pulsing xenia elongata coral

Pulsing Xenia Coral Care: Xenia Elongata

The pulsing xenia coral is a popular, fast-growing, easy to frag soft corals species.

This easy to care for coral gets its name because of the rhythmic pulsing action of the coral polyps that look like a hand opening and closing. This activity, which is relatively uncommon among the sessile invertebrates we keep in the tank, is part of what makes this coral endearing.

Once accustomed to the tank, it can be quite a hardy coral with an amazing growth rate, depending on the light amount and nutrient levels in the tank, earning a space as a weed among some of the more advanced SPS (and perhaps slightly judgmental…?) aquarium owners.

You may find Xenia elongate at your local fish store in either brown, white, pink, or cream color morphs. The pom-pom xenia head sits atop a stem that is generally about 3 inches tall (when fully grown).

It also goes by some other names, like Xenia elongata (the official scientific classification), or Pulse Coral, Pulsing Xenia, Hand Coral, Pom Pom Coral, Red Sea Xenia or Bouquet Encrusting coral in some areas.

Pulsing xenia coral
The rhythmic pulsing of the pom-pom hands can be hypnotic and will fascinate your guests once they realize it isn’t just caused by the flow in the tank

A warning

A couple of years ago, there was a lot of (fake) news about the pulsing xenia causing palytoxin poisoning. I don’t believe I have seen conclusive proof that the poisoning was caused by the x. elongata, rather than a palythoa, but in the meantime, you may want to pause on adding this to your tank, until the details get sorted out.  Here is some of what is being said in the news:

Xenia toxin sends 10 to hospital after scrubbing rock

What I can say, about these reports, is that hobbyists recently scrubbed the rocks, as a result of the xenia overgrowth, which sort of suggests, in my mind that the Xenia was an indirect cause of the poisoning, rather than direct. ‘Scrubbing rocks’ is definitely a way that palytoxin gets released and can cause problems. The threatened or damaged paly or zoanthid then releases the toxin either to protect itself from more damage or simply because the flesh that contained the poison was torn.

Fast growing xenia coral

I can see another scenario at play here where the X. elongata would indirectly cause this poisoning–a pulsing xenia coral trying to overgrow a palythoa coral, could trigger a defense response in the threatened coral, triggering the release of the toxin.

The bottom line here is that you should do some due diligence to confirm the reports and also know what you’re buying. My current point of view is that I don’t yet believe it is Xenia. I’m hoping they do some toxicology on the corals to confirm the source of the poison. In the meantime, let’s continue with what we know about xenia.


Ideal habitat

natural habitat of xenia coral

Pulsing xenia coral is generally found in shallow waters, in strong light, and high tidal conditions. In the wild, they have even been found to thrive in polluted waters. As for the area, they are naturally found in the Indo – Pacific area and the Red Sea.

This soft coral species is thought to be tolerant of high nutrient loads, which is what makes them easy to care for in a typical beginner reef tank. They require a moderate amount of water movement. Too much water movement will prevent the polyps from opening and will make it harder for you to notice the rhythmic pulsing that gives them their name.

In the aquarium, I have found them to be a bit more fickle (and harder to care for) than the other descriptions have sometimes suggested. When I first started out in the hobby, I tried to keep several different specimens with no luck.

In a completely different tank setup, a few years later, I had some reasonable success and saw why this rapidly growing coral has a reputation for being a hardy, beginner coral. I’m not exactly sure why the difference.

If you want to grow this coral in your tank, one piece of advice is to try and locate it on an island in your tank. Pulsing Xenia is a rapidly growing, encrusting-type species that will creep along andy surface and grow new polyps. Therefore it is possible that over time, and left unchecked, an individual Pulsing Xenia coral could conceivably invade every piece of live rock in your tank.

The only way to retard that process is to isolate the coral (within your tank) by surrounding the colony with a ‘moat’ of space that will allow you to keep the colony in a place where you want it.

large colony of xenia corals in dark lit up by a flash

Click here to read more about the most important aquarium water parameters


Xenia is a photosynthetic coral, and therefore needs reef quality lights (LED, Metal Halide, T5, VHO, PC), although the lighting needs are in the moderate to lower end of the spectrum.

They are also thought to absorb some of their nutrients from the water.

I’m not aware of any evidence that target/direct feeding is necessary or helpful. It seems intuitive that this coral, like most other corals, eats, but it is unclear how we help that along in the home aquarium. You will note, if you keep this coral, that it grows just fine without any additional feeding.

However, it is also worth noting that I have seen the best growth from this species earlier in my tank–likely when dissolved nutrient levels are high and there is not a lot of other competition for those nutrients. As the tank matured and water quality stabilized, and in the presence of some other leather coral species thriving (Toadstools, Green Star Polyps, and Cabbage Corals, to name a few), polyp growth died back

Behavior and tank mates

These corals would not sting nearby corals nor affect them in an aggressive chemical or stinging warfare kind of way. They may, however, outcompete and overgrow other slower-growing corals, so be sure to allow for ample space between your Xenia colony and your next coral.

Fish and invertebrates with a ‘taste’ for the soft, fleshy polyps of soft corals may target the Xenia elongata in your tank.

xenia species of coral
Look at the great polyp extension here

Propagating or fragging

The pulsing xenia coral is easy to frag. As described earlier, it will grow over just about any substrate, so the easiest way to frag it is to place some live rock rubble or shells right next to it, and the colony will grow right onto your intended frag substrate.

