Dec 3, 2018

Acropora Facts You Probably Didn't Know



Acropora coloration - it’s all about the symbionts

A beautiful and rewarding relationship between stony corals and single celled dinoflagellate algae began sometime in the late Triassic over 200 million years ago. Corals formerly relied solely on food capture with their polyps for energy, making them slow growers. Adopting these algae cells called Zooxanthellae allowed corals to utilize both photosynthesis and food capture for faster reef-building growth, which led to the creation and evolution of our now irreplaceable, essential reef ecosystems. Acropora corals first appeared during the Eocene Epoch 37 to 54 million years ago, the beginning of our story.  

Acropora coloration is in part due to these symbiotic zooxanthellae, which are plant-like cells, that live within their tissues. The coral produces CO2 and H2O, and the zooxanthellae use these for photosynthesis which in turn feeds the coral polyps. In captivity, dark brown or green Acropora are usually a result of overfeeding the zooxanthellae organic matter with high concentrations of nitrate and phosphate in the tank water. Excessively bright lighting or high temperatures can cause “bleaching,” which is when the zooxanthellae leave the coral, making its tissue nearly transparent and exposing the white skeleton beneath.

It isn’t fully understood why corals produce fluorescent coloration which is visible under actinic lighting in aquariums. UV light found in some LED lights and metal halide lights can bring out the protective fluorescent blue, purple, and pink pigments of shallow-water Acropora. Deeper water corals may produce fluorescent pigments to provide more light to their photosynthetic symbionts.

In addition to Zooxanthellae, there are other symbionts working with Acropora to process nutrients and influence their coloration. Little known fungus-like protists called Thraustochytrids may be responsible for some of the fluorescent proteins found in Acropora and other corals.


It’s almost impossible to identify captive grown Acropora

Identification of captive grown Acropora corals is difficult and in most cases, futile. Even experts who have studied wild Acropora for a lifetime can’t identify a captive Acropora with any certainty. We hobbyists have managed to change the coloration and morphology of our Acropora corals using unnatural conditions, making them nearly unrecognizable. This difficulty is compounded when faced with identifying tiny frags or small colonies. When you see an Acropora identified by scientific name in the hobby, chances are it’s just an educated guess.




The fastest growing Acropora are staghorns

The general consensus among aquarists is that the Green Slimer Acropora yongei is the fastest growing Acropora coral in captivity today. Acropora yongei branches on the Great Barrier Reef have been recorded growing as much as 4.3” during a 15 week summer. That’s more than an inch a month!


Image found at [1]. Created by NOAA's Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary


Acropora palmata form the largest Acropora colonies

The largest Acropora species is the rare and endangered Acropora palmata from the Caribbean, which typically grows to over 13 feet across, 6.5 feet high, and with a base of 1.3 feet thick.




Acropora corals are easy to frag

Despite being considered one of the most difficult corals to keep in captivity, Acropora corals are surprisingly easy to frag. Thin branches can be carefully broken with your hand, but thicker branches should be cut with a pair of stainless steel “bone” or coral cutters. If you have a coral wet saw, you can frag large colonies quickly.

Small frags can be superglued to plugs. Frags will stick better if the plug is dry. If you want branches to be glued to plugs in an upright position, use plugs with holes drilled in the center that are slightly larger in diameter than the branch. It is also possible to glue a branch horizontally onto a flat plug. Hold the coral for about 30 seconds to set the glue, then carefully place the plug in a frag rack until it cures. Larger frags may need epoxy and superglue to secure them into a hole in live rock. New frags can be traded or sold when the flesh starts to encrust onto the plug.


Big R Corals Walt Disney Acropora tenuis photo credit Coralust


Pedigreed Acro frags can cost more than a month's mortgage

One of the most sought after and expensive Acro frags is the Jason Fox Homewrecker Acro frag retails for $999.99. Many hobbyists were skeptical of its extremely bright coloration in photos, some calling it “Photoshopped.” Those who saw the frags in person at MACNA 2017 in New Orleans will attest to the accuracy of photos of this unbelievable coral.

A modestly expensive and sought after Acropora frag is Mike Biggar’s of Big R Corals Walt Disney Tenuis Acropora frag. A ¾” frag of this blue and pink A. tenuis with yellow polyps retails for $199.99.

Possibly the most expensive Acro frag today is a ½” RR’s Bleeding Avenger Acro which retails on Cornbred’s site for $1999.99. Two. Thousand. For a half inch.

