Leather coral, or toadstool coral (Sarcophyton spp.) represent the perfect gateway cnidarians for those wanting to try their hand at keeping corals. Leather coral (they don’t have the hard exoskeletons like large polyped and small polyped stony corals) are much more forgiving than more difficult-to-keep stony corals. The leather corals were some of the first cnidarians to be kept in aquaria; leather corals were also some of the first to be propagated through fragging, which is where a piece of the “mushroom cap” is cut off and attached to a plug or placed directly in the substrate, where it quickly grows into a full-sized clone of the original. While first appearing fragile, leather corals are quite robust, and fragging — a natural process for them that occurs in the wild — doesn’t seem to have any lasting effects.
Difficulty level: With an ample amount of lighting, good filtration and moderate flow, the leather coral is very adaptable to aquarium conditions and holds up well under care doled out by rookie reefkeepers. Leather corals are known as octocorals. Why octocoral? Individual polyps have eight tentacles, that’s why.
Hardiness: Leather corals are typically found in shallow reef areas in the wild, where they are blasted by intense solar radiation and pounding surf. Therefore, leather corals require similar conditions in aquaria. Very high output (VHO) fluorescent lighting allows leather corals to retain their optimal colors, while greatly aiding their symbiont zooxanthellae in photosynthetic food production. Most of the food needed by leather corals is manufactured by the zooxanthellae they host. Metal halides can be used with these corals, but leather corals should be slowly acclimated rather than exposed to full-intensity lighting from the get-go.
A moderate in-tank current clears waste products away from leather corals while delivering complementary “second helpings” of planktonic foods afloat in the water column.
Physical description: With their stalk and mushroomlike cap, which tends to take on a more folded look as these soft corals grow, leather corals can easily become one of the visual focal points in a nicely laid-out reefscape. The color palette of leather corals trends toward brown, tan or green, while polyps are white- or gold-colored. When fully extended, larger leather coral specimens have a 5- to 7-inch diameter or larger.
Climate and range: Sarcophyton spp. are widespread in the tropical Indo-Pacific. They range from the Fiji Islands to the central Indian Ocean.
Compatibility: Leather corals release toxins into aquaria from time to time. These toxins inhibit the growth of some of the more delicate LPS corals and SPS corals. Good chemical filtration can greatly lessen the effects of these leather coral toxins on hard coral growth. As with most corals, maintain space between leather corals and other cnidarians; otherwise, leather corals are good tankmates for a variety of sessile reef fauna.
Aquarium conditions: Water temperature for the leather corals should be kept at between 72 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit; specific gravity 1.023 to 1.025, pH 8.1 to 8.4, dKH 8 to 12. Water flow should be maintained in the moderate range.
Care considerations: The periodic introduction of trace elements (e.g., strontium, iodine, etc.) into the water column keeps leather corals healthy.
Propagating in aquaria: Fragging guidelines for leather corals are available from a bevy of online resources. Leather coral frags are not only a great source of trade for other corals, but they can provide supplemental income that can be put back into one’s own hobby.
Special notes: Leather corals periodically retract and close up while forming a mucus layer, which is later shed. This is part of the leather’s normal life function; it is thought to be a self-cleaning mechanism that keeps harmful algae from growing on the coral’s surface. The shed mucus layer should be promptly removed in order to maintain pristine water quality. Leather corals begin eating soon after they shed.