Biogenic calcification is influenced by the concentration of available carbonate ions. The recent confirmation of this for hermatypic corals has raised concern over the future of coral reefs because [CO32−] is a decreasing function of increasing pCO2 in the atmosphere. As one of the overriding features of coral reefs is their diversity, understanding the degree of variability between species in their ability to cope with a change in [CO32−] is a priority. We cultured four phylogenetically and physiologically different species of hermatypic coral (Acropora verweyi, Galaxea fascicularis, Pavona cactus and Turbinaria reniformis) under ‘normal’ (280 mu;mol kg−1) and ‘low’ (140 μmol kg−1) carbonate–ion concentrations. The effect on skeletogenesis was investigated quantitatively (by calcification rate) and qualitatively (by microstructural appearance of growing crystalline fibres using scanning electron microscopy (SEM)). The ‘low carbonate’ treatment resulted in a significant suppression of calcification rate and a tendency for weaker crystallization at the distal tips of fibres. However, while the calcification rate was affected uniformly across species (13–18%reduction), the magnitude of the microstructural response was highly species specific: crystallization was most markedly affected in A. verweyi and least in T. reniformis. These results are discussed in relation to past records and future predictions of carbonate variability in the oceans.