Evaluating the response of organisms to stress assumes that functional benchmarks are available against which the response can be gauged, but this expectation remains unfulfilled for many taxa. As a result, attempts to describe the organismic effects of environmental degradation and physiological stress can prove misleading. Functional benchmarks and the effects of stress are particularly germane to coral reefs that globally are exposed to significant environmental challenges, and in this study, we compiled data on scleractinian corals to describe a reference against which stress responses can be gauged. Based on this construct, we tested the veracity of well-established contrasts -- involving differences in physiological function among depths and families -- to evaluate the capacity of available data to support synthetic analyses. Our analysis used 126 papers describing 37 genera, and at least 73 species, and described 13 traits, first independent of depth, and second, by depth. Data appropriate for these analyses were so sparse that depth- and family-level effects were inconspicuous, although the depth contrast revealed a decline in dark respiration and an increase in calcification (both normalized to area) in deeper water. Our analyses of scleractinian literature revealed limitations of the data available for synthetic analyses, as well for describing functional benchmarks within this taxon. We attribute some of these effects to differences in the physical environment under which measurements were made, and suspect that such problems are commonplace for other taxa. Dynamic Energy Budget 39 (DEB) models provide one means to overcome some of these problems, and they can be used for any taxon to quantitatively summarize data for comparative analyses of stressor responses. The suitability of these models is illustrated for scleractinian corals by predicting from first principles the ratio of Symbiodinium to holobiont carbon and the respiration.