Montipora Coral Care
Montipora are arguably the second most popular small polyp stony coral behind Acropora. Their popularity is well-deserved. Montipora are diverse in color and come in a multitude of growth forms. With just a little bit of searching, a reef hobbyist can find plating, encrusting, or branching varieties of Montipora in just about any texture or color. Montipora also tend to be easier to care for than Acropora making them more appealing to beginner hobbyists looking to try SPS for the first time.
The care requirements for Montipora vary to some degree because of their diversity. Some species are hardy and fast growing to the point that they can overgrow an aquarium such as the ubiquitous orange plating Montipora capricornus. Other variants are slower growing and more sensitive to tank conditions like the Montipora palawanensis.
Sometimes the sensitivity of a particular Montipora doesn’t have anything to do with growth rate or survivability. If they dislike the tank conditions in a particular reef, they may take on sub-optimal coloration which undermines a major reason why an aquarist selected a particular piece to begin with. It is frustrating to finally find a dazzling Montipora featured all over social media only to have it discolor to something more muted once in your home aquarium.
Now that you have some background information on Montipora, let’s talk about their care requirements. The care tips we will go over in this article are intended to provide a baseline that will give hobbyists the best chance for success. They may be overkill for the hardier species of Montipora while the more delicate specimens may require additional TLC to keep them healthy, growing, and colorful.
It is easy to jump right into talking about care requirements like lighting, flow, and water chemistry but first and foremost, Montipora like consistent parameters. The challenge with maintaining consistency is those parameters are a moving target. When you provide Montipora with favorable conditions, they grow and in many cases grow quickly which changes those conditions. A fast growing SPS reef is a constantly shifting dynamic that the hobbyist has to adjust for.
For example, lighting can change as bulbs and fixtures age but the light a coral receives also changes as the colony grows. The intensity increases for parts of the colony that extend upwards towards the light while simultaneously shading all the parts below it. Water Flow changes as pumps get gummed up over time however even if you are on top of maintaining all of your pumps, the Montipora colonies can grow densely packed branches and plates that dramatically cut down the flow in the tank. Lastly, chemistry changes as the uptake of major and minor elements accelerates as colonies grow. This is not a linear process. Once a colony takes off in growth, the consumption of major and minor elements is exponential. In extremely packed SPS tanks, it is common for the hobbyist to have to incorporate several methods of calcium and alkalinity addition because the growth of their coral outpaced the ability of any single supplementation method to keep up. I cannot stress enough the importance of long term stability so if you are successfully growing a lot of SPS make sure to pay even closer attention because future success may be a very different methodology than what got you to this point.
Indo-Pacific -Montipora are a genus of small polyp stony corals found in reefs throughout the world. They are one of the primary reef building corals and are responsible for a large percentage of a reef’s calcium carbonate structure. Most of the specimens found in the hobby today originate from the Pacific, mainly Indonesia and Australia.
Montipora are photosynthetic and are one of the most light demanding corals in the hobby. Like many corals, Montipora have a special symbiotic relationship with dinoflagellates called zooxanthellae that live inside its tissue. The dinoflagellates carry out the actual photosynthesis. The coral animal derives nutrients off of the byproducts of the dinoflagellates’ photosynthetic process. Zooxanthellae is usually brown in color and the coral tightly regulates the population living in its flesh depending on its nutritional needs. Hobbyists looking to find that “just right” color play with both lighting intensity and spectrum over their tank.
As a starting point we recommend initially providing light intensity around 125-150 PAR and slowly increasing that over time. In our systems Montipora have fared best when given light intensity around 200-300 PAR however there are plenty of successful systems with lighting intensities even higher than that. Having said that, I don’t recommend blasting newly added Montipora with a ton of light. More damage is caused by overexposure to light intensity than not providing enough light so take a couple of weeks to allow the coral to adjust to lighting conditions in your tank.Low Light
Low light translates to about 30-50 PAR
Medium Light is between 50-150 PAR
High Light is anything over 150 PAR
Lighting is a loaded topic, so for a more in-depth discussion of lighting, please see our Deep Dive article and check out our video below:
As for lighting technology, LED fixtures dominate the product landscape. Most new aquariums these days use LED lights for their energy efficiency, low heat emissions, lack of bulb replacement costs and controllability. Having said that, there is no consensus within the reef aquarium community as to what lighting technology is best for growth and coloration of Montipora. There are some old school reef keepers that swear by metal halide lights and T5 fluorescent bulbs.
Each type of light has its positives and negatives. T5 and metal halide for example are amazing performers with a proven track record of successfully growing coral for decades. The downside to them is that they are not particularly energy efficient, kick out a lot of heat, require potentially expensive bulb replacements, and have limited controllability. LED lights on the other hand improve on T5 and metal halide lights in all those above categories but have drawbacks of its own.
When LEDs first entered the market there were questions of their viability growing corals and achieving comparable coloration compared to metal halide and fluorescent. Many early adopters ended up switching back to their original lighting systems because they got suboptimal results with LED. At the time the lighting spectrum of LED’s were not very robust and to this day still struggle for niche applications such as photography. LED’s are the worst lights ever made for photography.