Those on a budget should not discount the value of the $5 brown Acropora frags in the local fish store’s sale bin. With some TLC and proper conditions, that tiny brown frag could regain bright coloration and eventually become a cherished show piece.


Acropora efflorescens - an unusual growth form for an Acropora

There’s more to Acropora than branching

We tend to think of Acropora corals as being “branchy,” but the nearly 150 different species of Acropora have 7 distinct growth forms - tables/plates, staghorn, bushy, massive, bottlebrush, corymbose, and digitate. Some of the most sought after are the deepwater bottlebrush forms like Acropora echinata and the tabling forms like Acropora hyacinthus.
Digitate Acropora coral


Acropora can share and adopt new Zooxanthellae

The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago reported that their Caribbean Acropora corals were adopting Zooxanthellae from the Pacific species. The spawn collected A. palmata frags they housed in the same system with Pacific Acropora started sporting new purple polyps, and DNA test results proved the Zooxanthellae were Pacific in origin. Zookeepers and public aquarists lament the delicate nature and difficulty of A. palmata and cervicornis. Could introducing Pacific Zooxanthellae to Caribbean Acropora make the corals hardier?




Acropora corals are unique, important ecosystems

Acropora are called “reef-building” corals because they form hard skeletons that create important habitats for countless reef fish and invertebrates and nurseries for reef fish and large open water fish fry. One billion people world wide depend on coral reefs economically. A collapse of coral reef ecosystems would have devastating consequences, and its effects would be felt by every living human.

Even small colonies of Acropora corals can host many varieties of species. Tetralia and Trapezia crabs are symbiotic defenders of Acropora corals, feeding on coral mucous and chasing away predators. Polychaete worms and feather dusters, barnacles, crabs, shrimps, commensal shell-less hermit crabs, tiny fish like coral gobies and coral crouchers, copepods, amphipods, flatworms, sponges, and tunicates have all been known to make their homes either inside or underneath the safety of Acropora colonies. Dr. Ronald Shimek reports in the July/August 2018 issue of CORAL magazine that in a single large Acropora hyacinthus colony is likely to house several thousand species of symbionts.




Acropora in the wild need our help

American Acropora palmata and Acropora cervicornis were once some of the most common stony corals in their respective ranges in the Caribbean, Florida keys, Gulf of Mexico and Bahamas, but populations have declined by estimates of up to 95% in the last 30 years. Their rapid decline has been attributed to climate change and pollution, which makes the Acropora susceptible to other threats like disease. Climate change also increases coral damaging hurricane frequency and severity and higher ocean surface temperatures which contribute to coral bleaching events.

Serratia marcescens, a pathogenic, gram negative bacteria commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract and other mucosal surfaces of humans, causes a disease specific to A. palmata called white pox disease. Other diseases that plague A. palmata and A. cervicornis are Black band disease and White band disease which can also decimate entire populations quickly. Black band disease is caused by Cyanobacteria and bacteria infecting coral tissue. White band disease is not well studied, but experts believe there are many types that may be caused by several species of bacteria such as Vibrio harveyi and/or ciliate parasite Philaster lucinda.

All Acropora are listed under CITES appendix II, and many are threatened. Other species of Acropora that are endangered according to the IUCN red list are A. rudis and A. suharsoni.

There is little hope for the recovery of American Acropora species, but organizations like the Coral Restoration Foundation are not ready to give up. Ken Nedimyer and his team frag, grow, and redistribute healthy Elkhorn corals. They use innovative techniques like hanging frags on elevated trees to prevent them from being smothered by sediment or exposed to pathogens. If you’d like to help out, please visit their website www.coralrestoration.org.

Veron Corals of the World Volume 1

Aug 15, 2018

Aqua Illumination Prime Review and Unicorn Reef Bowl Update

A lot has been happening with the 8.5 gallon Unicorn Reef Bowl lately. I got a few new frags from Reef-a-Palooza 2018 and TSM Corals in New Jersey.

Unicorn Reef Bowl with AI Prime
I also got new Aqua Illumination Prime from Marine Depot to replace my ABI Tuna Blue light, and I couldn't be happier with it. I still use the ABI bulbs in other tanks, and they are trusty and true, but I enjoy the programmability, customizability, and rich colors the AI Prime offers. The ABI is a good, inexpensive bulb that has faithfully grown my coral for a couple years now, b ut the AI Prime is in an entirely different league with its controls and sleek, aesthetic design.

