In 1992, I wrote my first article on the fragmenting of corals, fragging for short. At that time fragging corals was primarily done on soft corals and was done more out of the necessity to preserve the corals we had, rather than to share the wealth or any other reason. At that time, our success rate in keeping even soft corals was mediocre at best, so we learned that if a coral started to die, we could sometimes save at least part of it by cutting the healthy portion of the animal away from the dying part and then let the new portion regrow.
Needless to say our success rate was not nearly what it is today. Fortunately, over the next decade or so things began to change dramatically with the biggest change being the shift in the hobby from most of us keeping soft corals to the majority keeping the many varieties of stony corals. As time progressed and our coral keeping skills improved the propagation of just about every coral we keep improved markedly. As a result in 2006 I wrote an article on the fragging phenomenon and how it was starting to change the face of the hobby.
That is, as our skill improved and success increased we were no longer limited to just breaking off branches of stony corals like Acropora and Montipora, but we became so adept that we now began to propagate expensive corals like rare Acanthastreas, Favias and even chalice corals. Corals which at that time were just starting to be appreciated for the vivid colors and shapes from the more common corals we were keeping. In fact, we are now so good at propagation that we are even propagating rare mushroom anemones and many species of anemones, which is significant in that a little over a decade ago there was a call for the harvesting of all anemones to halt, as the number being taken off the reef was exceeding the rate at which different they multiplied naturally.
The fragging of corals and our success at not only keeping but propagating many of our animals has not only helped in the unprecedented success that many of us now achieve, but it has also markedly changed how the hobby is perceived. Up until recently many people unfamiliar with the hobby felt we were nothing more than “Raiders of the Reef”. However once the uninitiated see that for many of us the corals and some of the fish in our tank are propagated away from the ocean they begin to appreciate the positive impact we are having on not only protecting corals, but also in educating others about the life on the reef. Granted we still have a long way to go in educating the public, and especially politicians and bureaucrats about what we do and how we do it. But at least now due to our fragging efforts we can show that our attempts at propagating corals in the past were not in vain.
Despite the marked improvement in fragging corals, there is still room for improvement in a number of areas. Dieter Brockman published some of his experiments on fragging corals in 2011 and unfortunately some of his findings have not yet been followed. In one of his experiments, and I am paraphrasing, he compared the mortality rates of sps coral fragments of greater than 1 inch with those of less than one inch. What he found was that the smaller fragments had a mortality rate almost 6 times greater than the larger frags after only 20 days. However, this difference could be negated if both the fragmenting and the mounting took place completely underwater. That is when neither the frag nor the mother colony was ever exposed to air the survival rates of nearly all of the fragments was close to 100 percent. Unfortunately when I have spoken with many of the coral farmers out there I did not run across any of them who were fragging their corals completely under water. I realize that this is a more laborious and difficult process, but producing frags with near 100% survivability I think would be worth it.
Over the years I have also conducted a number of experiments in regards to fragging sps corals as well. The most interesting of these findings is that sps corals that are fragged and have the fragged branches laid down on the base rather than planted upright like a tree, put down tissue to encrust on the base anywhere from 3 to 5 times faster than those planted upright. After a year these corals also produced nearly double the amount of branches than did the upright mounted frags. When you think about it this makes sense in that if a coral branch is knocked off the mother colony in nature it is more likely to fall flat to the substrate rather than perpendicular to it, therefore it would be beneficial for its survival to produce tissue faster when it is in this position.
Also in agreement with Brockman’s findings, larger frags grew faster than smaller frags. That is, one inch frags produced nearly four times the mass of ½ inch frags at the end of a year. I realize this is not a revelation, but merely further confirmation that bigger frags produce larger mini-colonies faster than do smaller frags. I realize that some coral cultivators will not be happy with my acknowledging this, but having bought my share of ½ inch and smaller frags over the years I now try to get bigger frags when I can. I also realize that due to demand for the rarer and most colorful frags, that getting bigger frags is not always possible.
One other aspect of coral fragging that is often neglected besides size and mounting is how and where to take the frags from on the mother colony. In an excellent article on this aspect of fragging Jake Adams in 2009 in Reef Hobbyist Magazine (free sub. required) outlines how to do this properly so that the mother colony is not disfigured and over time. He also found that it usually takes 3-4 months for the mother colony to heal completely and look like it did originally. Since most of us who frag our corals do so to protect our rare charges and make sure they are around and to trade for other frags, this article is helpful to help keep the beauty of our tanks and corals intact even after fragging.
