Aristotle's pupil Theophrastus described the red coral, korallion, in his book on stones, implying it was a mineral, but he described it as a deep-sea plant in his Enquiries on Plants, where he also mentions large stony plants that reveal bright flowers when under water in the Gulf of Heroes. Pliny the Elder stated boldly that several sea creatures including sea nettles and sponges "are neither animals nor plants, but are possessed of a third nature (tertius natura)". Petrus Gyllius copied Pliny, introducing the term zoophyta for this third group in his 1535 book On the French and Latin Names of the Fishes of the Marseilles Region; it is popularly but wrongly supposed that Aristotle created the term. Gyllius further noted, following Aristotle, how hard it was to define what was a plant and what was an animal.
The Persian polymath Al-Biruni (d. 1048) classified sponges and corals as animals, arguing that they respond to touch. Nevertheless, people believed corals to be plants until the eighteenth century, when William Herschel used a microscope to establish that coral had the characteristic thin cell membranes of an animal.
Presently, corals are classified as certain species of animals within the sub-classes Hexacorallia and Octocorallia of the class Anthozoa in the phylum Cnidaria. Hexacorallia includes the stony corals and these groups have polyps that generally have a 6-fold symmetry. Octocorallia includes blue coral and soft corals and species of Octocorallia have polyps with an eightfold symmetry, each polyp having eight tentacles and eight mesenteries.
Fire corals are not true corals, being in the order Anthomedusae (sometimes known as Anthoathecata) of the class Hydrozoa.