Notes from the Trenches with Justin Credabel of Fin and Feather

The Care and Propagation of Goniopora

Until recently, I have, in good conscience, offered the same advice heard from reefkeepers across the country when referring to Goniopora: "Yes, they're very pretty, but don't buy them. They won't make it past a year." Personally, I took this statement as a challenge, and set out to change the way we looked at the care of this "impossible" coral. Currently, I am keeping nine species of this coral alive in my systems at Fin and Feather Pets, and have used the knowledge gained from my successes to assist several local customers with Goniopora in their own home aquariums. I can now tell customers that it is possible to keep Goniopora alive, as long as you provide the proper care and feeding for the species in question.

Since starting at Fin and Feather almost five years ago, I have seen our reef department expand from a 90-gallon coral system to thousands of gallons of reef displays and cultivation systems. We have seen our collective knowledge of captive coral husbandry blossom over these years, and this has allowed us to do what we might not have thought possible several years ago.

At our operations at Fin and Feather I have been in a unique position, regularly importing many new and exciting corals and growing captive strains. Coming across thousands of corals, I am still astounded everyday by the diversity (and similarity) of these animals. Some of these exceptional corals were Goniopora. The unusual ones piqued my interest, so I placed them in our "for display only" system. After a few years I realized they were still alive, and were a likely candidate for successful aquaculture; I just needed to determine why I was successful and how my success could be repeated.

In much of the writing about Goniopora these corals are described as being hard to keep (Toonen, 1997, 1999; Borneman, 1997, 2001). These concerns reflect the accounts of many reefkeepers who have been unsuccessful with the most commonly imported species Goniopora stokesi and Goniopora lobata. More recently, Julian Sprung has written about how the different species seem to have varying degrees of success in captive systems (Sprung, 2002). These experiences match my own as I have collected many species, each with its own unique requirements.

Goniopora belong to the family Poritidae which includes the genus Porites, a well-known small-polyped stony coral that many hobbyists have successfully grown and even propagated. Despite its taxonomic affinity with the small-polyped Porites, many Goniopora species have large polyps that can greatly extend themselves, forming long swaying tubes with flower-like tentacles at their tips. Most Goniopora that aquarists are familiar with are the large, long polyped G. stokesi and G. lobata, since these are by far the most commonly imported species. But many species share a more similar appearance and connection with Porites. The several small-polyped varieties we keep at Fin and Feather have shapes that are often mounding and encrusting, reminiscent of common Porites growth forms. Generally, these types of Goniopora are found on the reef attached to substrate rather than being free-living colonies in deep and often turbid waters like Goniopora stokesi.

All of the Goniopora species colonies I have maintained over the long-term have been encrusting, branching, or massive types attached to substrate. Compared to most other corals, their growth rate has been slow. The systems in which these corals are maintained have a mix of many types of corals including small- and large-polyped scleractinians, soft corals, mushrooms and zoanthids. They all have very deep sand beds (6-12 inches), refugiums, use little or no skimming, and have 250 to 400-watt metal halide lighting. Currently, I keep Goniopora fragments for sale under VHO and power compact combinations, and they show the same color and polyp extension as under metal halide lights. There is no mechanical filtration on any of the systems. For the first two and a half years, I did no direct feeding of the colonies except for occasional additions of phytoplankton. Calcium was kept between 350ppm and 450ppm, alkalinity was 6dKH to 11 dKH, nitrate 0-20 ppm and phosphate undetectable. I also make regular additions of trace element supplements such as Seachem Reef Plus, EcoSystem's Reef Solution, and Kent Coral-Vite as per the directions on the bottle. Feeding for the resident fishes typically consists of a staple of Mysis shrimp, brine shrimp and very sparing portions of flake food, all of which is usually consumed entirely after three to five minutes. About a year and a half ago Cyclop-eeze was added to the feeding regime. Over the last year I have begun target-feeding many colonies directly and have noticed an obvious increase in the growth of many specimens. Over the last nine months I have begun adding Kent Iron supplement weekly as per directions on the bottle. This addition seems to enhance growth and polyp extension most noticeably on the larger polyp varieties, Goniopora norfolkensis and Goniopora planulata. It is interesting to note that the red Goniopora stutchburyi kept in one system with no iron supplementation bleached after only two months.

