Gorgonian coral care guide

Do you have what it takes to care for a Gorgonia Coral in your reef aquarium? The answer to that is probably, and also maybe not.

Huh?

Have I completely lost my mind? Yes. But allow me to explain.

Gorgonian Corals are a diverse and fascinating group to learn about, but the aquarium care advice can be a bit befuddling because the care required ranges from moderate to expert-only, depending on which species you get. And as you may have already seen in this hobby, we don’t always get the taxonomic classification right. For that matter, the taxonomists don’t always get it right. Most of us just like caring for pretty things in our tanks.

With that said, I have set out to create this care guide to help provide some clarity and help for those of you brave enough to bring one home from the store.

Pink gorgonian coral and hawkfish

Table of Contents

Quick facts about Gorgonian Coral care

Believe it or not, it is difficult to provide a very helpful quick facts summarization of the care required to keep Gorgonia Corals because there are so many different species, with unique care needs.

Gorgonian on reef

  • Scientific Name: Alcyonacea
  • Common Names: Sea Fan, Sea Whip
  • General Aggression Level: Varies from peaceful/non-aggressive to Semi-aggressive, depending on the species
  • Care Level: Varies from moderate to challenging, depending on the species
  • Light: Moderate to high intensity (for photosynthetic varieties), no light necessary for non-photosynthetic
  • Water flow: High-intensity water flow is recommended for all Sea Fans
  • Feeding: Feeding small zooplankton several times a week is recommended for every Sea Fan, and essential to non-photosynthetic types

A quick digression

The name “Gorgonian” feels pretty close to “Gorgon”…but what are Gorgons? Gorgons are hideous creatures from Greek mythology that are said to have a head full of writhing, wriggling, venomous snakes. Medusa was a Gorgon.

None of this information will help you care for Gorgonians in your tank, but rest assured, you won’t turn to stone if you look directly at them.

Classification and taxonomy

Taxonomy (the practice of naming living creatures and organizing them by similarity/ancestry) is important to the scientific community and to help organize what we know and don’t know about different species, but it is not usually something worth spending a lot of time explaining in these Coral Care Guides. What is fascinating about the Gorgonian corals is that they are almost silo-busters in a category of their own…but not quite.

You may already be familiar with the non-scientific aquarium coral groupings we tend to use in this hobby: Small Polyp Stony, Large Polyp Stony, Soft, Zoanthid, Mushroom. So where do the Gorgonians belong? It is easy to rule out Mushroom, Zoanthid, LPS–but they do look/feel like some middle-ground grouping between soft and hard.

True SPS corals have bony/stony calcium carbonite skeletons providing a rigid structure and protecting the polyps and Soft corals have bony sclerites in their polyps. Gorgonians have a semi-rigid support structure that is somewhere in between, almost like cartilage, that allows them to grow upright into strong currents and bend, but not break.

Oh, and by the way, taxonomically speaking, they are considered octocorals (polyps have an 8-fold symmetry), which we would all generally call Soft Corals.

Cool and weird, huh?

Gorgeous purple gorgonian coral

Ideal aquarium conditions

Gorgonian Corals have historically been considered challenging to care for in a reef tank, but with the availability of aquacultured specimens and high-quality coral foods, they have become quite popular, particularly among moderately advanced reef-keepers. Below is a quick guide to highlight the ideal aquarium conditions to shoot for.

Lighting

Lighting is one of the most important factors to coral nutrition, in the photosynthetic species. Since some Sea Fan species are photosynthetic and others are not, providing high-quality, reef-caliber lighting will either be essential…or completely unnecessary. Maddening, isn’t it?

Learn more about reef aquarium lighting here. 

Water flow

Gorgonians tend to live in moderate-to-high flow areas on the reef. It will not be a surprise to you then, to conclude that they will do best, in the home aquarium, in moderate-to-high water flow areas. You won’t be disappointed by placing in those higher-flow locations in your tank, either, because watching a Gorgonian coral colony bend and flow in the current is very natural and awesome to watch.

Ideal location and placement

The ideal location and placement for photosynthetic gorgonians would be relatively high in the tank (near the lights) and in an area of high flow. The non-photosynthetic species, not recommended for most tanks, could be placed in the lower and darker regions of the tank, but you must be sure to put them in an area of high flow.