Perhaps more important than spectrum is that many of the fixtures struggled to adequately diffuse the light emitting from the LEDs themselves. Early models of LED fixtures produced a highly directional spotlight pattern. What would happen is the tops of the colony would receive light and grow but a harsh shadow would be cast on the portions of the colony that did not get spotlighted. That harsh shadow was basically ZERO light and that dark part of the colony would struggle and eventually die off.
Today, LED technology has come a long way in terms of both lighting spectrum and diffusion making it a very attractive choice given its other advantages. Lighting spectrum was solved to some degree by the introduction of different colored LEDs. Diffusion was handled by a change in the optics around each LED as well as optional diffuser plates to further scatter the light before it hits the water.
If you are the type of aquarist that likes the best of all worlds, hybrid lighting systems exist that combine LED and either T5 or metal halide. There might even be some systems out there that is a combination of all three technologies.
Montipora require both clean water and consistent high levels of major ions to maintain their growth rate. They are not quite as temperamental as Acropora however suboptimal water chemistry can lead to undesirable changes in color or cause the polyps of the coral to retract for extended periods of time. There are three major chemical parameters that are needed by Montipora to build its stony skeleton. These parameters are Calcium, Alkalinity, and Magnesium.
Starting first with Calcium… Calcium is one of the major ions in saltwater. In the ocean, its level hovers around 425 parts per million (ppm). As a coral grows calcium is taken in and forms its calcium carbonate skeleton.
Alkalinity on the other hand is not a particular ion per se, but you can think of it as the buffering capacity of the water. What the heck is buffering capacity? Buffering capacity in layman’s terms is chemical stability. How resistant is this chemical mix to change. Technically it is the amount of acid required to lower the pH of saltwater to the point bicarbonate turns into carbonic acid. If you have more alkalinity, it can soak up more acid while keeping things steady. Less alkalinity and you have less buffering capacity making the tank more susceptible to chemical changes.
In practice alkalinity tends to be the parameter that fluctuates the most of the three and is the one that needs the most babysitting. In the wild, the alkalinity of the water is around 8-9 dkh though some aquarists like to overload this parameter a little and keep their tanks around 10 or 11 dkh. There is some belief that having elevated calcium and alkalinity in the water contributes to faster stony coral growth but that topic perhaps deserves a video of its own.
One quick note about adjusting calcium and alkalinity is that it can be a little tricky because of how they interact. Addition of a calcium supplements often comes with a corresponding fall in alkalinity levels. This see saw effect between calcium and alkalinity stems from how the two ions interact with one another. The two ions combine to form calcium carbonate and fall out of solution.
If you are experiencing this in your systems, the possible culprit may be the third chemical parameter… Magnesium. It may seem counterintuitive that the solution to calcium and alkalinity imbalances is to elevate magnesium, but the three ions interact regularly.
Magnesium is very similar chemically to calcium. It can bind up carbonate ions thus increasing the overall bioavailability of alkalinity compounds in the water. If you are tweaking calcium and alkalinity and getting strange results, you may want to make sure it is not your magnesium level that is low. In the ocean, Magnesium sits at about 1350 ppm.
Having said all that, I would again stress that stability is the ultimate goal. When you are looking to raise any of these chemical parameters, it is best to work very slowly and let the change happen over the course of months not days.
By achieving success in growing a fast growing coral like Montipora makes stability a little more difficult to achieve. Successful SPS filled tanks experience rapid growth, and larger colonies soak up calcium, alkalinity, magnesium and trace elements at a much faster rate. At first just regular water changes may be sufficient to keep up with the chemistry demands of the corals, but as the biomass increases, you may have to work in supplementation such as kalkwasser, calcium reactors, or two part dosing… or even a combination of the three.
As far as water cleanliness goes, two parameters to keep low are nitrate and phosphate. Elevated phosphates can lead to poor coloration and possible algae issues. Nitrate is an indicator of poor water quality and can cause stony corals to crash altogether if not lowered. The natural sea water levels of nitrate are between 5 ppm and 40 ppm. For Montipora, it is best to be on the lower end of that range. Phosphate levels should be much lower (around .01 ppm) but I would caution hobbyists that are looking to keep those two parameters as close to zero as possible. Nitrate and Phosphate are not bad in and of themselves. Elevated levels of them can cause problems, but they are absolutely required for biological processes in coral and cannot be produced through photosynthesis.
Montipora appreciate strong flow, preferably with some randomness to it. There is such a thing as too much flow though. If you have a powerhead blowing right at the coral from short range, it may kill off some of the tissue at that point of contact. Another problem you might run into with vey strong flow is if you have a plating colony of Montipora. The shape of the colony can act like a parachute and lift off of the rocks if it gets hit by too much flow.
Another thing to pay attention to with regard to flow is maintaining consistency of that flow as time goes on.