Care of Individual Varieties of Goniopora



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Bright Red

This is my oldest colony, having been kept for three and a half years in captivity. The original specimen was massive, with polyps 1-3 inches long when fully extended. It has grown slowly, but with consistent direct feedings of DT's oyster eggs over the past nine months, I have noticed an increase in its growth rate. I fragmented the original colony into six pieces in September of 2004. They grew new tissue over the cut skeleton at a rate of approximately 1mm every two to three weeks. Tissue eventually reached the concrete plug or shell onto which they were glued and it continued to grow, encrusting the plug. This species prefers moderate current and bright light. I have not directly observed it eating rotifers or Cyclop-eeze. It does, however, show a feeding response to Cyclop-eeze "juice" from the frozen product and to the oyster eggs. I believe this species requires very small food particles such as oyster eggs, plankton and bacteria present in the system. Because of the extremely small size of the remaining colony, I have decided to grow it out before I take a skeletal sample for identification.

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Green Goniopora norfolkensis

This colony was originally set aside because it was the first non-free-living, green, Goniopora I had ever received in an order. In the wild it probably was a massive colony cleaved from a substrate. Although it appears to thrive in a moderate to low water flow regime, it will tolerate higher flows. It is one of my slower growing colonies. However, I have recently started feeding it Liquid Life with Cyclop-eeze and the colony could clearly be seen ingesting the particles. It also shows a positive feeding response to rotifers. Additionally, I target-feed oyster eggs, Cyclop-eeze juice and phytoplankton to the colony at least three to five times per week. It also shows a strong feeding response to peppermint shrimp eggs and striped bass blood.

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Pink with Purple Center: Goniopora planulata

This colony was set aside because of its unusual color. About a year ago, after two years in captivity, it stopped extending its tentacles and showed a few areas of tissue recession. I fragmented it into ten pieces and placed them into various systems. Half of them died. Upon the addition of Kent Iron supplement (at dosages per the instructions on the bottle), the surviving colonies darkened to a muddy purple color, probably due the increase of zooxanthellae in their tissue. Two specimens that recovered were in a different system with lower light conditions and water flow and received no additional iron supplementation. These two colonies stayed bright pink and extended their tentacles much farther than the others that were receiving the iron supplement. If colonies from each system are placed side by side, they appear to be two entirely different types after only three months apart in the different systems. I have since sold the pink colonies but still have several of the darker colored colonies. Their growth in the last six months has been terrific; fully expanded they are more than twice the size they were before, and their skeletal mass is about 150% larger. They now have polyps that are wider and slightly longer than the original colony had. This type shows the most extreme example of morphological change in captivity of any of our Goniopora. I currently feed this species Liquid Life Plankton with Cyclop-eeze, rotifers, DT's oyster eggs, Cyclop-eeze juice and phytoplankton at least three to five times per week. Again, this species has responded well to feeding very small particulate foods.

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"Carpet of Love," Red and Green Goniopora stutchburyi

I set this colony aside because of its smaller and shorter polyps. This type is more like Porites than is any other colony I have at present, with corallites 1-2 mm wide and short polyps, usually one-inch long or less. It occasionally develops elongated sweeper polyps 3-4 inches long, with bright swollen acrospheres on its tentacle tips. This is my fastest growing Goniopora. Tissue spreads quickly over freshly cut skeleton and then onto the mounting plug. It prefers moderate to high water flow, with moderate to high lighting conditions. I feed this species DT's oyster eggs, Cyclop-eeze juice and phytoplankton three to five times per week. In my opinion, this coral does not need direct feeding to thrive, although such feedings do seem to enhance its growth.

Five months ago I received two green specimens of what I believed to be the same variety, and a comparison of coral skeletons confirmed this assumption. They have very thick branches but are the same in every other way to the red variety. Perhaps the red colony I received was just a portion of a larger branching variety or an encrusting form of the same species. When bleached, their corallites were the same size, and had similar septal patterns, with a wide porous columella. I have fragmented these colonies multiple times, and their growth is similar to that of the red variety. I keep a few in my fragmentation tank that houses small-polyped species, and the growth has been approximately 1mm every two to three weeks. It shows a strong feeding response to peppermint shrimp eggs and striped bass blood.

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Red Daisy

I have had this Goniopora for about five months. It was clearly taken from a larger colony, perhaps a mounding form. The corallites have thin walls and the septa fuse to form deltas, which leads me to believe that it is a G. palmensis instead of a G. tenidius which has similar septal patterns but more circular corallites. It has one-inch long polyps with corallites 4-5 mm in diameter. Since I have had it, I have provided it with direct feeding of DT's oyster eggs three to five times per week. Encrusting growth over the old skeleton is quick, and the colony produces more than a dozen new polyps a month over an area an inch and a half wide. It seems to be a good specimen for captive culture. It also seems to thrive in moderate to high water flow and prefers moderate to high lighting conditions.