Mixed reef tank with gorgonian corals

Feeding

Gorgonian coral and Se Fans are covered in small polyps that are great at capturing planktonic-sized foods. It is recommended that you feed your corals at least 3 times each week with coral food like Reef Roids, Freeze Dried Cyclops, Baby Brine Shrimp, or Zooplankton.

Water parameters

Gorgonian corals and sea fans require pristine reef tank water parameters…not necessarily because of their own individual fragility, but more because of their susceptibility to injury from encroaching algae problems.

Quick summary of water parameters:

  • pH: 8.1-8.4
  • Temperature: 73-84 F
  • Hardness: 8-12 dkh
  • Salinity: 1.025 (measured as specific gravity)
  • Phosphates, silicates, nitrates, nitrites, ammonia: as close to zero as you can manage

Compatibility

Several of the Gorgonian coral species available can be semi-aggressive to neighboring corals that get a little too close for comfort. Their weapon of choice: chemical warfare–terpenes, to be specific. That is not the case for every species, but unless you can confirm otherwise, you should probably use caution and treat them as semi-aggressive, allowing plenty of room to sway in the current, grow and not bang into neighbors.

Reef aquarium with sea fan

Note the Sea Fan in this amazing tank

 

Keeping free from algae

One of the most important aspects of caring for Gorgonians in a reef tank is to keep them free from algae. Algae are generally capable of damaging most corals, but the damage dealt to the sea fans is swift. That is one of the reasons they require such swift water flow. This rule is so important, that fairly drastic measures are actually recommended if you find algae encroaching upon your corals.

If the algae breach your first line of defense (strong water flow), you’re next best bet is to use a soft toothbrush to scrape away the problem algae or cyanobacteria. If that is not enough, a more drastic measure is to use a 1-minute freshwater dip.

LiveAquaria recommends you heat the water up to the same temperature as the tank water and submerge in fresh water for about 1-minute. That’s a fairly intense/stressful corrective action, so best to use it as a last resort and be diligent to keep water quality very high and water flow vigorously so you don’t need to take it that far.

How to frag Gorgonian coral

The technique you need to Frag a Gorgonian coral is a bit unique, because of the semi-rigid skeletal structure inside. The process reminds me a bit of ‘stripping a wire’, if you have ever done that for a home remodeling project.

You can watch this short video, or keep reading below:

  • Step 1: Use a razor blade to cleave one of the branches. By slicing and applying pressure, you should be able to cut right through the outer, leathery shell, soft inner tissue and the semi-rigid skeletal ‘wire’. You want to make the fragment about an inch or so larger than your intended final size fragment. You will see why, in a moment
  • Step 2: While holding the fragment in your hands, gently score a ring around the outer, leathery flesh, about one inch from the cut edge.
  • Step 3: Using your fingers (best to wear gloves), Pinch the coral below the line you cut and pull down. This is the step that is a lot like stripping the casing off of a wire.
  • Step 4: Insert the exposed ‘wire’ of the skeleton into a hole in your live rock and glue it into place with cyanoacrylate. Try to avoid contact between the glue and the living tissue.

Voila! You have successfully Fragged your first Gorgonian.

awesome colony of gorgonia in a reef tank aquarium

Once you have the technique down, you can shrink down the ‘waste’ by stripping away smaller portions. The key is to leave yourself enough ‘wire’ to get a good setting in the rock and keep the glue off the living tissue.

Cool, right?

Check out this article to learn more about how to frag corals, or buy this eBook.

Helpful videos about Gorgonian Corals

Check out this video to see some gorgeous Gorgonian Corals:

What to read next

If you are interested in moderately challenging corals, check out:

Gonipora

Chalice

SPS Corals

Or you may want a challenging saltwater fish like:

Blue Spot Jawfish

Conclusions

I hope you enjoyed learning about how to care for the Gorgonian Coral in a reef aquarium. They are amazing creatures that should probably be reserved until you’ve demonstrated a moderate level of success with some complicated species and have learned how to feed corals. Several years ago, caring for the Sea Fan Gorgonians often meant watching a gorgeous coral slowly starve to death. If these corals are something you want to add, just be sure to give them the light (if photosynthetic) and food they need.

Spot the goby hidden on this gorgonian

See anyone hiding here?

References

Borneman, Eric H. Aquarium Corals. Microcosm Ltd; 1st Printing Edition (March 1, 2001)

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