Purple Leather Rescue on the Reef

About 6 weeks ago, I returned from the fish store with a coral that wasn’t supposed to survive.

Toadstool leathers (Sarcophyton sp.) are soft corals of the family Alcyoniidae, and generally good corals for beginners. Although they do engage in “chemical warfare”–releasing toxins that can harm other corals (including other leathers) if placed too close together, leathers have amazing regenerative powers, and can recover from fairly serious injuries, given time and the right conditions.

Despite this, the local reef store owner was having trouble persuading a heavily damaged toadstool leather to recover in his tanks. (This is highly unusual, because he farms many species of corals, including rare and delicate species much more difficult to care for than Sarcophyton.) The coral arrived at his shop quite damaged, and seemed to have simply “given up”–its skin was rotting, its polyps no longer extended, and it was fairly close to simply becoming a toxic “mush.”

Instead, of exhibiting the typical fuzzy shape of a toadstool mushroom:

16C13 Yellow leather

This specimen was ragged, oddly knobbed, and soft to the touch:

16C13 purple leather first

I brought it home because my seahorse reef is ideal for leather corals, hoping to save the creature before it completely gave up the ghost. The first few days, I moved it around the tank, seeking a nice combination of light (they don’t need much) and water flow (they like somewhat turbulent flow, but not too fast).

Eventually, I decided on a spot near the sea fans where the seahorses hitch for the night. The introduction of the coral prompted quite a bit of curious investigation–seahorses like to investigate any new objects in the environment:

16C13 Purple leather first day

For the first few weeks, the coral continued to slough off dead or dying tissue, and showed no sign of polyp extension. 

Even so, I was cautiously optimistic because the coral no longer seemed to be turning “mushy” or dissolving. It wasn’t obviously “better”–but at least it wasn’t worse.

16C13 purple leather early

I left for the Left Coast Crime convention in Phoenix on February 23, a little concerned about leaving the coral behind, but well-aware that my husband takes good care of the tank, and that he would keep an eye on things for me.

Two days into the conference, he called to tell me that the little leather had finally started showing some “little poky pieces” coming out of the surface. The polyps were starting to re-grow!

16C13 purple leather few polyps

By the time I came home, the leather’s patchy, dying skin had sloughed away completely, and a brand-new, healthy outer skin had re-grown, complete with polyps:

16C13 Purple leather healing

The coral still has a way to go before it’s completely healthy again, but it’s definitely on the mend, and at this point I’m confident that it will survive.

Conventional wisdom says that we shouldn’t pick the dying specimens when choosing new species for our reefs–and generally speaking, that’s good advice. Whether you’re picking a fish, a coral, or an invertebrate, normally you want to acquire the healthiest specimen possible. However, once your reef is advanced and your skills are up to the challenge, it can be rewarding to offer a dying animal a second chance…especially when the results are as good as this one. It makes me happy to know that this particular coral has beaten the odds, and has many years of life and growth ahead.