There are two things over time that dramatically affect the performance of water flow systems. The first is the growth of the colony itself. Successfully growing Montipora comes with the downside of the coral cutting down the flow significantly. As colonies get larger and larger, it is important as hobbyists to pay close attention to changing flow demands and consider adding more flow or pruning the colony to allow more space for water to flow through.
Secondly, other organisms such as algae, sponges, and other sessile invertebrates love to grow in and around the aquarium’s pumps and plumbing. For this reason I recommend taking apart pumps and powerheads regularly for servicing. It does not take very much growth or blockages to greatly limit water flow output.
Even if you are not able to provide super strong flow in your tank, one thing you will want to pay attention to is detritus settling on either encrusting or plating colonies of Montipora. The shape of these corals as they grow create low areas that act as detritus traps. If there is not enough flow to blow these areas clean, the detritus that accumulates will kill off that portion of the colony. If that is a problem you are running into in your aquarium, either add more flow or manually clean off that accumulation with a turkey baster.
Montipora and SPS corals in general do not seem like the type of coral that would require feeding. They do not put on dramatic feeding displays like some large polyp stony corals and even under close macro photography they don’t seem to appreciate targeted feeding. In fact, target feeding often elicits the opposite response, where the coral closes up on contact and wants nothing to do with it.
It is clear that Montipora get the majority of their nutrition from lighting, but their requirements extend beyond that. Sometimes a Montipora colony will just look rather drab in appearance and it is hard to pinpoint why. The water chemistry is good, it’s getting plenty of light, there are no visible pests or other harassment, and the flow is great at that point in the tank. In this situation, the coral may be hungry.
But wait… didn’t we just say feeding was a no go? Despite not being the most aggressive feeders in the world, there are three great sources of food that work well for broadcast feeing. These three are amino acids, small zooplankton, and simply having fish present.
Starting with amino acids, they are simple organic compounds that play a major role in building proteins as well as other biological functions at the cellular level. Corals regularly take in available amino acids from the water column so it is fairly easy to provide them with adequate quantities by simply providing a broadcasted daily dose from any number of commercially available reef supplement manufacturers.
Small zooplankton include organisms such as rotifers and cyclops plankton. They come frozen and are basically a small granular oily paste that creates an orange cloud when introduced into the tank. The presence of rotifers in the water is immediately apparent to the corals because many of them will open up and initiate their feeding behavior. It is less obvious in Montipora, but I’ve noticed greater polyp extension when we’ve added a mix of frozen rotifers and powdered plankton foods.
Last point on nutrition, having fish in and around Montipora colonies have a positive effect. Perhaps their presence as a nitrogen source in close proximity is a good thing as small quantities of both nitrogen and phosphorus are needed by corals and is not something they get through photosynthesis.
One last note about feeding that I’ll add is that although coral nutrition is important, don’t go crazy with it and overfeed the aquarium. Most of the nutrition a Montipora needs will come from the lighting and they will be absorbing other nutrients from the water. If you are going to experiment with some of the broadcast foods mentioned above, start really slowly with it and don’t expect explosive changes overnight in terms of the corals’ growth or color. The only thing that will be an overnight change is a giant algae bloom from overfeeding.
As for propagation and future aquaculture, Montipora are a very interesting candidate. They are one of the easiest corals to break apart and reattach to new substrate. What makes them interesting however is that they are one of the corals that people are experimenting with in the way of grafting. Montipora are able to be grafted like plants where the pigmentation transfers between two dissimilar looking individuals. What you end up with is this ice cream swirl of color in its body. This sort of thing is what I would like to try myself down the line and I will be curious to see what the reef keeping community comes up with as well.
Ok, now it’s time to cover some of the ugly parts of keeping Montipora… pests. I would go as far as saying that there is a Montipora pest that is one of the worst in the whole hobby that being Montipora eating nudibranchs. There are plenty of nudibranchs that can plague a home aquarium such as zoanthid eating nudibranchs that take on the coloration of the zoos they munch on. The Montipora eating variety though are Snow White and are absolutely terrible to deal with. The main challenge in eliminating them is that they are highly resistant to dipping. They require pretty heavy concentrations of whatever commercially available dip you like to use, but on top of that even if the nudibranchs die, the eggs are often completely unaffected. Also, there is no guarantee that these nudibranchs are always on the coral you are dipping. Plenty of times they are just in the tank roaming around and escape any efforts to dip a particular coral they are eating.
There are not a lot of really horrible pests in this hobby. Most of them are actually pretty easy to take care of despite the horror stories one might hear. These guys however are the real deal. I’ve gone as far as completely swearing off any new Montipora from the ocean because they almost always come in with them. Still even after years of not having any in my system occasionally out of nowhere they can pop up. At that point all you can do is keep dipping and hopefully knock them down without killing the corals you are dipping.
Ok, that about does it for Montipora. Who is Montipora for? I would say it is one of the main building block corals of an SPS dominated reef along with Acropora. If you are looking to get into SPS Montipora would be a great choice because it is not insanely challenging for beginners and there are such a variety of options out there for colors and shapes.