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Bright Green Branching: Goniopora pandoraensis

I have had this colony for a year and a half. Its mother colony has branches 3-4" long and 1.5 - 2" wide. Growth with no direct feeding has been slow to nonexistent. I have recently fragmented this coral and begun direct feeding. Since then, its polyp extension has increased. New encrusting growth is slow. I currently feed it Liquid Life, rotifers, DT's oyster eggs, Cyclop-eeze juice and phytoplankton three to five times per week. Like many of the other species, it shows a strong feeding response to peppermint shrimp eggs and striped bass blood.

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Goniopora polyformis

I received the first colony about two and a half years ago. It had an encrusting type growth that I had not seen at the time so I placed it in our display tank.

It seemed to do fairly well for about two years, yet its overall growth was slow. Six months ago the water flow regimen was altered and it began receiving moderate to high flow (a particle in the water travels 3-4 inches a second), up from a flow that barely moved its tentacles. I received a very similar specimen five months ago and it has been in low flow the whole time and tissue expansion increases weekly. After moving the original colony to a low flow area, it has improved its polyp extension by up to 25% in two weeks; it also feeds more easily now. These corals eat Cyclop-eeze in the liquid life form and I feed it a mix of rotifers and oyster eggs three to five times per week.

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Red Encrusting Goniopora burgosi

The first colony of this species I received shipped poorly and immediately lost more than half its tissue. After two months it recovered, and six months later shows about a 25% increase in tissue. This coral has a very active feeding response, curling up its tentacles rapidly when given food such as oyster eggs. This colony will eat Cyclop-eeze, and is fed this and a mixture of rotifers, Cyclop-eeze juice, and oyster eggs three to five times per week. I feel this coral is a terrific candidate for captive culture given its striking color, willingness to feed and its impressive growth rate.

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Nuclear Goniopora polyformis

When this coral first arrived it had shipped poorly. A brown jelly infection had begun killing off tissue, so I divided the colony and dipped each fragment in Kent Tech as per the directions on the bottle. After a sketchy two months the colony showed improvement in polyp expansion. I had placed fragments in different lighting and water flow regimens. Fragments in lower flow had longer polyps than those in high flow. Additionally, feeding the polyps was easier in low flow. Fragments in high light, high flow areas showed a brighter coloration than low light, low flow specimens, which showed faint brown shading, possibly due to zooxanthellae in its tissue. It feeds readily on pieces of food as large as Cyclop-eeze. I feed them Cyclop-eeze, rotifers and oyster eggs three to five times per week. I have not had this species long term, but its growth and willingness to feed may make it a good candidate for aquaculture.

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Green Alveopora

I have had several colonies of branching Alveopora for several years. So far, they have approximately doubled in size every year. One fragment grew from 20 to 40 polyps in nine months, with twice weekly direct feedings of oyster eggs. With recent heavier feedings of DT's oyster eggs, their growth has increased. I also think this has something to do with the colony becoming acclimated to captivity, as with other species. I have one specimen in moderate to heavy water flow, 20" below a 400-watt metal halide light. The other specimens I have seem to prefer a much gentler flow, and they are tolerant of lighting from low to high irradiance. Alveopora have been reported to be hardier in captivity than Goniopora by many aquarists. I directly feed most of my Alveopora with DT's oyster eggs three to five times per week.

Food


Gut contents of some Goniopora have been a roughly even mix of phytoplankton and zooplankton (Toonen, 1999; Borneman, 2001). This might explain why systems with refugiums, deep sand beds and little skimming seem to reportedly allow higher survival rates of these corals. Refugiums and sand beds produce many kinds of zooplankton, larvae and eggs, and skimming removes them.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in my success with Goniopora has been food. Until very recently, the choices of food for Goniopora have been limited. Lately, two great foods have become available, frozen rotifers and DT's oyster eggs. Cyclop-eeze has been on the market for a few years. These foods are apparently closer to the fare that Goniopora ingest in the wild. I was successful with some Goniopora species for years without direct feeding; however, the systems were already geared towards high plankton growth. I also added some liquid foods including phytoplankton and juices from thawed strained frozen foods, most noticeably Cyclop-eeze. Upon starting a regular regimen of direct feeding, however, I have noticed a marked increase in growth of all species maintained. Larger polyped varieties, including the commonly imported G. stokesi, require heavy regular feeding to support their colonies. I have recently experimented with peppermint shrimp eggs and blood from a bag of fresh striped bass. Many of the hard-to-keep Goniopora had a strong feeding response to these foods. The development of new foods could possibly be directed towards invertebrate egg and larvae production. We can now get many kinds of shrimp to spawn. Their eggs, and I think their larvae, could be harvested as food for Goniopora and other corals.

