Photosynthetic Gorgonians for the Home Aquaria

By on Jan 26, 2013

Of all the amazing corals that are available to the reef aquarium hobbyists nowadays, gorgonians are frequently overlooked when choosing corals for our aquariums. In the wild they are a vital part of the environment; they filter water, provide sanctuary for fish, crinoids, and many other creatures.  They are part of the food chain, which make them a food source for various nudibranchs, snails, and fish.  And let’s not forget they are generally beautiful.  When I go diving in the Florida Keys gorgonians are everywhere; in all shapes and sizes, in some areas there are huge fields of them waving back and forth in the current.

I think that for most of us gorgonians seem hard to keep or we are unsure of how they should fit into our personal reef aquariums. If you do a search on the internet it’s difficult to find good information on gorgonian care, that’s current and up to date. When it comes to purchasing gorgonians – there’s quite a confusing mix of photosynthetic and non-photosynthetic gorgonians offered for sale.

Fragged Gorgonians WM

If you do not have Julian Sprung’s book “CORALS” handy to look up the different species and their care needs, it is tough to know what is best suited for your aquarium and what would not make a good choice. There are many stunning types of non-photosynthetic gorgonians available in the hobby, but most do not have a good long term success rate in captivity. Luckily there are several beautiful, photosynthetic gorgonians that are fairly easy to keep if given the right care.

This gorgonian has been in captivity for over five years and has developed intense coloration.

This gorgonian has been in captivity for over five years and has developed intense coloration.

Most all of the photosynthetic gorgonians available to the hobby come from very shallow areas of the Caribbean seas. Their natural habitat has strong tidal currents and ample sunlight – therefore providing them with the same conditions in your own aquarium is a must. I think good water flow is really one of the most important factors in successful captive care of gorgonians. Some gorgonians shed a thin membrane layer, much like leather corals, every few days to help rid their tissue of algae and other irritants. Sufficient flow rates help blow off this mucus membrane ensuring better overall health and polyp extension.

Photosynthetic gorgonians love light, so be sure to place them in an area of your tank where they will be under moderate to high lighting for several hours a day. Most gorgonians prefer to be placed upright, freestanding, and secured to a rock. Gorgonians can be damaged if they are leaning up against a glass wall or other hard surface that is impeding flow to their tissue. Even though photosynthetic gorgonians are fairly easy to keep, corals can sting and damage their tissue, so it’s best to keep them at a distance to prevent touching. In general, I have a rule of thumb for placing different species of corals in an aquarium.  When placing the coral in the proper location it’s always wise to provide a few inches of space around the coral since they tend to be territorial in nature and can engage in chemical warfare.

When purchasing gorgonians for your tank is important to find a reputable seller, preferably with what you see is what you get pictures of the gorgonians available so you are certain to receive healthy specimens. Many stores do not keep gorgonians in good light or flow so they tend to be unhealthy. It is important that they have good color, polyp extension, and do not look crumbly or grey. Sometimes a gorgonian might have a dead section or will be missing tissue on a branch. As long as the rest of the coral appears to be healthy, you can take scissors and cut this section off with no harm to the rest of the coral.

Plexaura flexuosa with small section of missing tissue.

Plexaura flexuosa with small section of missing tissue.

Gorgonian frags are becoming popular in the hobby and a larger variety of species are available, now more than ever before. Since they are already secured to a plug, it takes the work out of trying to epoxy a new gorgonian to live rock which can prove challenging. Most species of gorgonians encrust onto frag plugs quickly, which makes them easier to place in your aquarium. Cultured gorgonian fragments tend to be smaller and have a better chance of survival even in nano aquariums. They are also economically priced, making it easier for hobbyists to try several different species instead of only keeping one large gorgonian.

Base of Plexaura flexuosa encrusted on a frag plug.

Base of Plexaura flexuosa encrusted on a frag plug.

The following are some of my personal favorites as far as photosynthetic gorgonians are concerned. This is not a comprehensive guide of all photosynthetic gorgonians, instead I wanted to share some of the more readily available types, which I feel have the best chance of survival in the average reader’s reef tank. I also have a bias towards purple, so I tend to keep gorgonians with a strong purple coloration.

