Gary Williams

  • Curator
  • Invertebrate Zoology and Geology
  • PhD

A broad interest in natural history developed during childhood, in a relatively uncrowded San Francisco Bay Area - before much of the enormous influx of human population that extinguished much of the open space and altered the regional biodiversity forever. An early fascination in the plants and animals of the undeveloped open spaces near my chilhood home in the North Bay soon led to collecting and identifying the local insects, trees, and wildflowers.  An interest in marine life was influenced by two enthusiastic marine biologists - Dr. Gordon Chan (College of Marin, Biology Instructor) and Dusty Chivers (Senior Curatorial Assistant in the Academy's Department of Invertebrate Zoology).


Octocorallian coelenterates include some of the most beautiful and morphologically diverse animals in the world's oceans - these are the soft corals, sea fans, and sea pens. They are a group of corals characterized by having eight feathery tentacles surrounding the mouth of each polyp. Due to a paucity of good characters and the great phenotypic variability of species, octocoral systematics has traditionally been difficult and disputatious - partly explaining why there is a corresponding paucity of octocoral systematists! Other factors that make the field challenging include the extreme difference in appearance between live and preserved material, and the poor attention to detail in much of the older descriptive literature.


My research interests include the systematics and evolutionary biology of soft corals, gorgonians, and pennatulaceans, as well as the history of research and exploration. My field research program is currently focused on two two bathymetrically opposite regions of the world's oceans: coral reefs of the tropical western Pacific (the Philippines, Melanesia, and Micronesia), and the deep-sea benthos (particularly the west coast of North America). Other research interests have taken me to the Galapagos Islands, Patagonia, Southern Africa, West Africa, subantarctic islandsand the Russian Far East. Scuba diving is essential to my coral reef research since the highest diversity of octocorals is found between about 3 and 35 meters in depth, while ROV's (Remote Operational Vehicles) are increasingly important in deep-sea research.


Soft corals are most abundant on shallow reef flats, while gorgonians are more abundant on slopes, walls, and rocky outcrops in a wide depth range. In addition, sea pens are encountered at all depths and are often important constituents of the ocean floor. For further information, check out the Octocoral Research Center website.


Students - Graduate students in Biology at San Francisco State University and undergraduate interns during the Academy's Summer Systematics Institute.


Philip Alderslade (CSIRO Marine & Atmospheric Research, Tasmania)

Odalisca Breedy (University of Costa Rica)

Jei-Ying Chen (California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco)

Bert Hoeksema (National Natural History Museum, Leiden)

Pablo Lopez-Gonzalez (University of Seville, Spain)

Lonny Lundsten (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing)

Leen van Ofwegen (National Natural History Museum, Leiden)

B.A., University of California, Berkeley (1972); M.A., San Francisco State University (1975); Ph.D., University of Cape Town (1987). Ranger, National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior (1974-1982). Curator of Coelenterates, South African Museum (1983-89). Chairman, Department of Marine Biology, South African Museum (1987-89). Scientific Editor, Sagittarius, Natural History Magazine of the South African Museum (1986-89). Research Associate, California Academy of Sciences (1987-90). Post-Doctoral Fellow (1990-91). Assistant Curator (1991-94). Associate Curator (1994-97). Curator (1997-present). Chairman, Department of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology (1995-98; 2004-09). Associate Editor, CAS Scientific Publications (2002-present). Chairman, CAS Dive Safety Board (2008-present). Fellow, Linnean Society of London. Fellow, California Academy of Sciences. Member, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Williams, G.C. 1993. Coral Reef Octocorals - An Illustrated Guide to the Soft corals, Sea Fans and Sea Pens inhabiting the Coral Reefs of Northern Natal. Durban: Durban Natural Science Museum, 64 pp.

Williams, G.C. 1995. Living genera of sea pens (Coelenterata: Octocorallia: Pennatulacea): illustrated key and synopses. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 113: 93-140.

Gosliner T. M., D.W. Behrens, and G. C. Williams. 1996. Coral Reef Animals of the Indo-Pacific - Animal Life from Africa to Hawai'i Exclusive of the Invertebrates. Monterey: Sea Challengers, 314 pp.

