The Best Beginner Coral
Written by Dan
To the beginner, starting a coral reef tank can seem very intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. In this article I am going to go over 6 of the best coral for beginners. I am also going to break those 6 into 3 phases to make it even easier to get started.
And The Best 6 Beginner Coral are...
Here is exactly what we are going to cover
- What are coral?
- What makes a coral good for a beginner?
- Phase 1 Beginner Coral
- Phase 2 Beginner Coral
- Phase 3 Beginner Coral
- How to Add new coral to your tank
- How are coral categorized?
- What are the Big 3
What are Coral?
If you were told to close your eyes and imagine coral, you would probably get the image of some crystal clear water with large rock work and thousands of multi colored plant like things growing all over it. Same here, my mind instantly goes to some amazing snorkeling location! The truth is though, coral are found all over the ocean, and there are a lot that live in deeper darker waters too.
When we say coral, what we as aquarists are actually referring to, are a colony of polyps. Each polyp is actually its own separate organism with its own mouth and stomach. The way they grow together in colonies though, it is almost impossible with some species, to separate them into individual polyps.
A good way to think about it is like this. Picture a field full of wild flowers on the side of the road. From a hundred feet up it looks like one mass of color blowing in the wind. When inspected closer each flower is actually a separate plant with its own root system. We can separate a single flower, plant it somewhere else, and so long as the new location has the right conditions that flower will continue to thrive. That flower could even, over time spawn a whole new field of wild flowers.
What makes a coral good for a beginner?
When deciding if a coral is good for a beginner a couple factors come into play. First off, how much time does the individual want to invest in taking care of their tank? Next, what equipment does the person have, and what type of equipment are they willing to obtain? Finally, how much do you want to pay for something you are just learning how to take care of? The answers to these questions are not always so clear for each person. This is why I like the 3 phase approach for beginners. You have the opportunity to start off with less expensive equipment and with less expensive coral that need less specialized care. Even with the biggest, bestest(as my 6 year old says), and most awesome equipment out there; I still recommend starting with phase 1 coral and moving through the phases as you see success with each phase. This will give you the greatest chance for a successful tank since you will learn and build on your prior experience as you move through the phases.
Sample Phase 3 Beginner Tanks
The 3 phase approach works like this.
- Phase 1 consists of coral that do well with minimal or non-specialized equipment. They do not require special feeding or additives for them to live or thrive. They also are more resilient and able to handle less optimal condition or fluctuations in water parameters.
- Phase 2 will require a little better equipment, nothing major or extremely expensive but more thought is given at this phase to light intensity, filtration efficiency, and water condition consistency. These coral will not require specialized feeding or other additives but will benefit if they are supplied giving you the chance to try your hand at this without fear of killing off the coral if not done 100% optimally.
- Phase 3 is where we really start to hone in on having consistent water parameters. We look to see how lighting and water flow effect different areas of the tank for optimal placement of coral. We also start looking at coral which will require feeding and additional additives to stay healthy long term.
Phase 1 Beginner Coral
Mushroom coral specifically those in the Discosoma family are some of the best coral for any beginner. They come in a variety of colors including green, brown, blue, purple, and even orange. These mushrooms will have a small stalk, often not seen unless the polyp is stretching towards the light or shrunken up, which they often do at night. They will sometimes have bumps but nothing like their cousins in the Ricordea family (Not a beginner coral).
They will feed off of the zooxanthellae (zo-o-xan-thel-la) algae that grows inside them. Although many can feed off of external sources in the water it is not needed for them to grow and propagate. They will do well in low to moderate water flow. When judging water flow, if you see them moving more than a mild sway you can lower the flow rate of the area they are in. They will survive off of standard florescent aquarium bulbs or low intensity LEDs. If higher intensity lighting is present in the aquarium placing the mushrooms in a lower or shaded area is a good idea.
Corals typically classified as pulsing coral are given this name because of the way their polyp tentacles will open and close in a pulsing manor. This is actually done to both feed and help oxygenate the water around them. They are normally either white, pink, yellow, green, blue, or brown in color with the more rare colors being more expensive.
