Episode 1 of the Reef Series!
“Which coral are good for a beginner” is the first question typically asked by someone starting up a new reef tank. The answer of course depends on the tank, the overall reef plan, and about 500 other different things. Because I cannot know the goals of every person reading this article, I will focus on the coral that is most likely to survive a new comer’s learning curve, and in my experience does not have special requirements to thrive. If you would prefer to watch versus read the recommendations, here is the video:
I actually disagree with the advice that new reef hobbyists should start with only soft coral. I believe this advice is based on the calcified stony skeletons of sps and lps needing more calcium than coral without skeletons. However, simple water changes can provide enough in most cases, and anyone starting a reef should be testing their tank and considering supplements anyways. Also, in my opinion, “softy” is too vague a term or category, and can cause problems if the person plans to expand into keeping more difficult coral. There are many good “softies” that do make my “beginners list”, but my list is more based on the specific coral than it’s category or classification.
A person’s individual reef plan (discussed further in the the REEF PLAN ARTICLE) should be their guide, and a soft coral tank can be amazingly beautiful if that is the final goal. However, many of the coral in the “softy category” are too invasive, and will become a problem if the hobbyist decides to try keeping more difficult coral that dislike things like xenia growing onto them. For anyone unsure of their desired end result, steering clear of invasive soft coral and any coral that does not play nicely with others should be the goal.
The following coral fit into the “play nice” category I just made up. Like most coral, they all contain zooxanthellae (symbiotic internal algae) and are photosynthetic (provided nourishment through light). However, when beginners stick to coral that have additional means to feed themselves, there is less risk of bleaching or loss. Choosing coral that are common in the trade and aqua-cultured mean they can adapt more easily to aquarium life, and likely come from a tank versus the ocean. The coral on my beginners’ list have all of these benefits and have been very easy to care for in my reef, in my tank despite all of the mistakes I have made along the way:
1. LEATHER CORAL – Sarcophyton
Leather coral are hardy and easy making them an excellent coral for beginners. There are different types of leather coral, so be certain to look at the specific name. Many will shed, meaning they will close up and look like the top layer is peeling off of the head. But knowing that the shed will probably happen can make it’s appearance less frightening. The also tend to “drop babies”, but not quickly enough to become a problem.
Lighting for leathers – Low to medium lighting is plenty to nourish the toadstool. I have kept leathers in almost every lighting situation, and only their color changes in response.
Flow for leathers – Low to medium flow will carry bits and pieces of detritus and other food to the coral, and also keep algae from growing on top of it.
Placement – give this coral a lot of room to grow, as it can get very large. Make sure it receives flow and is in a path that will allow it to capture food from the water column.
Supplements or additions – adding phytoplanton and zooplankton to the reef will provide food to this coral.
2. Zoanthids – Zoos or Zoas
Zoas come in so many different color and pattern combinations, that adding them can provide so much color to a tank and really bring it to life! Palytoxin should be researched and considered before adding these to a tank. Using gloves and eye protection when handling or fragging anything that might be a paly is suggested, but I have personally never had problems in my reef tanks.
Lighting for zoas – Zoas have thrived in my tank in multiple lighting situations. From under an overhang in the substrate to the top of a high rock, they typically will show whether they don’t like the situation by not opening up, or algae covering them.
Flow for zoas – Again, they are very easy to please and will do well in most flow situations. However, I have noticed that they will extend their skirts further when they like the movement around them. Too high a flow rate will cause them to stay in a half retracted state where they seem to cower.
Placement – Anywhere. Let the coral show you what it likes by watching how open it becomes in different situations.
Supplements and additions – They will eat phyto and zooplankton, but it’s not required.
3. Candy Canes – Caulastraea
Also known as a trumpet coral, these LPS (large polyp stony) are friendly, and not known to sting nearby coral. They come in different colors, and provide a unique contrast to the flowing or stationary coral. They need to be kept in lower lighting to avoid algae growing over them, and a medium flow will help them shed their mucus coating. The flow also allows them to grab bits of food out of the water and their tentacles make a very cool display when they feed at night.
Lighting for candy candes – Low lighting prevents algae buildup on the coral and keeps the coral’s internal zooxanthellae happy, giving the candy canes a deeper, richer color.
Flow for candy canes – Medium flow will help remove the mucus and stop any algae from sticking to and growing on the coral. The flow also carry food to the coral which provides nourishment.
Placement for candy canes – shaded or low in the tank so they are not getting too much light.
Supplements or additions – Addition of a 2 or 3 part calcium/alkalinity/magnesium program can help, but water changes will typically supply enough calcium and other minerals to keep this coral happy.
4. Duncan coral – Duncanopsammia Axifuga
Out of all the sps, lps and softies mixed up in my reef tank, I still rank my Duncan coral as a favorite. Some have shorter tentacles, but my duncan’s reach is long and graceful. In fact, some call this a “whisker coral”, but it reminds me more of looking down at a concert and seeing so many people, arms raised and swaying to the music. The duncan uses those long “whiskers” to capture food from the water column, and it’s amazing to watch them eat (it takes a while, but is worth the experience).
The duncan will produce slime when it gets covered in sand or is unhappy for some reason. This should not cause great concern, but it is a clue that something is not right with the tank.
Lighting for duncan coral – Low to medium is plenty to keep the duncan happy. I have always kept mine in the substrate, but they look really pretty almost anywhere. Just be sure to shade them if they are placed higher in the tank.
Flow for duncan coral – Low to medium flow will allow this coral to really stretch out and sway. If the flow is too high, the coral will not extend as far as it could, telling you to put it in a lower flow area.
Supplements and additions – As with any LPS, the duncan will take up a lot of calcium. Even as a beginner, it is a good idea to start testing your water (at least the calcium, alkalinity and magnesium) on a regular basis. This will help you determine if you need to add more of anything, based on whether calcium or anything else gets too low before the next water change.
5. Mushrooms – so many different types!!
From bubble mushrooms to ricordeas, there are multiple different types of saltwater mushrooms in multiple shapes, colors and styles. Without any calcified skeleton, mushrooms do not have any need other than a little light. Most soft coral will benefit from the addition of phyto and zooplankton, but they are not required to keep the mushroom happy. The two considerations with mushroom coral are: 1) not letting them spread too far and take over the tank, and 2) letting them find their “sweet spot”. There are many tricks to place a mushroom where you want it in the tank, which I will cover in another article. But, just be aware that if they are unhappy due to too much light or flow, they can release from the rock and move until they find a suitable home.
Lighting for mushrooms – Low to medium light is recommended, but I personally have found that their color and health is better in lower light. Many times, mushrooms have “popped up” in very low lit parts of my tank, only to become the prettiest of mushrooms in the display!
Flow for mushrooms – Low to medium flow is good for these guys, and they will definitely let you know if they want more or less. If they want more, you’ll notice them stretching (reaching up towards the light from their attachment to the rock) or not opening fully if the light is too much.
Supplements and additions – like other softies, they will benefit from phyto and zooplankton added to the tank. I have also witnessed larger mushrooms eating foods as large as mysis! But feeding them is not a requirement, and they do not need extra supplementation to thrive.
If you choose to use any of these coral in your new reef tank, please send me a picture or video! I love featuring tanks and people that do well based on the advice given on this site!