Williams, G.C. 1997. Preliminary assessment of the phylogenetics of pennatulacean octocorals, with a reevaluation of Ediacaran frond-like fossils, and a synthesis of the history of evolutionary thought regarding the sea pens. Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of Coelenterate Biology: 497-509.

Williams, G.C. 1999. Index Pennatulacea: Annotated Bibliography and Indexes of the Sea Pens (Coelenterata: Octocorallia) of the World 1469 - 1999. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 51 (2): 19-103.

Williams, G.C. 2001. First record of a bioluminescent soft coral: description of a disjunct population of Eleutherobia grayi (Thomson and Dean, 1921) from the Solomon Islands, with a review of bioluminescence in the Octocorallia. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 52 (17): 209-255.

Williams, G.C. and P.J. López-González. 2002. A new genus and species of sea pen (Octocorallia: pennatulacea: Stachyptilidae) from the Antarctic Peninsula .  Invertebrate Systematics 16: 919-929.

Williams, GC. 2003. Capitate taxa of the soft coral genus Eleutherobia (Octocorallia: Alcyoniidae) from Palau and South Africa ; a new species and a new combination. Zoologische Verhandelingen Leiden 345: 419-436.

Williams, G.C. and O. Breedy. 2004. The Panamic Gorgonian Genus Pacifigorgia (Octocorallia: Gorgoniidae) in the Galapagos Archipelago, with Descriptions of Three New Species. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 55 (3): 55-88.

Williams, G.C. and P.J. Lopez-Gonzalez. 2005. A New Genus and Species of Gorgonian Octocoral (Anthozoa: Plexauridae) from Antarctic Waters. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 56(26): 379-390.

Williams, G.C. 2007. History of Invertebrate Zoology at the California Academy of Sciences. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 58(12): 197-239.

Williams, G.C. 2007. Methods of preservation and anesthetization of marine in inverterbrates (pp. 37-41); Octocorallia (pp. 184-188); Opisthobranch clades and Onchidiacea (pp. 780-781); Key to major opisthobranch clades (pp.783-788). In: Carlton, J.T. (editor), The Light and Smith Manual - Intertidal Invertebrates from Central California and Oregon.  Berkeley, University of California Press. 1001 pp.

Williams, G.C. 2008. William Dampier - Science, Exploration, and Literary Influence Including his Hydrographic Treatise of 1699. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 59(14): 533-663.

Williams, G.C. and L. Lundsten. 2009.  The nephtheid soft coral genus Gersemia Marenzeller, 1878, with the description of a new species from the northeast Pacific and a review of two addtional species (Octocorallia: Alcyonacea).  Zoologische Mededelingen, Leiden 83(34): 1067-1081.

Williams, G.C. 2011.  The global diversity of sea pens (Cnidaria: Anthozoa: Octocorallia).  PLoS ONE 6(7): 1-11.

Williams, G.C. and P. Alderslade. 2011.  Three new species of pennatulacean octocorals with the ability to attach to rocky substrata (Cnidaria: Anthozoa: Pennatualcea).  Zootaxa 3001: 33-48.

Williams, G.C and J-Y Chen. 2012. Resurrection of the octocorallian genus Antillogorgia for Caribbean species previously assigned to Pseudopterogorgia, and a taxonomic assessment of the relationship of these genera with Leptogorgia (Cnidaria, Anthozoa, Gorgoniidae. Zootaxa 3505: 39–52.

Williams, G.C. 2013. New taxa and revisionary systematics of alcyonacean octocorals from the Pacific coast of North America (Cnidaria: Anthozoa). ZooKeys 283: 15-42.

Williams, G.C., B. Hoeksema, and L.P. van Ofwegen. 2013. A Fifth Morphological Polyp in Pennatulacean Octocorals, with a Review of Polyp Polymorphism in the Genera Pennatula and Pteroeides (Anthozoa: Pennatulidae). Zoological Studies 51(7): 1-12.










  • Gary Williams
  • Curator
  • California Academy of Sciences
  • 55 Music Concourse Drive
  • San Francisco, CA 94118
  • 415-379-5244 (direct)