12 Easy Saltwater Aquarium Reef Corals

A brain coral.

Wolfgang Poelzer / Getty Images

Many novice (and experienced) saltwater aquarists are a bit leery about starting a reef tank with marine corals. Their requirements were not very well understood, and corals used to be almost impossible to keep alive for any length of time in a marine aquarium. Over time and with many successful and failed experiments along the way, the knowledge, products, and information are now available, so that many corals can now be successfully kept in even mini, micro, and nano aquariums. Some are now considered "easy" to maintain while many other corals are still deemed difficult to nearly impossible for the average reef tank hobbyist.

  • 01 of 12

    Mushroom Corals (Actinodiscus)

    Pink Mushroom Coral
    Gary Bell / Getty Images

    The mushroom (Actinodiscus) corals are soft corals, have no exoskeleton, and grow on rocks. They do not grow well in bright lights or heavy currents. To allow for maximal expansion and reproduction, mushroom corals are best kept under lower lighting conditions (fluorescent lighting is ideal) with little water movement.

    Safe with fish, crustaceans, and motile invertebrates, they should not be placed next to other soft and stony corals and sessile invertebrates because of the detrimental effect they can have on them.

  • 02 of 12

    Leather Corals (Sinularia)

    Pink Leather Coral
    Phyllis Daniels

    Commonly known as leather corals, these are excellent saltwater aquarium starter corals, being adaptable to moderate light and current conditions. They prefer moderate turbulent water flow, but not a linear flow. Leather corals do not have a calcified skeleton. They do have the ability to sting other corals to keep them away. Provide plenty of space between your corals.

  • 03 of 12

    Star, Green Star, and Daisy Polyps (Pachyclavularia)

    Green Star Polyps (Pachyclavularia sp.)
    R. Tebben

    These good starter corals, commonly known as star polyps, green star polyps, and daisy polyps, are tolerant of both intense and low-level light as well as a range of currents. Being sensitive to iodine and aluminum oxide found in some phosphate removing filter sponges, caution should be taken when adding these filter materials to your tank.

    This coral is very fast-spreading to the point where it can overgrow other corals. It is tolerant of both low- and high-level lighting as well as varied water currents. This coral should be blown clear of detritus occasionally to prevent slime and filamentous algae from gaining a foothold.

  • 04 of 12

    Sea Mat and Button Polyps (Palythoa and Protopalythoa)

    Button Zoanthids (Palythoa sp.)
    John Stevenson

    Commonly known as sea mat and button polyps, these corals prefer bright light but are tolerant of lower light. Preferring moderate to strong current, Palythoa have a high reproductive rate and are very aggressive. Some of these species contain a strong neurotoxin that can affect humans, called Palytoxin, which is a very dangerous substance that is toxic to all animals, other corals, fish, birds, cats, dogs, and people. For this reason, one should take care when handling them and wear gloves. Don't handle them if you have cuts or open wounds on your hands and make sure to clean your hands after handling them.

    While most of these corals are brown to dark brown, a fair number of them contain elements in their tentacle tips that fluoresce beautifully under actinic blue lighting. They most often grow as solitary polyps or in small tightly clustered groups.

    Continue to 5 of 12 below.
  • 05 of 12

    Finger Leather Corals and Colt Corals (Cladiella)

    Colt Coral
    Chris Young

    These are commonly known as finger leather and colt corals because they have projections resembling fingers that are round to cone-shaped, and stubby. These thick finger-like projections branch upward from a very short, pale white stalk. While adaptable to most light and current conditions, these beautiful corals are found at mid-water levels in the ocean, so moderate light and current levels are optimal for them in captivity.

  • 06 of 12

    Toadstool Mushroom Coral (Sarcophyton)

    Leather Coral
    Peggy Nelson

    Corals in the genus Sarcophyton are commonly known as toadstool corals. The name comes from the fact that they look much like large toadstool mushrooms, and they're generally fast-growing and hardy corals. These are great beginner's corals that adapt well to most lighting levels as well as low to moderate current levels. These corals grow rapidly and are considered excellent for propagation. They can produce toxins that may affect stony corals and sea anemones.

