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The shapes and forms of coral reefs are generally attributed to external controls such as substrate topography or hydrodynamic influences. Little is known about inherent reef morphology in the absence of external control. Here we use reef growth simulations, based on observations in the cellular reefs of Western Australia's Houtman Abrolhos Islands, to show that reef morphology is fundamentally determined by the mechanical behaviour of the reef-building organisms themselves—specifically theirdoi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.576v1 fatcat:7zzqpj4yvbarhcd3gs6v74xa4e