Toadstool leather corals are a distinctive group of aquarium corals which have a lot of diversity at the generic level, but the species are more challenging to distinguish. Even in the wild a Sarcophyton toadstool may be hard to tell apart, and in the aquarium setting you really have to make the colony ‘bloom’ with large, completely extended polyps to identify a true Weeping Willow leather from all the imposters.
Sure we can tell apart the Fiji yellow toadstools, the green polyped strains, and the large polyp varieties but it takes a certain amount of dedication and attention to detail to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is usually the case with freshly collected corals so that’s why we go diving on natural reefs to see cool and unusual coral strains in their native environment so we can truly appreciate when we come across something truly unusual.
This was precisely the case on a recent expedition to the Southern reaches of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef where we came across a very unusual species of toadstool leather coral with a very distinctive appearance. What was weird about this leather coral is that instead of having a mostly smooth, mushroom shaped crown, this leather coral had pseudobranches developing from the margin of the crown, like someone had taken big erratic cuts from the outer edge.
At first we just thought that the first couple colonies we came across might be some sort of mutant, or the victim of grazing by some kind of predator biting out uneven chunks from it. However we eventually came across this particular growth form over and over again on various habitats and realized that this must be a distinct endemic species from the Southern Great Barrier Reef.
The ‘raggedy’ appearance of this semi-branching Sarcophyton toadstool leather coral is partly due to the irregular shape of the pseudo-branches, but is bolstered by the appearance of this leather coral when the polyps are extended. Between the weird lumpy vestigial branches, and large conspicuous polyps this leather coral really does look like a sample of shag carpet someone placed on a stalk out in the middle of the ocean.
Eagle-eyed coral spotters will have noticed that certain leather corals from Australia do have this irregular margin to the crown which sometimes folds up into a little spike, but that’s usually as far as it goes. The raggedy toadstool leather takes this idea to the next level to resemble a coral unlike anything we have seen either in the wild or in the aquarium hobby.
Interestingly, there’s been some degree of research into the spectrum of leather coral species from both the Sarcophyton and Lobophytum genera and the genetics analysis seems to support a third, so far unrecognized genus. With its pseudobranches and generally weird appearance we’d like to think that the raggedy toadstool leather might fit the description for this intermediate group of leather corals but more detailed observation of this coral’s genetics and morphology would be required.
Thankfully, we didn’t only take pictures of the raggedy toadstool leather coral from the Southern Great Barrier Reef as a couple colonies made their way to America, including the most recent shipment to the Reef Builders Studio. To our great luck and surprise the raggedy leather coral in our care is already showing an attractive amount of green color and it is quickly settling into aquarium life. We’re very much looking forward to seeing how this coral develops in a modern reef aquarium environment and in the meantime, give those toadstool leather coral frags a harder look next time, there’s an element of surprise in seeing toadstool leather corals at their best.