When feeding Goniopora in a system with other animals there is bound to be competition for the food. When present in a system, Nassarius snails, shrimps, serpent stars and fish will help themselves to the food, sometimes before the Goniopora can fully ingest it. Shrimp are perhaps the worst offenders, often causing tissue damage as they pick pieces of food from the coral. It often is necessary to take steps to mitigate this opportunistic "food snatching" by the system's other inhabitants. Pre-feeding the other animals seems to help, or you can chase away fish and shrimp and move serpent stars and snails to the other side of the tank, allowing time for Goniopora to feed.

Another question exists as to which foods are best and which combinations are best. Perhaps feeding a coral a stew of 10 different kinds of food might impact its ability to digest the food, or maybe it makes no difference. Carefully testing foods and various combinations would answer this question. It is apparent that my success has been due to the use of smaller sized foods. Cyclop-eeze seems to be the upper size limit for the large-polyped varieties and may be too large for the smaller-polyped species. I supplement all my systems with phytoplankton, usually a refrigerated form (DT's Phytoplankton). Although I dose at about one-third the recommended amounts, I target feed my Goniopora.

I would recommend a few Goniopora species as being excellent candidates for captive propagation. Goniopora stutchburyi is one I would recommend to those who have systems geared more towards "SPS" corals. This species thrives in high light and low nutrient environments, and unlike some of its larger-polyped cousins, doesn't seem to need as much food and does quite well without direct feeding. Goniopora norfolkensis would be a great substitute for the commonly imported G. stokesi, which has extremely high captive mortality rates. At first glance it may be hard to tell the two apart. Goniopora norfolkensis, however, is mounding or massive, and is attached to a substrate unlike the free living G. stokesi. The Goniopora planulata growing at Fin and Feather looks like a purple G. stokesi at first glance.

Concluding Thoughts


As we discover the requirements for captive growth of these and other corals, we can establish captive strains like many kinds of Acropora that were once considered hard, if not impossible, to keep alive in captivity. Part of what I am doing at Fin and Feather is finding and growing strains of Goniopora that are appropriate for aquarium culture and establishing these strains in captivity. Corals adapt and change when maintained in captivity. For example, many kinds of Acropora, when grown in captivity, change and eventually may look nothing like the original colony, often-changing both their color and branch shape as they adapt to different conditions. For me, the purple Goniopora planulata best shows this adaptability, having not only changed colors several times, but the size and appearance of its polyps have changed considerably, almost to the point of looking like an entirely new variety.

Goniopora are a much-admired coral in the hobby, and for good reason. They have very interesting shapes and many have bright colors. Some species of Goniopora are definitely in the realm of corals suitable for the dedicated hobbyist, and I hope that my success and the information provided in this article will encourage others to have similar success. As more people are successful and build on each other's knowledge of this genus, we may find ourselves looking back years from now and thinking with amusement about how everyone once thought they were impossible to keep alive in captivity. The hobby is growing by leaps and bounds, from the days when keeping Aiptasia alive was a cause for celebration, to mini-reef systems, and now to the understanding of husbandry of new corals.


If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

References:


Borneman, E. H. 2001. Aquarium Corals: Selection, Husbandry, and Natural History. Microcosm/TFH, Neptune City. 464pp.

Borneman, E.H. 1997. A Death In the Family? The Mystery of Goniopora, Aquarium Net magazine. http://www.reefs.org/library/aquarium_net/1197/1197_3.htm

Toonen, Rob. 1999. Goniopora success?! Reefkeepers email list, December 1999.

Toonen, Rob (2001) Goniopora: Why do success rates with this coral remain so low? Freshwater and Marine Aquarium (FAMA) Magazine, Vol. 24, No. 6, pp. 142-158.

Sprung, Julian. 2002. Captive husbandry of Goniopora spp. with remarks about the similar genus Alveopora, Advanced Aquarist's Online Magazine, December 2002.

Veron, J.E.N. 2000. Corals of the World. Australian Institute for Marine Science, Townsville. 3 Volumes.





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The Care and Propagation of Goniopora by Justin Credabel - Reefkeeping.com