Keeping Saltwater Corals: What You Need to Know 2

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Saltwater corals are beautiful, relatively easy to care for if you have saltwater tank experience, and can completely change the look and balance of your aquarium’s environment.

Although they are quite expensive to set up, a coral reef tank has the potential to be one of the most rewarding aquariums that a hobbyist can keep. If you have the time, money and patience; these aquariums can be as simple or complex as you desire.

Although it is not recommended for those without experience, you can mix hard and soft corals, live rock, fish (limited), invertebrates, etc… Or you can keep it safe and simple, and keep either soft or hard (one or the other) corals that are closely related. Closely related species are more likely to colonize without any problems.

Let’s dive in deeper (pun fully intended) shall we? Here’s what we’ll cover in today’s post:

Types of Saltwater Corals

These stunning invertebrates fall under the phylum of coral; but can be broken down even further in to four separate genus. These four genus are the





Photo Credit: Richard Yong, Malcolm Browne, COMAS and Richard Ling.

The majority of popular species of coral fall under the last genus, Zoanthids. They are typically considered to be two main types of salt water corals;

  • soft coral
  • and hard coral.

Some of the most common species kept by hobbyists include:

  • The Acropora palmate (Elkhorn coral)
  • The Tubastraea (Tube coral)
  • The Montastraea cavernosa (Great Star coral)
  • The Heliopora coerulea (Blue coral)
  • The Dendrogyra cylindricus (Pillar coral)
  • The Acropora cervicornis (Staghorn coral)

With the dozens of species of coral that are available on the current market, it is critical that you do plenty of research on these creatures before deciding what to purchase, what to mix together, etc…

If you aren’t careful you may end up with a coral that requires different lighting or water depth than what you have set up, or corals that do not typically co-exist peacefully in captivity.

For easy corals to start with minimal lighting requirements, read: 11 Easy Low Light Corals For Beginners

Saltwater Corals Are Toxic?

Although many people are unaware of this, many corals are toxic like their relatives the anemones. Both animals have nematocysts on their tentacles; glands that produce and secrete a ‘stinging’ toxin. This toxin is used to protect the coral, stun food, and establish dominance amongst corals and anemones.

coralanatomyMany species of coral have what are commonly referred to as sweeper tentacles. These sweeper tentacles can be up to several inches in length, and are used by the coral to fend off enemies and competitors.

Some coral do not even require these sweeper tentacles however, and perform full-blown chemical warfare against competing corals by releasing their toxins into all of the water. Some of these toxins can be nullified by the presence of appropriate levels of active carbon; but many of them cannot.

Coral can be temperamental, sensitive and aggressive; so you need to pay close attention to its needs; particularly when they are first introduced to your aquarium. These beautiful aquatic animals can be rather expensive and difficult to find locally, but they are well worth it.

Establishing a reef tank is a very exciting process for any hobbyist that enjoys watching the natural interactions between marine life.

Caring for Saltwater Corals

Even if you have experience with salt water aquarium keeping, you should prepare yourself for more maintenance.

You absolutely must be able and willing to perform regular, partial water changes and provide the aquarium with appropriate supplements to maintain an appropriate and healthy system.

Below is a rough list of water quality requirements for your coral tank.

  • Multi-directional water flow (to avoid damaging sensitive coral)
  • Temperature roughly 80 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Alkalinity roughly between 2-2.5 meq/L
  • Ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, and phosphate always at 0 parts per million
  • Calcium roughly 425 parts per million
  • Magnesium roughly 1300 parts per million
  • Specific gravity roughly 1.024

Feeding Saltwater Corals


There is some debate amongst hobbyists as to whether or not you should regularly feed your corals. The majority of corals are considered hermatypic; meaning that they require light in order to metabolize and grow.


Many of these species do not require regular feeding, due to their symbiotic relationship with the zooxanthellae organism and diet of photosynthetic algae.


There are other corals however that originate from deeper sea levels where there is minimal lighting, that do not feed photosynthetically. These coral are referred to as ahermatypic, and require regular feeding.


It is best to feed corals when their lights are off, and they have fully opened. This cuts down on unnecessary debris in the saltwater aquarium.

Lighting Requirements

Typically soft coral requires full-spectrum lighting; but not as much as the hard coral; which requires intense lighting in order to complete its’ photosynthesis cycle. T5 and metal halides are strongly recommended for hard coral environments.

For more on Lighting for corals read: Understanding Marine Aquarium Lighting


Coral can be difficult and/or tedious to care for if you are a beginner, but the benefits of a coral reef aquarium outweigh the drawbacks. This type of salt water tank can be one of the most complex, expensive and time consuming to maintain.

It requires regular maintenance, water changes, the ability to test the water quality and temperature regularly, good observation, etc… In other words, this is not the type of tank that you just set up and walk away from.

Typically, you do not want to place invertebrates that move around a lot (i.e. crabs, lobsters, octopi, and shrimp) in coral reef aquariums. These species are notorious for destroying coral and other slow/non-moving species.

Your coral reef aquarium is an ideal place to showcase your anemones, echinoderms and sponges. These invertebrates do not move around very much, and are therefore far less likely to disturb and/or damage other specimens around them.

What's your experience?

Have you had any experience with keeping corals before? Feel free to share it the rest of community in the comments section below!

About Dennis Hanson

Dennis is an experienced aquarist with many years of knowledge and experience in keeping successful tanks. He also has no relations to the pop group Hanson.

2 thoughts on “Keeping Saltwater Corals: What You Need to Know

  1. Reply dan Jun 24,2015 11:27 pm


    I’d like to comment that many of the corals you list as frequently kept in aquariums are in fact protected and illegal to keep in an aquarium (Acropora palmatta, Acropora cervicornis, and Montastrea cavernosa for example).

  2. Reply dan Jun 24,2015 11:30 pm

    Actually, reading a bit further, the groups that you say are genera (plural of genus) are only a very few genera- there are many more than 4 coral genera. Also, dendrogyra cyllindrus is also protected and is never kept in aquariums…

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