What I do hope to convey is that even if the frags are small, if they were properly harvested and mounted they still can become full colonies in a relatively short time. However, one other thing needs to be acknowledged as well in regards coral fragments: they morph. That is, while a mother colony of a coral can look one way, a daughter frag of it can look significantly different over time in a different tank. Many factors affect the final coloration of a coral and to think that all of the factors in your tank, and especially light, water motion and water chemistry will be exactly the same as those in the mother colony’s tank and hence will produce a coral with the exact same coloration is wishful thinking.
In this regard, I have had frags grow into colonies that were both better and worse as well as the same as the mother colony, and for seemingly no reason. To me this is part of the fun of keeping these corals. You never know what you are going to get once your frag starts growing. Some may be dissuaded from getting frags knowing this, but using frags to start a tank has many advantages. First, as I stated at the beginning of this article, using frags has very limited to no impact on the reef. Also most frags now have been in someone’s tanks for two, three or more generations. As a result, they are accustomed to captive conditions and thus are less likely to die if your conditions aren’t perfect. When they have been captive grown for a generation or two and are then fragged and placed in a new tank, they tend to acclimate and grow quickly if you place them properly with some space to grow, if conditions are right they will fill the space around them quickly. Also if the space around them is also filled with frags I have found that unlike full colonies which tend to battle one another when placed close together from the start, frags that grow up next to other frags tend to have a kind of demilitarized zone between them so they do not battle to the death like I’ve had some wild colonies do.
The other and my favorite reason for stocking a tank with frags is that some of the frags you see really are from corals that may be one of a kind. I used to pooh pooh this idea, but after seeing literally tens of thousands of corals come in over the years I have now accepted that some corals really are not seen very often and some only once and that when they are unique they should be propagated by as many people as possible. A case in point is the Leng Sy Montipora. For at least the last 10 years this was one of the most sought after corals, and despite the large number of Montiporas that have been brought in and propagated none really lived up to the beauty of this coral in my opinion.
It was unique not only for the deep purple edge that it produced, but also for the nodules in the cup portion that grew longer than those on any other plating type of Montipora I have seen. Leng had only given out a very limited number of fragments and when his mother colony and what everyone thought all of the frags died everyone thought this coral was gone forever. Fortunately, Leng had given a small frag to a young aquarist and had completely forgotten that he had given him this frag. Luckily this aquarist, Cruz Arias now of Elegant Corals, kept this frag going and recently began distributing daughter frags. So by fragmenting his prized coral to a young hobbyist, this coral is back in the hobby after a long hiatus, and in a lot of happy people’s tanks. And yes I do have a frag of it and I am actually growing it next to a frag of what I have considered the Leng Sy cap that I had.
While I am not a big proponent of naming corals, I now appreciate that now this may be necessary owing to the myriad color patterns many corals show and this may be the only way to keep them categorized so that the corals can be differentiated. The caveat to this is that the same coral may have different names in different tanks as sometimes when a coral comes in two or more colonies arrive at the same time and end up in different tanks.
So how far has fragging corals come? To start, at MACNA this year no fewer than 20 vendors will be selling propagated corals. Also now at least 3 large wholesalers are selling frags of just about everything to your local fish store. And lastly while looking online I found no fewer than 50 vendors selling frags, so needless to say, frags are now an integral part of the hobby. And unlike some other aspects of the hobby, I expect this aspect of the hobby to grow even more in the future. The next step will be areas such as Australia, where the mariculture of corals is prohibited, will soon start shipping frags here. I expect this soon to be followed by other areas where either collection or the mariculture of corals is also prohibited to start culturing frags as well. So for those of us who always desire something new this is good news.
Even though keeping corals and getting frags is addicting to me and I have been doing this for a long time, I still can get excited when I come across a frag of a beautiful coral I have not seen before or even one I have not seen in a long time. Sadly the truth is you cannot keep every beautiful coral you see, trust me I’ve tried. But getting and growing frags gives you the chance to keep more corals than I ever thought possible.
While visiting Victor and Lou at Worldwide Corals or Brett and Todd at Cherry Corals or Joe and Scott at Unique Corals can produce a sensory overload akin Augustus Gloop visiting Willy Wonka’s, I do try to not get sucked into the vats where they are propagating their frags.
When I went back and read the article on propagating corals from 1992 as well as the other articles I mentioned it is amazing to see how far the hobby has come in a relatively short time and that much of our success can at least in part be attributed to our ability to “frag” just about everything. For anyone who does not believe this is having an impact I invite them to visit the many vendors selling frags of just about every coral imaginable and to be patient and let them grow. For the best example of how beautiful a tank can be when started with frags only and allowed to grow look closely at the picture of Sanjay’s tank that accompanies this article. I believe he started with nothing but frags less than a year ago so you can happen when frags are given time and space and great conditions. Truly an inspiration and another reason to frag.