The AI Prime is controlled by an app that I easily downloaded to my Samsung phone. The app controls are so intuitive, this low-tech 35 year old lady didn't even have to read any directions. The controls just make sense. You can program each of the 7 colors down to the percent. The colors are absolutely stunning and there are endless combinations. The app has a handy acclimation mode so you can slowly get your corals used to the new light. You should also use acclimation mode when you get new coral. My favorite feature on the app is the weather. You can program clouds and lightning storms to happen each day, and you can even choose the probability and intensity of the storms.

I get a lot of questions about what is the "right" percentage for each color. Stick with your typical 6500K, 10000K, 14000K, or 20000K spectrum (depending on the look you like and the types of corals you have) if you're a beginner with this light. Go to Control > Manual, then tap the "semicircles" icon at the top right corner. This will allow you to adjust the Kelvin rating and intensity. Choose the Kelvin and intensity you want, then click the "sliders" icon at the top right. Remember the percentages of each color. Now go to Control > Auto > Easy Setup and input those percentages. Set your sunrise and sunset and the ramp time for an hour to simulate gradual sunrise and sunset. If you're still unsure and want to download settings that have been designed and used by expert reefers, visit http://www.aquaillumination.com/signature/

Here you can see a video of the ramp up from sunrise to sunset. This is what a day in the life of my tank would look like on hyperspeed if these were the settings I chose.



I also got a new toy to help me photograph the reef bowl with my camera phone without having to manipulate the colors in post processing. The Polyp Lab Coral View lens for Smartphone and Tablet kit comes with three lenses - 15,000K, 20,000K, and a 10x macro lens, plus a holder that clips onto your phone. The lenses are stackable, so if you want to use the orange lens and the macro lens at the same time, you can do that! The kit also comes with a cleaning cloth, cases for each lens, and a sturdy box for storage. I've been taking this kit with me everywhere I go just in case I need to quickly and easily photograph a tank (which usually happens everywhere I go!)

You may notice another huge change to the Unicorn Reef Bowl - my favorite Montipora setosa that my friend Ryan Pettit gave me years ago has died. It started to STN (slow tissue necrosis) about 6 months ago, and I just could not save it to matter what I did. None of the other corals, even the Montiporas, were affected.Sometimes we never know what causes corals to die for seemingly no reason. The last bit of flesh finally disappeared recently, and I removed the sad skeleton. It was the hardest coral loss I've ever experienced. I could replace it with another setosa, but it wouldn't be the same. That coral had so much history. I remember driving to my long-time friend Ryan's house in 2014 and enjoying a rare visit with him and his family, as he excitedly chose and cut corals to selflessly give to me. When I moved back to Pennsylvania, I took this coral with me and put it in my friend's tank for safekeeping. When I was ready, he gave me a piece of it for my reef vase, where it flourished and grew to the size of my hand.

January 2018

June 2017 

November 2017
What's interesting is that it always grew in a weird, nearly perfect ring around a barren center. It finally covered the center in November 2017, but when it started to die, the STN started right there in the center. A friend suggested I cut the center out and hope it would recover, but that didn't help. I tried cutting healthy pieces off the edge, but those died, too. I even put some of those healthy edge pieces in tanks of various friends hoping it would revive in their tanks. They died.

The corals are doing great now in the Unicorn Reef Bowl with the new AI Prime light. I also got a new wavemaker and a generic eBay Sun Sun canister filter that is helping to improve conditions. I like the Sun Sun, but I think eventually I'll upgrade to an Eheim filter just for quality and longevity.



Blue Tenuis frag from TSM Corals

Blue Tenuis in my bowl

Bubblegum Digitata from Mo's corals

My 4 year old acclimating hermit crabs


Acropora nasuta from TSM corals

Top down view with ABI bulb

Full tank shot Unicorn Reef Bowl AI Prime evening

AI Prime daytime Unicorn Reef Bowl

Aug 13, 2018

BCAS talk Sept 2018 - Seahorse Keeping: IT'S NOT THAT HARD

Please join Bucks County Aquarium Society and Felicia McCaulley on September 6th, 2018 at 7:30pm at the Churchville Nature Center to discuss myths surrounding seahorse keeping and why they're not as fragile as we think!

I will cover topics that will ensure seahorse keeping success and make it easy for you.

Stop by the nearby Fish Factory in Bensalem, PA to pick up your very own Felicia's Saddled Seahorses, born and raised right here in Pennsylvania. They're currently about one year old and very healthy and hardy. There are some yellow, orange, rusty brown, and grey colored seahorses (they change color based on their surroundings).