Simply cut or tear away the rubble and you have an easy-to-transport frag to start the colony growing in another area of the tank or to give to a friend.

You can also prune back the xenia colony by cutting it back with a razor blade. It will be nearly impossible to glue a cutting onto a substrate, but you would attach it with a rubber band, toothpick or even allow it to settle naturally on some rubble with the plastic container and mesh method. All of these are covered in the book, How to Frag Corals if you want more information.

Troubleshooting and some personal observations

Here are a few observations from my own personal experience with this aquarium coral. I was a bit reluctant to share at first, because I wasn’t totally sure these are repeatable, indisputable observations, so take them with a grain a reef crystals (salt) as just that…observations

I noticed a trend that as salinity increased in my tank because of evaporation and missed top off the water (due to travel or less acceptable reasons…like laziness) that the polyps would eventually stop pulsing. As such, I sometimes depended on them to be the canary in the aquarium mine to signal any unintended salinity fluctuations.

I also noticed (n = 2) when setting up a new soft coral tank along with the green star polyp and Kenya tree coral, that all 3 corals existed happily, but while the pulsing xenia did initially start off quickly and expand over the rock work (as did the other soft corals in the tank), but over time, the green star polyps and Kenya tree dominated, where the pulsing xenia died back.

It is almost as if the xenia I’ve kept got out of the tank quickly in the early tank conditions but then somehow was outcompeted with.

Not sure if any of that is helpful, but I thought I’d share. Use caution if applying this to your tank.

xenia coral, xenia elongata

This vibrant coral species grew rapidly in my tank, early on and then died back


  • The pulsing xenia coral is hardy and will thrive in many tank conditions
  • Easy to frag
  • Non-aggressive


  • Maybe extremely hardy in some tanks and difficult to grow in others
  • May grow so rapidly you think they are a weed

Have you had Xenia Corals in your tank? What advice would you give? Please leave a comment below,

Learn more about xenia corals

Watch this video for more info about these interesting invertebrates:

Rare Xenia Corals?





7 responses to “Pulsing Xenia Coral Care: Xenia Elongata”

  1. Jamey W.

    First let me say how excited I am to find your blog! An actual salt water tank / reef tank blog that is current and doesn’t have its last post from 2013. So I’ll be here a lot!

    So I’m fairly new to the salt water / reef tank community. I started my first tank in August, 2016. My dad had a tank for several years but after a horrible accident while he was out of town his heart never quite healed from the major losses of his tank and he just lost his drive to continue. So my experience has been very limited. However, we have a great LFS and we’ve actually become very close to the owner and his wife. They help us a lot but we try to limit our sometimes millions of questions. So I’m so glad I found your post about Xenia.

    Once my tank cycled the Xenia was one of the first corals that they recommended. So we picked out a gorgeous one of appropriate size for my tank. Brought it home and placed it in a spot that was just perfect. For weeks and weeks we enjoyed his daily almost stretch and elongated arms and beautiful pulsing rhythm. And then all the sudden a few months in he just started leaning over, not streathing out much, and barely pulsing. We talked to the LFS and they told us pretty much what we already were able to find online. Although eventually he said I may need to supplement with iodine, which I did once or twice but it never seemed to help much. Now we are almost 7 months in and he hasn’t died and he isn’t quite as “unhappy” as he seemed for so many weeks but still he’s yet to fully “open” and stretch out like he once did. Any idea why this has happened? Anything I can do? Thanks so much and sorry for the long post!

    1. Jamey,

      Thanks for leaving a comment. Glad to have you here as a visitor/reader. I do try to keep current here, although not always possible due to other obligations.

      Congrats on the new tank. With the xenia in my tank, I noticed that they ‘behaved’ differently (based on the pulsing action) based on the water parameters.

      If salinity increased, due to evaporation or nitrates increased, I noticed changes in the pulsing action. I always took a clammed up xenia to mean that a water change was long overdue. Any chance it is either of those? Can you test the water?

      Are there any aiptasia anemones stinging it? (I’ve had that issue in the past too, the stung xenia wouldn’t extend)

      One other follow up question for you. What kind of growth have you seen with the xenia over the 7 months, has it spread a lot?

  2. Marlene

    Hi Al—I enjoy the blog and your newsletter 🙂
    Our tank is about a year and a half old. We added Xenia about 3 months ago and it initially did very well but about a week ago, seemingly overnight, it shriveled up. I can’t put my finger on any reason why and was wondering if you might have any suggestions?? Thanks for your time!

  3. Marlene

    Hi Al–I really enjoy this site and your newsletter so thanks for that! Our tank is about a year and a half old. About 2 months ago we added a small xenia and it did very well up until a week ago and it, seemingly overnight, completely shrunk up! I can’t find any obvious reason for it. Water parameters are stable, we haven’t moved the xenia and I don’t see any pests that would be to blame. Just wondering if you have any thought? Thanks for your time!

    1. Hi Marlene,

      Thanks for the comment. Sorry to hear about your Xenia–I had most commonly noticed this behavior if I had lapsed on freshwater top-off and salinity had changed, or if pH was too low. Can you double-check those?

  4. Marlene

    Hi Al–I did check salinity, pH, magnesium and calcium and all were in consistent range, i can’t remember the actual numbers now but remember that none of them alarmed me. We have an automatic top-off that helps keep the salinity in check. I’ve just left it in the same spot hoping it might bounce back and noticed last night that one lonely, little arm was stretched out ever so slightly. I’ll keep my fingers crossed! Thanks so much!

    1. You’re welcome, Marlene! Fingers crossed here as well.

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