa, it remains contentious whether Solenomeris and Acervulina can be reliably separated.

Attached acervulinids may form either nodules or spreading crusts, depending on species and/or growth conditions (Perrin 1994). Such nodules or crusts may have diameters in the millimetre range, but some living species may be within the decimetre range. The most dramatic expression of acervulinid potential, however, was known from the Tethyan region during the Eocene period (the Tethys, for those unfamiliar with it, was the sea that connected the Atlantic and Indian Oceans north of Africa, before the northward movement of that continent closed off the Mediterranean at the eastern end). Here was found Solenomeris ogormani, initially interpreted as a red alga but since reidentified as an acervulinid. Solenomeris was primarily an encrusting form, but large growths would also produce tightly packed branches one or two centimetres in diameter. Over time, Solenomeris formed massive metre-sized domes, and these domes together would form entire reefs stretching over multiple kilometres: reefs formed not of coral, or of algae, but purely of forams!


Bosellini, F. R., & C. A. Papazzoni. 2003. Palaeoecological significance of coral−encrusting foraminiferan associations: a case−study from the Upper Eocene of northern Italy. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 48 (2): 279-292.

Perrin, C. 1994. Morphology of encrusting and free living acervulinid Foraminifera: Acervulina, Gypsina and Solenomeris. Palaeontology 37 (2): 425-458.


  1. Reef-forming seems to be moderately popular, phylogenetically speaking - I'm thinking also of molluscan ones, and I expect there are more examples that aren't occuring ot me.

  2. I presume you're thinking of rudists, but other than those I can't really think of any reef-forming species outside coralline algae and corals.


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