They live off of the photosynthesis of the zooxanthellae algae within them as their major source of food, and will also filter feed on the water around them capturing microscopic phytoplankton. A moderate aquarium light will keep them alive and growing. A mild to medium water flow is good. Just enough to keep the heads of the polyps slightly dancing around without appearing to be beaten down by the water is good. These coral are also very fast growers. Pulsing coral will grow fast, if left unchecked they can spread like crazy. For beginners wanting to see growth and progress this is great, for others with more specialized aqua sculpting it could just be a nuisance. If you are at phase 1 though, I say get some, learn from it and worry about pruning later.
Zoanthids are one of my favorite coral. Zoanthus and Palythoa are commonly mixed up because from a distance and w/out knowing the subtle differences they look very similar in structure. For simplicity I am referring to all of them when I say zoas in this article. Like Green Star Polyps zoas will grow from an encrusted mat which will grow over existing rockwork as new polyps grow.
One of the biggest draws to zoas are the huge number of color variations, many of which have taken on really cool common names in the hobby like spider man, radioactive dragon eye, superman, eye of Jupiter, Miami vice, etc. Like I said, cool names! The ease of which these can be grown and propagated have made them readily available without having to deplete natural reefs, which is a huge plus. You will find many of the common colorations going for large colonies at less than a dollar a polyp where some of the fancier named colorations can go for about 5$ a polyp.
Zoas will require more than just your standard aquarium light, but like with star polyps a modern LED advertised for coral should do great. The ones with actinic blue lights will cause these to practically glow like a black light poster. They will want a moderate water flow. Again, just enough to see them move a little bit but not much. Zoas will feed on their symbiotic algae but do feed on what’s in your tank as well. They will enjoy spot feeding a phytoplankton cocktail but can also survive off the excess micro particles floating in the water after feeding your fish frozen food.
If you are going to keep zoas you do need to be aware of what Palytoxin is. This toxin if found in a small amount of Palythoa but not in Zoanthus/Zoanthids. This toxin is released when the polyps are threatened. It can harm other livestock and make you sick. You should pay special care when handling them. Wear gloves and try to move the rock they are attached to and not them directly. If you try fragging your colony wear gloves and eye/face protection. You don’t want to get the stuff in any open cuts, your eyes, or your mouth. Having said that I don’t want to scare you away, Zoanthus corals can be kept safe but just like anything else, as my friend forest says, stupid is as stupid does. To be safe wear gloves and glasses when handling any of these just to be safe rather than sorry. If you want to know more here is a great article by Joe Rowlett about this subject.
Duncan coral are an awesome addition once you are ready for phase 3 coral. These coral will spawn new heads every month or so if conditions are good. Lighting and flow really don’t change from a phase 2 environment either. Although they will feed from zooxanthellae algae, they should be feed a meaty diet. That and the fact that you should begin dosing your tank with calcium to help these grow are the main reasons they are in phase 3.
They are active feeders which makes them a very cool coral to interact with. At least twice per week you should spot feed these coral using a baster and some frozen fish/coral food. Suck up a water mix of the thawed food. Place the tip of the baster about a half inch away from the mouth of a polyp and gently squeeze out some of the food. The Duncan’s tentacles will close up around the food pulling it to its mouth in the center of the polyp. Try to place a bit of food on each polyp.
Because the base of each polyp is hard and calcified you will need to maintain a higher calcium amount in your tank. To accomplish this, test your waters calcium level regularly and begin using a calcium drip or calcium reactor. Duncan are a good coral to learn on since they won’t die off if you don’t dose but you will see huge results if you keep an optimum 400 – 450 ppm consistently.
Leather Coral is a broader categorization of several species families. They are all octocorals, meaning their overall structure grows in symmetry of eight. That structure can be tree like, lobed, or thick and encrusting. Under the right conditions they will grow at a medium to fast rate.
Leather corals will feed off of their symbiotic zooxanthella as well as off of phytoplankton in the water around it. It is good to spot feed these as well. When you spot feed your coral, make sure your pumps are off to limit the water flow and using a baster cover the bulk of the polyps with food. You can use a specialized phytoplankton mix or a frozen food with phytoplankton in it. If you are using a frozen mix make sure you suck up the fine mix in the middle of your mix cup not the chunky bits. Save those for your duncans.
You may need to up your equipment for these though. They will require medium to high lighting and a moderate to strong water flow. These will be the most demanding, equipment wise, of all the coral in our beginner recommendations. With good water, light, and flow conditions though these can grow at a good pace. They can be very large too, making for good show pieces in a newer aquarium.