Briareum with open polyps.

Briareum with open polyps.

One of the best beginner gorgonians is Briareum. This coral is actually a tan cousin of green star polyps and not a true gorgonian. Its common name is Corky Finger; it is frequently available at many LFS and online retailers. This coral can withstand a variety of lighting, flow, and water quality conditions, making it a great choice for beginners or a new aquarium.

Briareum with closed polyps.

Briareum with closed polyps.

One of my friend’s tanks went without power for two days; everything died, but the Briareum still survived. It grows well once established, with very fuzzy polyps almost resembling a species of Xenia. It is best to keep this coral upright or at least in an area of its own, with minimal contact with your main rock work as it can encrust onto rocks and become somewhat invasive. In the wild it is common for Briareum to grow onto other corals and smother them, so it is important to keep that in mind when placing this species in your aquarium.

Muriceopsis with polyp extension.

Muriceopsis with polyp extension.

Muriceopsis is also a good choice as a beginner gorgonian. It looks like big purple feathers; in the wild it grows into large bushes a few feet in height. This gorgonian is fairly soft and sways in the current, so it is a nice coral to add if you are looking for more movement in your reef. It is very easy to keep and will tolerate many different tank conditions. It does like strong lighting and will flourish under Metal Halide, T5, and LED lighting. Since Muriceopsis grows well in reef tanks and is hardy, it is a good candidate for fragging. This type of gorgonian can also tolerate somewhat lower flow conditions making it a safe choice for seahorse and pipefish species aquarium.

Pterogorgia gorgonian close up.

Pterogorgia gorgonian close up.

Pterogorgia gorgonians, referred to as purple blade gorgonians, are unique looking with fuzzy brown polyps and deep purple, angular branches. This species occurs in very shallow tidal lagoons in the wild so it is best kept under strong lighting and fairly high flow.

Pterogorgia, Purple Blade gorgonian.

Pterogorgia, Purple Blade gorgonian.

When I first started keeping purple blade gorgonians I used to think they were somewhat hard to keep, but then I came to the realization that they weren’t receiving enough flow. Once I gave them plenty of flow they stayed open all the time with good polyp extension. Their unusual appearance is very striking and can help add some interesting vertical features to a reef tank.

Antillogorgia, soft fern-like gorgonian.

Antillogorgia, soft fern-like gorgonian.

Antillogorgia are a very soft fern-like gorgonian that are less frequently available, but make a great addition if you can find a good supplier. Though the purple variety of this species is more commonly available in the hobby, I am featuring a beautiful golden-plume hued species in my pictures. This coral is very soft, even slimy when handled.

Unusual golden-plume colored Antillogorgia.

Unusual golden-plume colored Antillogorgia.

By appearance it seems to be delicate, but is actually quite hardy and even had full polyp extension in the bag before I placed it in my aquarium. It will do best under strong light and good flow. Since it is so soft it is continually in motion when kept in a tank with good current.

Plexaurella gorgonian close up.

Plexaurella gorgonian close up.

Plexaurella gorgonians come in a few different colors; from violet to cream to almost black. These are smooth branching gorgonian with numerous light colored polyps. Though not as commonly available to the hobby as some of the preceding gorgonians, they will make a good addition to any reef tank.

Black Plexaurella gorgonian.

Black Plexaurella gorgonian.

This species tends to be cheaper than purple Plexaura, but it shares the same spread out branching growth pattern and is a real beauty.

Plexaura flexuosa with great polyp extension.

Plexaura flexuosa with great polyp extension.

My favorite of all the photosynthetic gorgonians is definitely Plexaura flexuosa. It has probably the strongest purple coloration of any of the gorgonians with smooth branches that are covered in hundreds of fuzzy, tan polyps. The common name is purple candelabra and smaller specimens of this species do indeed resemble a fancy candlestick holder.

Gorgeous purple Plexaura flexuosa.

Gorgeous purple Plexaura flexuosa.

This gorgonian grows up to several feet tall in the wild in large bushes and is fast growing. Plexaura is seldom available in the hobby because it is hard to find in small sizes in the wild and is infrequently collected by divers. This coral does well in tanks with strong, variable flow and moderate to high lighting.


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