The morphological life-forms, that is to say, physiognomic-structural attributes, of two coral reef communities were used in a numerical analysis to determine the power of these attributes in recovering the underlying community structure. We used 17 attributes from the benthic communities at 6 reef slope sites on each of a midshelf and off-shore reef of the central Great Barrier Reef. These reefs had been previously well studied by traditional species-level means for several major taxonomic groups such as corals, fish and soft corals. Our multivariate analyses were able to recover broad patterns of between-reef affinity and discrete within-reef zonation patterns similar to those found in earlier studies, and in broad accord with the prevailing model of reef community structure, but with far greater efficacy. But perhaps more importantly, by placing all the benthos within the same context for the first time, our analyses were able to recover new patterns of community structure independent of the ones described earlier. This suggests that single-model explantations for the complex phenomena of coral reefs are likely to be inadequate.