How to add new coral to your tankPrior to adding coral to you tank you want to make sure that you inspect it for hitchhikers. As good as the modern coral farms and fish stores are; they still are just as susceptible to having unwanted critters hiding in rocks and coral as they ever were. All it takes, is one bad critter, even after years of having a successful tank, and you will experience a tremendous amount of headaches. Some hitchhikers that can cause headaches are predatory Nudibranch, flatworms, Pycnogonids, Aiptasia, and bristle worms. Some of these are extremely hard to get rid of in a fully stocked tank. So keeping them out is the best defense. So how do you do that? Start with doing a coral dip on all new coral. A coral dip is the process of submerging your new coral and plug/rock in a bowl of water which has a chemical additive to flush out or kill off these unwanted critters. Next, quarantine any newcomer before adding it to your tank for a week or two. At first, the idea of having a whole separate tank to keep new fish and coral in sounds extreme and expensive. Compared to dead coral and fish you have paid $20, $50, $100, or more for; is a 10 gallon tank with a hang on filter and heater really that expensive? When you are ready to put your new coral in your tank be sure to acclimate them using the drip acclimation method. This allows your coral to slowly acclimate from the water condition of your supplier to yours.
How are coral categorized?
This is one of the first places new comers often get confused. In the hobby you will hear two primary groupings, Small Polly Stony (SPS) and Large Polyp Stony (LPS). All this really means is does the colony of polyps, consist of large polyps or small polyps. A long time ago, in a hobby far far away, that meant something about how difficult the coral was to care for. With advances in technology, equipment, and even the known species grown by hobbyists, that isn’t the case anymore. Coral that were once impossible to take care of are mid-level coral now with modern LED lights and a good dosing schedule.It is good to know if your coral are LPS or SPS, but most tanks these days are a mix of both. The categorization I recommend you should familiarize yourself with is the family a coral falls into within those two groups as that will give you a better idea of what level of care that coral will need. You can then build a tank with coral from families in both LPS and SPS that need similar conditions.
What are the big 3?So what are the big 3 or 4? If you have done your homework on coral a phrase you will hear repeatedly is the big 3 or the big 4. What they are referring to are Salinity, Calcium, Magnesium, and Alkalinity. When you hear 3 they are leaving out salinity as this is needed for all saltwater tanks not just coral ones. These are the primary conditions your coral will need to thrive. The salinity in your tank should be maintained consistently without frequent fluctuations. A salinity range of 1.023 – 1.026 is best, but beyond that if your salinity is 1.023 your coral will do best if it stays at 1.023. If it is 1.023 one day and 1.026 the next this is not ideal. A large contributor to salinity changes is evaporation. To eliminate this I suggest using an automatic top off system to feed fresh RO water as the level drops in your tank. The other cause of swings in salinity, is you adding water of a different salinity during water changes. For this I say check your water mix carefully. Keeping your calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium levels optimal is just as much an art form as it is a science. Calcium and Magnesium are ions in your water where Alkalinity is not an element but rather a measure of how much acid is needed to lower the waters PH, commonly called its buffering capacity. Keeping them all in range is not as easy as adding a little extra when they get low. This is because they all have an effect on each other. So long as your levels are in line with each other a balanced kalkwasser supplement will help keep them elevated as your coral pulls them out of the water to grow. Another good method for balanced elevation is to use a calcium reactor. If they are not in line a two-part solution should be used. A two-part solution allows you to raise calcium and alkalinity together but at different levels of magnitude. Finally if you are having issues keeping your calcium and alkalinity in line, try raising your magnesium levels higher. Magnesium interacts with many ions similar to calcium creating carbonate ions. This in turn helps with your calcium and alkalinity levels. Conclusion Don’t be afraid to start keeping coral. These 7 coral and the 3 phase approach give you a great road map to success. Don’t feel like you need to increase your phase if you are not ready. If you are happy with your fish and phase 1 coral; don’t stress buying new equipment or coral that require more time. If you like your phase 2 tank and everything is happy, but you know you don’t have time to really stress extra feeding regiments or dosing schedules, don’t move on. Find the level of reef you like and are comfortable caring for and be happy.