Soft Corals

What You Need to Understand about Soft Corals

Some aquarists prefer having only soft corals (instead of fish) in their home saltwater aquarium. In general, the term itself is used quite broadly to a lumpy-look alike bunch of coral species (whether they are related or unrelated types). These corals are soft. They don’t have any (major) stony external skeleton on the outer side of their body. They AREN’T false corals, which make them different from zoanthids (or mostly referred to as Zoas) and mushrooms.

Soft Corals

Not many people realize that corals are basically animals. Some of these (soft) corals are quite popular and easy to find. They are available at local fish stores. Some aquarists even claim that it is easier to care for the corals; at least, easier than the fish. If you are interested in caring for those corals, be sure to read further because you want to know the proper guide and way to care for them.

Soft Coral vs Hard Coral

So, what’s the basic differences between the soft corals and hard (or often called as stony) corals? Well, Hard corals have substantial and major external skeleton which is made from calcium carbonate. The corals include LPS (Large Polyp Stony) and SPS (Small Poly Stony).

Soft corals, on the other hand, have fleshy, soft, and big polyps. They also have calcium carbonate skeleton, but only in tiny pieces within their tissue. These tiny pieces skeletons are known as sclerites. If you take a look at them closer, they look like fingernail clippings or small crescent moons. If you even observe them even closer, you will see that these sclerites would be embedded within the corals’ tissues. Doing observations like this can be fun and exciting in its own.

Soft Coral Xenia

You will see that there are white lines (looking similar to striations) on the corals’ tissues. In some cases, those white lines may look like worms. They are basically the bony shards constructed from calcium carbonate. This is the same quality material forming the stony skeleton of SPS and LPS species. In (soft) coral types, you won’t find the formidable (stony) structure, which differentiates them from their hard coral types.

As it was stated before, this type of corals doesn’t have exterior calcium carbonate skeleton. But how do you differentiate it from other ‘fake’ corals or the other types of non-stony corals (such as Zoas or mushrooms)? To do this, make sure that you check the individual coral. True soft corals is a part of Octocorilla sub-class with refers to corals having (radially) symmetrical divisible by eight. Okay, imagine this: When you see a wall clock with numbers 1 to 12, you see a radially symmetrical object that is divided by 12. Now imagine if the clock only has 8 hours that is distributed in an even spaced rounding the clock. That’s how soft-type corals are. The Octocorillans polyps have around 8 tentacles.


If you have to compare it to the Zoanthids, remember that Zoas belong to Hexacorralia sub-class. It is also radially symmetrical but more in 6 symmetrical parts instead of an 8. From this alone, Zoas have different body construction and structure from the (true) soft corals. What about the mushroom anemones? Well, they belong to Corallimorphia sub-class, representing an animal group with completely different and distinct morphology than the others. As it was mentioned before, they may look the same, but if you look closer and in a more-detailed manner, they are completely different.

Soft Corals vs ‘Fake’ Corals

What about Zoanthids corals or mushroom corals? They are often referred and believed to be true corals instead of a ‘fake’ corals or even colonial anemones. Well, terminology isn’t a big deal, really. It’s more about the specs and details rather than the general view or appearance. But then again, these animals have sclerites (bony elements). Not to mention that they exist as cooperative polyps’ colony existing on a greater (or bigger) structures. Naturally, they are different from the mushroom or Zoas anemones whose bigger polyps can be found on individual organism.

Different Types

As it was mentioned before, these soft coral are being divided into various categories. After all, the animal comprises of a big group with various animals. Here are some of them:

  • Clavularia, including Clove Polyps
  • Lobophytum, which include Devil’s Hand
  • Pachyclavularia, including Green Star Polyps
  • Capnella, including Kenya Tree Coral
  • Xenia, including Pulsing Xenia
  • Alcyonium, which includes Finger Leather
  • Anthelia, including Waving Hand Coral
  • Cladiella, which includes Colt Coral
  • Nepthea, including Cauliflower Coral
  • Sinularia, including Cabbage Leather
  • Dendronepthya, which includes Carnation Coral
  • Sarcophytum, including Mushroom Leather or Toadstool Coral

Caring for Soft Coral

Considering that this type of coral is quite big and diverse, creating a summary on care and guidance instructions is a tricky thing. But there are some guides that result from the most common and popular varieties that have been produced out there.

