Pipe Organ Coral Care
Pipe Organs, of the Genus Tubipora, are a soft coral that can vary in appearance from something similar in appearance to green star polyps to flower-like daisy shaped polyps. However, their main distinguishing feature is the red calcium carbonate skeleton that they produce. Now I just said these corals were soft corals, but they have a skeleton?
Normally when people think of the differences between stony corals and soft corals, it is all about the fact that soft corals, like toadstool leathers for example, don’t form a skeleton, and stony corals, like Acropora, do. That logic would make a lot of sense, but really how these corals are classified is all about the symmetry of the polyps.
Soft corals are octocorallia whereas stony corals are hexacorallia. If you imagine each polyp being like a pizza, stony corals have slices in multiples of six, and soft corals have slices in multiples of 8.
These corals are commonly found near the Pacific regions of Australia and Indonesia.
That’s a little bit of background on Pipe Organs. Let’s now talk about their care requirements starting with lighting.
Since this coral stays very consistent in appearance we keep it under medium light. I haven’t noticed any change in coloration from changes in light spectrum or intensity. I would try to keep them under light in the neighborhood of 75 to 100 PAR to make sure they are getting enough light for photosynthesis, but not too much light where they would burn up.Low Light
Lighting is a loaded topic, so for a more in-depth discussion of lighting, please see our Deep Dive article.
Due to the skeleton of the Pipe Organ, it’s best to keep it in an area of higher flow to dislodge any detritus that can accumulate inside. The skeleton has all types of nooks and crannies that invites detritus accumulation. Too much accumulation can suffocate the delicate polyps inside, so it’s important to keep enough flow going through.
When feeding Pipe Organs, you can go with either a frozen food or some powdered food varieties. I was pleasantly surprised at the performance of some of the powdered foods. When you observe it, you can’t really tell that the coral is grabbing and eating any of the food, but a lot of the dried powders are balanced out to float in the water column, and that gives this coral plenty of time to reach up and grab it and consume it.
If you’re going to go with frozen food, I recommend getting something cloudy rather than chunky, because these polyps are fairly small and can only grab things that they can fit in their mouth. That’s why I like to use foods that are smaller like cyclops plankton and rotifers. If you want to go that extra mile, adding amino acids to your feeding routine is also an option.
Sticking with the topic of amino acids, let's delve a little further into what those are. Amino Acids are simple organic compounds that play a major role in building proteins as well as other biological functions at the cellular level. There are a little over 20 different types of amino acids. Most of them can be synthesized by the organism but some cannot be and must be taken in by feeding. Those amino acids are termed essential amino acids and they vary from species to species. Corals regularly take in available amino acids from the water column so it is easy to provide them with adequate quantities by broadcast feeding an amino acid solution. They are available from any number of commercially available reef supplement manufacturers. This may be the easiest way to feed your corals because as long as amino acids are bioavailable in the water column, the corals will soak them up. If you want to know more about amino acids, I made a video going into great detail about them so check that out below:
Next up, Small zooplankton include organisms such as rotifers and cyclops plankton. There are two kinds, frozen and powdered. Both varieties do a great job of eliciting a feeding response from a wide range of corals. They are small enough that many small polyp stony corals can make a meal out of them but you have to be careful because they are a very nutrient dense messy food which can elevate your nutrient levels. Last point on nutrition, having fish in and around coral colonies tends to have a positive effect. Fish provide a steady dose of nitrogen and phosphorous which in small quantities is helpful for their nutritional needs.
Pipe Organs can be a little more challenging than a typical soft coral. Your best bet is to treat them like a stony coral and provide a stable source of calcium and alkalinity so they can lay down new skeletal growth. This is really important because if the colony is not growing, the coral itself invites other problems. So let’s get into the details regarding calcium and alkalinity that keep the skeleton intact.
Starting first with Calcium, it 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 absorbed from the water and used to forms its calcium carbonate skeleton.
Alkalinity is probably the most important parameter to pay attention to. It is not a particular ion, but rather a general figure of carbonate availability in the water. 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. 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, so if you can only manage one test, test for alkalinity. In natural sea water, the alkalinity of the water measures around 7 or 8 dkh though most salt mixes these days mix up closer to 8 to 9 dkh. Some aquarists like to overload this parameter a little and keep their tanks around 10 or 11 dkh with the belief that having elevated calcium and alkalinity in the water contributes to faster stony coral growth, which is relevant in this case, because even though Pipe Organs are technically soft corals, remember they still have that skeleton to take care of like stony corals do.
Raising both calcium and alkalinity together can be tricky because of how they interact. Calcium ions and carbonate want to react with one another. Addition of a calcium supplements often comes with a corresponding fall in alkalinity levels and vice versa. If you are experiencing this in your systems, it is normal, but wild swings are not. If you are experiencing dramatic swings of calcium and alkalinity every time you use an additive, you may want to look at your Magnesium levels.
So why Magnesium? Magnesium behaves chemically similar 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.
Pipe Organ Corals can be propagated fairly easily, but they are surprisingly slow growing. They appear to be very similar to fast growing corals such as green star polyps, but because they have to grow their red skeleton they almost never exhibit explosive growth that takes over a tank.
During propagation, you need to be careful of the base. Debris and predators can get at the corals from the base, so if you are gluing them down to a substrate, it’s important to go a little heavier on the glue to seal up the ends of the tubes
One time we had a large colony of Pipe Organs and after the first day or so it just wouldn’t open up. We decided to frag the colony and that’s when we discovered a crab living inside the skeleton. If you think about it, the skeleton of this coral makes a great potential home for crustaceans like that crab because it is fairly brittle to burrow into compared to live rock.
Ok, that about does it for Pipe Organs. This coral is very good for people that are looking for something a little different. Even though this coral isn’t necessarily difficult to acquire, or rare in any way, shape, or form, it is definitely under represented in the hobby. It also has a beautiful floral aesthetic that a lot of other corals simply lack. These corals aren’t particularly aggressive, so that means they don’t really need that much space between each colony, there’s no sweeper tentacles or anything like that. Their growth rate is also relatively slow which makes them a good candidate for smaller tanks that can get easily overrun by very fast growing corals like green star polyps for example.
Definitely make it a habit to check in and see if we have any Pipe Organs for sale here at Tidal Gardens, they’ll make a great addition to your tank. As always, take care guys, and happy reefing!