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Genus Dendronephthya - Carnation Coral
Within the family Nephtheidae, there are those corals commonly called carnation coral, tree coral, cauliflower coral, and strawberry coral. Hailing from the genus Dendronephthya, these are truly some of the crown jewels of the cnidarian world. They are ostentatious animals often displaying showy colors, and their presence in a reef aquarium will turn the aquarium into a stunning work of art. Unfortunately, carnation corals are known to be difficult corals to keep alive in captivity, and they are best left to expert aquarists.
The carnation corals belong to the family Nephtheidae. Other genera in the family include Capnella, Lemnalia, Litophyton, Nephthea, and Scleronephthya, and all are frequently referred to as tree or cauliflower coral. Nephtheids are, generally speaking, bushy, tree-shaped soft corals. Soft corals from this family are amongst the most difficult soft corals to keep, although modern approaches to coral husbandry is slowly changing that.
Genus Dendronephthya – Carnation Coral
The carnation coral, which is generally considered common throughout the Indo-Pacific in tropical waters, is frequently available in the marine aquarium trade. In the wild, they are found growing in a wide variety of locations including overhangs and caves as well as more exposed locations on reef slopes. Because they are non-photosynthetic, they do not need high intensity, reef-ready lighting, but, provided they are properly light acclimated, they can do well in such a situation. One thing they do need is strong current, as anyone who has seen them thriving in the wild can attest.
It is difficult to identify these corals down to the species level without removing the specimen to the lab. Likewise, it is not uncommon for species of different, albeit closely related genera (e.g., Scleronephthya), to be sold in the aquarium trade as carnation coral. Fortunately, the captive husbandry is similar for all.
Carnation Coral Husbandry
Carnation corals should only be kept by experienced reef aquarists, who can provide the appropriate environment and husbandry for these difficult-to-keep species. To begin with, the carnation coral-ready aquarium should be an established reef tank (at least six months to one year old). As mentioned above, this is a non-photosynthetic coral (it does not host symbiotic algae in its tissue) and, therefore, does not require high intensity, reef-ready lighting. What it does require is medium to strong, intermittent water movement.
Carnation coral will feed on planktonic foods naturally carried by the current to the animal’s nonretractile polyps. For optimal health, carnation corals should be target fed daily with food specially formulated for filter feeding invertebrates.
Dealing with Parasitic Nudibranches
Many corals may host parasitic animals that are capable of spreading in the aquarium and causing serious problems for reef keepers. In the case of carnation corals, there are several species of nudibranchs (e.g., arminid and aeolid nudibranchs) that pose a real threat. At Blue Zoo, we visually inspect every carnation coral that comes in to our facility.
“If we spot one of these pest nudibrachs, we remove it with our hands,” says Collector’s Choice Livestock Manager Kris Wray. “We then give the coral a three to four minute RO/DI freshwater dip in a separate container. Even so, we encourage all of our customers to appropriately quarantine new coral before adding it to their reef.”
For the aquarist who believes he or she may have an infestation in the aquarium, there are several courses of action that may be considered. Identifying the nudibranch down to the species level may be impossible and is often unnecessary, as the majority of nudibrachs are not considered reef-compatible. Most of the common nudibranchs that pose a threat to carnation corals are less than 2 cm in length when fully grown. Difficult to see while the lights are on, the aquarist may first notice blemishes on the tissue of the carnation coral. These blemishes may be simply bare spots or places that are discolored or white. To determine the presence of nudibranches, inspect the coral after the lights have gone out using a high-intensity LED flashlight. The nudibranches are sometimes very hard to see, as they will mimic the coral’s structure, but a close inspection will reveal small, “slug-like” creatures.
Once a nudibranch infestation has been determined, the aquarist has three main choices for eradication: manual removal, chemical treatment or biological treatment. For manual removal, use tweezers to pluck the individual nudibranches from the coral’s tissue. For chemical treatment, iodine dips (at BZA we recommend Lugol's Solution) of the infested coral are effective. Use the recommended concentration mixed with RO/DI water. With both manual and chemical treatments, keep in mind that the eggs may well survive, necessitating follow-up treatment. As such, it is best to remove the infested specimen to a quarantine tank for treatment.
For biological treatment of pest nudibranchs, the aquarist may consider introducing a known nudibranch predator such as one of the fishes from the genus Chaetodon (butterflyfishes) or wrasses from the genus Thalassoma.