No need to worry; there are tons of popular corals that are beginner-friendly. If you are new to this industry, you have quite an abundance option to choose. These corals are hardy, which means that they are robust and tough. They are able to survive well in different conditions, even in the most difficult ones. In most cases, these soft corals will grow well. They are pretty tolerant and flexible against different aquarium conditions. They don’t min minor fluctuations in the tank (such as water quality). Another good thing about this type of coral is that they only need just the right and also moderate amount of water current and light intensity.

Think of growing such hard corals? There are many options for them, including Pulsing Xenia, Colt Corals, Cabbage Leather, Capella, Finger Leather, Devil’s Hand, or Toadstool Coral. You only need to make sure that you meet the standard reef parameter so the corals would grow well. They will be healthy and happy.

Growing Soft Corals Faster

There are some key elements that can boost the corals’ growth faster and better. You need to increase light quality gradually. It means that you need to set higher PAR (Photosynthetic Active/Available Radiation) value or you provide more PAR. Don’t forget to feed the tank several times within a week. You can try feeding it with baby brine shrimp or rotifers, along with thawed frozen foods, Reef Roids, or Cyclops (the freeze-dried type). Most tank owners would blast the foods within the powerhead so there would be various foods sizes for easier feeding process.

It would be advisable if you can test the water regularly for salinity, pH, and also nitrates. Track the nitrite and ammonia too. Make sure that the water temperature remains stable, around 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The pH should be around 8.2 and the gravity is around 1.025. If you are using high-quality and premium salt mix, you shouldn’t encounter any issue maintaining the water parameters within this level.

What about supplements? Well, if you have proper water perimeter and ideal condition, then supplements may not be needed. However, the level of alkaline and calcium should be high. If you are struggling with this, you can add 2-part additive. Most aquarists are doing okay with only water changes (using Instant Ocean) without having extra dosing.

Proper Feeding and the Mechanism

Some types of soft corals are able to capture their own prey and ingest them, such as Cabbage Leather corals. Observe your corals. Can they capture prey? If they can, then feeding them is a good idea. Basically, photosynthetic corals will do okay even if you don’t feed them because they have the ability to convert light energy to food (and sugar). But if you have the non-photosynthetic types (such as the Carnation), they can use the extra help with the feeding. Keep in mind that corals are animals. They MUST eat.

If you are new to this (you are a beginner aquarist), it isn’t advisable to care for the non-photosynthetic type because they need regular and continuous feeding in order to survive. The key factor in proper feeding is to make sure that you provide them with the right size of food. Many of these soft types would absorb nutrients straight from the water, while others may consume bacterioplankton or nanoplankton. Feeding is a crucial element in caring for corals, especially if you choose the non-photosynthetic ones. That’s why it is crucial to find the right information about the type of corals you want to care to ensure effortless maintenance and care.

Propagation and Fragging

Corals can ‘breed’ through fragging. In general, the activity is pretty straightforward and direct. Simply cut a piece off the polyp and then attach it to a frag plug or live rock. And then make sure that you separate the (new) rock colony from the previous parent. How do you cut the corals? Just use a pair of scissors (as long as they are the sharp ones) and a razor blade. You should be good to go.

Attaching the leather corals is one of the challenges in dealing with this coral. It happens because you can’t glue them into the place due to their nature: they are wiggly, slimy, and slippery. Feel free to attach the corals with the toothpick method, the rubber band, or the mesh and plastic container. Find out the details on the net.

Buying the Corals

Although you can always visit the local fish stores to buy the frag, the real deal usually comes from aquarists or hobbyists. You can buy from them and get unique species. You can also check the aquacultured specimen that may be sold at the stores and online. Try Toadstool, Kenya Tree, or Green Star Polyps for beginners. It would be great if you can join aquarists or hobbyist community so you can get the unique species you want.

Final Words

Then again, you need to remember that this type of mushy and fleshy corals is available in a very large group. You can use the general guidance to care for your corals, but you still need to focus on your own. Be sure to always monitor and observe your corals. It would be great if you can keep a coral journal or diary as a complete record. Who knows? Maybe you can produce your own soft corals guide care with more variants and types, including the not-so-popular types.

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