Aug 12, 2018

Complexity vs Complicatedness

Painting by Lachlan D. Frost

It's easy to mistake complication for complexity. I've always enjoyed the rich, beautiful complexity of music, art, ecosystems, or a well-planned reef aquarium.

Complicatedness is unnecessary difficulty; it does not exist in nature because it is a waste of energy. Complexity is abundance and organized, intricate symbiosis.

I'm disappointed in myself that I've confused the 2 and have been on a destructive path as a result. It's important to re-evaluate your life and relationships periodically to determine what is complex or complicated, and let go of anything that's no longer a positive force in your life.

This painting by my 4 year old son Lachlan hangs above my unicornreefbowl, and it looks completely different under actinics, daylight, and even glows in the dark at night. It is complex, not complicated. We were inspired by the beautiful art by my friend Rachel of @reefweeds

#art#UVpaint #reefweeds #inspired #complexity#complication #emotionalhealth
top left clockwise: daylight, night, and actinic lighting

Jan 16, 2018

Felicia's Saddled Seahorses for Sale

EDIT AUGUST 2018: You can now purchase my seahorses at Fish Factory in Bensalem, PA!

I'm very happy to announce that I'm breeding seahorses again! Some friends got together and sent me a pair for my birthday this year, and they've been very prolific. This first batch of (not) babies (anymore) are headed to That Fish Place and Reef Conservation Society's Winter frag swap. These are H. erectus seahorses; most are rusty orange, brown, or yellowish with lots of saddling and some with cirri. They're about 6 months old, and many of the males are already pregnant. We may decide to ship seahorses in the future with the help of our friends at Ricky Fin's Aquatics, so stay tuned.


These babies are fed four times a day and are very friendly. It's not easy to change the water (which we do three times a day) when there are seahorses all over my hands and in my face!


How to make a seahorse love you - Feed it!


Before breakfast - we're so hungry!


Please excuse the algae, when you feed this much food, it's inevitable.





baby pics of this batch


so much cirri!


Jan 15, 2018

Felicia's Pico Reef Vase

When I had my son and moved back to my hometown a few years ago, I gave up reefing for a short time. I had a 6 gallon cube with a ravenous clingfish and some corals. My mom bought me a beautiful vase from an antique shop, and it got my wheels turning. All I could see was coral. 

My best friend Ricky from Ricky Fin's Aquatics had been holding and growing some of my favorite corals that I put in his tank when I moved. In the summer of 2016, Ricky fragged the colonies that grew from the frags I gave him and I put them in my new vase along with the few corals I had in the cube. The vase took a whole hour to set up with boxed natural sea water and already cured live rock. A small powerhead, heater, and 38 PAR ABI LED bulb were all the equipment I needed.

Thank you, CORAL magazine, for publishing an article about my reef vase in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue. The cover features my son, Lachlan, peering into his favorite aquarium in our house. Enjoy these photos that didn't fit into the article. Lots of before and after photos!

June 2017


Feb 2017

Feb 2017

Jan 2017

June 2017

June 2017

June 2017


June 2017

June 2017

June 2017

Setosa Dec 2016 

Setosa apr 2016 - Nov 2017

Setosa Jun 2016
SunnyD Palys 1 year of growth

SunnyD Palys June 2016

SunnyD Palys March 2016
Red Monti May 2017

Red Monti Feb 2017

Red Monti 1 year of growth

Red Monti June 2017
Purple Gorgonian 6 months of growth


The Reef Vase was transferred into an 8 gallon bowl in June 2017. The stand I kept my 2 gallon vase on cracked down the center. My step dad made me a new stand with a carved unicorn on the front, and the tiny vase looked silly on the big stand, so I upgraded to an 8 gallon bowl which fits perfectly and gave my corals some room to grow.

Unicorn Reef Bowl Dec 2017

Unicorn Reef Bowl Dec 2017

Unicorn Reef Bowl Dec 2017

Unicorn Reef Bowl Nov 2017

Unicorn Reef Bowl and Stand
38 PAR LED ABI Tuna Blue

Handfeeding Peppermint Shrimp

Blue Hornet Zoas Jan 2017, now spread all over the tank

Neon Green Toadstool


Mini cucumbers that reproduce in my bowl


Rasta Zoas, courtesy of Ricky Fins

Undata Closeup

Undata Dec 2015