Sarcophyton toadstool leather corals are some of the most recognizable soft corals in the reef-keeping hobby. Their name comes from their mushroom-like appearance.
Although there are over 40 different species of Sarcophyton, they all have the same general structure. They have a single stalk that opens out into a flat cap to give it a mushroom appearance. These soft corals in some ways resemble carpet anemones and have been known to host clownfish. More than anything toadstools are known for both being relatively easy to keep and growing to impressive size when mature.
There are some major differences between the various species of Sarcophyton. Some varieties of toadstool leathers have short tentacles while others have long ones that make the coral look like a bushy carpet. The tentacles themselves often differ in shape with some appearing wide open while others mostly small and closed.
Although the vast majority of toadstool leathers are very hardy, there are always exceptions to the rule. Sarcophyton elegans is a yellow species from Fiji. This one is a muted yellow in color however I have seen other varieties that are a bright canary yellow. Unlike their hardier brethren, the yellow Fiji leathers can be difficult to care for. They bruise easily from contact, which can lead to a black colored infection. They are notoriously difficult to propagate for this reason as well.
Sarcophyton leathers do not require as much light as some other corals. Most do well in PAR ranges of 50-100. Having said that, they can be acclimated to higher intensities and some species need that intense light to achieve their brightest colors.
Water flow is especially important to toadstool leather corals because these leathers routinely shed a waxy layer about once a month. This waxy layer looks like cellophane and its purpose is to stave off algae and diatoms from growing on it. If you see your toadstool close up like this, don’t worry too much. It is normal, and strong flow helps periodically remove this layer. When the toadstool comes out after shedding, it often swells up and extends even more than before.
Up to this point, I personally do not go out of my way to feed toadstool leathers. I have heard that they feed on phytoplankton and similarly sized micro fauna in the water column. To test this out, we made a cocktail of planktonic powders including Reef Roids Coral Frenzy, as well as powdered Sustainable Aquatics Hatchery Diet pellets and offered it to some of these leathers.
The coral might be taking in some food here and there, but it is not as clear a feeding response as we are used to seeing in say large polyp stony corals that often put on a dramatic feeding display. This may be a situation where it has to be live phytoplankton to really get the coral eating. In the future we will likely be providing a light dusting as we food our other corals. We have seen corals benefit from regular feeding despite not showing obvious signs of eating.
Care tips would not be complete without some mention of potential toxicity. Yeah, these toadstools can be toxic to other corals.
Recurring theme on the reef is that all corals are trying to get more real estate for themselves. Some corals engage in open combat like this maze brain using sweeper tentacles. Large leathers are not quite so bold. They are like that passive aggressive co-worker that sabotages you at every turn. You know whom I’m talking about… Toadstool leathers engage in chemical warfare. Although they are not the most toxic variety of leathers out there, the toxins associated with large toadstool leathers can shut down growth of neighboring stony corals.
There are three solutions I can suggest to dealing with the buildup of toxins from soft corals. The first is by far the least expensive and also has tremendous other benefits. Do more water changes! Water changes both dilute toxins from the leathers as well as excess nutrients that may lead to declining water quality. If chemical warfare is a serious concern, frequent water changes are by far the easiest route.
Second, you can run Activated Carbon. Carbon does a pretty good job of binding up and neutralizing organic compounds in the water. Carbon is essentially a molecular sponge and soaks up the toxins that the coral releases. It’s also relatively inexpensive and can be used very effectively in conjunction with a reactor.
Lastly, you might consider Ozone. Ozone is not a very popular technology in reef aquariums, but it certainly has its place in very large aquariums where carbon would not be cost effective. Ozone injection usually occurs in conjunction with a protein skimmer. It reacts with all kinds of compounds in the water which then get skimmed out. The result is a combination of sterilization and breakdown of chemicals in the water column. The side benefit of ozone is that it makes the water in the tank look crystal clear. I have never personally used ozone, but it would be something that I would want to experiment with.
Aquaculture and Propagation
The great thing about Sarcophyton leathers is that they are easy to propagate. The best way that I have found is to cut around the perimeter of the cap thus isolating a long ribbon and leaving the stalk. The stalk will heal and regrow its cap in roughly a month or two. You can then slice the ribbon into 1” to 2” sections and rubberband them down to rocks. Be sure not to rubber band them too tightly as they might be cut in half by the rubber band and detach. See the video below for more details on propagating Sarcophyton leathers.
In summary, the toadstool leather is a very popular coral in the hobby today and makes an impressive showpiece when they reach large size. With only a few exceptions, Sarcophyton leathers are easy to care for and will do well in most tank conditions. If you have questions about this coral, please feel free to leave a comment.