The Turbinaria heronensis
coral has recently been called the “branching pagoda” or “spiny Turbinaria” coral, but its scientific name seems more prevalent in the hobby. Other members of this genus (T. peltata
and T. reniformis
) are familiar to reef aquarists as hardy beginner corals. However, T. heronensis
is more rare and a little trickier to keep than other Turbinaria corals.
Identification: Turbinaria heronensis occurs in Australia and southern Indonesia. It is not as widely distributed as other corals in the genus, and it is more rare in its natural habitat than its cousins. It is apparently more common in subtropical locations but is considered uncommon in all locations. The maximum listed depth for this species is 100 feet deep. Colonies of this coral can form large plating growth forms similar to large colonies of T. heronensis or much like scrolling Montipora species. In environments with higher flow, it can have more elongated corallites that form dense, compact shapes reminiscent of bird’s nest coral (Seriatopora spp.). Specimens entering the trade are coming exclusively from Australia and can be green, yellow or brown. Until this coral becomes more established in aquaculture, expect to pay a premium price for T. heronensis frags.
Aquarium requirements:While colonies of this coral can grow large, it is unlikely that you’ll find big specimens in your local store. This is due to the expensive price this coral has been commanding and its rarity in the wild; because it is so expensive, most shops frag this coral into smaller pieces to make it more affordable. Fragments of this coral can live in aquariums about 15 to 20 gallons. A mature colony would require a reef of 80 gallons or much larger.
Being a photosynthetic stony coral, T. heronensis requires clean, clear water with low levels of pollutants. Phosphate should be as low as possible but not more than 0.25 parts per million (ppm), and nitrate should be less than 5 ppm. Calcium should be kept stable and between 350 and 450 ppm. Alkalinity should be balanced with calcium levels between 3.0 and 4.0 meq/L. Magnesium should be kept above 1,200 ppm. A parameter that I would expect is uniquely important to this species is temperature. While I haven’t been able to test the theory, T. heronensis is more common in subtropical regions, and my suspicion is that it will appreciate cooler temperatures; 75 to 77 degrees is likely preferable to the 80 to 82 degrees that is so common in many SPS tanks.
Water flow is one key component of keeping corals like T. heronensis, which come from high-energy environments. While placement and variance are just as important as gallons-per-hour turnover, realistically it’s nearly impossible to have too much flow. Expect more convoluted and interesting growth forms with higher flow, as well.
Feeding: Turbinaria heronensis is predominantly photosynthetic, so bright light is important in maintaining this species. This coral seems to prefer extending its polyps at night; this assertion has been supported anecdotally by several hobbyists who have also kept it. With this in mind, it will be difficult to offer T. heronensis the meaty plankton foods that are typically so appealing to Turbinaria corals, though it certainly will benefit from feeding foods such as Cyclops or small Mysis shrimp. This leaves a few options. The first option is to try feeding at night when the lights are out, which is labor-intensive. Applying a slow plankton drip through the nighttime hours can be successful if done correctly, but this is also time-consuming. The aquarist’s best bet is to add this coral to a system with a lot of plankton generation, either through deep sandbed ecology or the use of a refugium. With time and patience, it is also possible that this coral can be “trained” to accept food during daylight hours like other Turbinaria or its Tubastrea and Dendrophyllia cousins.
Breeding and propagation: While sexual coral propagation isn’t a reality in the hobby yet, it is on the horizon. In the meantime, however, T. heronensis has already proven to be easy to propagate through fragmentation. Single corallites can be broken off easily, though cutting larger chunks of the skeleton with a Dremel or tile saw will produce more attractive fragments.
Notes: Coral reefs are threatened everywhere, and we’re lucky in the hobby to have access even to common corals. Treat rare corals like T. heronensis as especially precious species and give them appropriate aquarium conditions. Fortunately, Australian ornamental coral harvesting is considered quite reputable and well-managed, and with propagation efforts from diligent reefkeepers, this coral will become more common over time. With luck, its price may also drop to make it attainable for every aquarist. FAMA.