Scleractinian corals are the major builders of the complex structural framework of coral reefs. They live in tropical waters around the globe where they are frequently exposed to potentially harmful ultraviolet radiation (UVR). The eggs and early embryonic stages of some coral species are highly buoyant and remain near the sea surface for prolonged periods of time and may therefore be the most sensitive life stages with respect to UVR. Here, we analysed gene expression changes in five developmental stages of the Caribbean coral Montastraea faveolata to natural levels of UVR using high-density cDNA microarrays (10 930 clones). We found that larvae exhibit low sensitivity to natural levels of UVR during early development as reflected by comparatively few transcriptomic changes in response to UVR. However, we identified a time window of high UVR sensitivity that coincides with the motile planula stage and the onset of larval competence. These processes have been shown to be affected by UVR exposure, and the transcriptional changes we identified explain these observations well. Our analysis of differentially expressed genes indicates that UVR alters the expression of genes associated with stress response, the endoplasmic reticulum, Ca(2+) homoeostasis, development and apoptosis during the motile planula stage and affects the expression of neurogenesis-related genes that are linked to swimming and settlement behaviour at later stages. Taken together, our study provides further data on the impact of natural levels of UVR on coral larvae. Furthermore, our results might allow a better prediction of settlement and recruitment rates after coral spawning events if UVR climate data are taken into account.