  • 07 of 12

    Zoanthids, Zoanthus Button Polyps (Zoanthus)

    Zoanthids (Zoanthus sp.)
    Keoki and Yuko Stender

    Members of this genus are very colorful, being shades of green and brown typically, but sometimes fluorescent red, orange, pink, lavender, blue, yellow, or gray, and usually two-toned. They form colonies of densely crowded polyps attached in a common tissue at the base. While these corals prefer bright light, they are tolerant of lower light and prefer moderate to strong current, making them a good starter coral.

    These aggressive corals have a high reproductive rate and can spread rapidly in an aquarium. Some species in this genus contain a strong neurotoxin (palytoxin), which can affect humans. Wear gloves when handling them.

  • 08 of 12

    Closed and Dented Brain Corals (Symphyllia)

    Green Closed Brain Coral (Favites sp.)
    Daniel Ross

    Common names of these corals include closed brain coral, dented brain coral, meat coral, brain coral, and Pacific cactus coral. These corals are highly successful in captivity being very tolerant of different light and current conditions but preferring bright, indirect light and moderate to low currents. These corals are sensitive to the presence of some soft corals, such as Xenia and Litophyton, and are very reactive to food (zooplankton, phytoplankton, and algae) in the water, extending their tentacles when food is detected.

    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12

    Moon, Pineapple, and Brain Corals (Favia and Favites)

    Bubble (Plerogyra sinuosa) and Moon (Favia species) Corals
    Roberto Marion

    Common names for these corals include moon coral, pineapple coral, brain coral, and closed brain coral. These corals prefer bright lights; however, they will tolerate much lower levels. Preferring a gentle current, some Favites will attach to a substrate if not moved for several months. Favites can be fed and seem to appreciate a squirt or two of brine shrimp at night.

    Care should be taken with the placement of these corals as they can send out transparent sweeper tentacles at night to deter other corals from growing near them. They are considered by many to be easier coral to keep.

  • 10 of 12

    Honeycomb, Star, Wreath, and Moon Corals (Goniastrea)

    Brain Star Coral (Goniastrea sp.)
    Lucia Galvan

    Common names for these corals include honeycomb coral, star coral, wreath coral, moon coral, pineapple coral, brain coral, and closed brain xoral. Considered a good coral for novices, these corals thrive under strong water current and bright lighting. They are usually rounded or lobed, similar in appearance to the Favites corals. The tentacles are small and usually retracted during the day.

    In the photo here, note the sweepers protruding from the coral. These are poisonous and are used for both defense and offense.

  • 11 of 12

    Fox, Jasmine, and Ridge Corals (Nemenzophyllia)

    Fox (Nemenzophyllia turbida) Coral
    R. Tebben

    Common names for these corals include fox coral, jasmine coral, and ridge corals. These corals prefer a gentle current, calcifying and expanding best in dim to moderate light. Specimens in this genus do not produce feeding tentacles and therefore receive their nutrition from absorption. They have a very delicate skeleton structure that is easily broken.

    It does best without heavy skimming or highly efficient water filtration, and it's considered an easy coral to keep.

  • 12 of 12

    Lobed Brain Coral (Lobophyllia)

    Open Brain Coral
    M. Caruana

    Common names for these corals include lobed brain coral, flat brain coral, open brain coral, meat coral, modern coral, and large flower coral. These stony corals do best with bright direct light and calm currents; however, if adequate light and minimal water movement are provided, it will grow well in a tank.

    This coral normally feeds actively at night; however, the tentacles occasionally extend during the day and readily take food offerings, feeding almost exclusively on zooplankton and bacterioplankton, which consists of free-living bacteria, detritus, particulate organic matter (POM), and suspended organic matter (SOM).

    Lobophyllia is not normally aggressive; however, there have been reports of sweeper tentacles being formed when they come in contact with other corals.

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