Cinctipora elegans is distinguished by its large zooids with long, funnel-like skeletal apertures, measuring about 1.5mm long by 0.5mm. Apertures are arranged in whorls, commonly 9-13 around the branch circumference.Each zooid has 16 tentacles but these can be difficult to observe as they are almost transparent and do not protrude fully from the aperture. Older parts of colonies are discoloured and fouled by sponges and other organisms.The skeleton of Cinctipora elegans is made of calcite, a calcium carbonate mineral, in the form of tiny crystals complexly interwoven. Sectioned branches show new zooids originating close to the centre.The phylogenetic placement of Cinctipora elegans is problematical although it possibly the most primitive living species of cyclostome bryozoans, an ancient order extending back into the Ordovician.
The shallow sea-bed around New Zealand is a haven for bryozoans, colonial animals informally known as moss-animals, sea-mats or lace corals and commonly mistaken for corals, sponges or seaweeds.Cinctipora elegans is one of the most important of the approximately 1000 bryozoan species that inhabit New Zealand waters because it commonly forms a habitat for a wide diversity of other animals, including crustaceans, worms and sponges.
Colonies reach up to 30cm high and can contain hundreds of branches and thousands of zooids, unusually large for a modern cyclostome bryozoan.Actively feeding zooids are typically confined to zones about 1cm back from the branch growing tips. Older zooids further away from the growing tips are dormant.Growth rates are unknown but it is quite likely that colonies live for a decade or more.
Sexual reproduction in this species is mysterious as, unlike other cyclostome bryozoans, specialized zooids for brooding the larvae have never been found. Nevertheless, the structure of the founding zooids of new colonies is identical to that of other cyclostomes, suggesting that they were formed by the settlement a free-swimming larva produced by sexual reproduction.Asexual propagation can occur through regrowth from branches broken from adult colonies.