Saving a starving sun coral

by Owen James

An interesting video popped up on YouTube today from a caring aquarium keeper who is trying to save a starving sun coral:

YouTube Preview Image

Is this a good idea? I’m not sure:

  • The sun coral looks a long way gone. It’s going to be very hard to save
  • The pet shop who starved it has still received money despite not looking after the coral
  • Sun corals need a lot of food, and I’m not sure that small tank can cope with the waste
  • He says it’s proving hard to feed, which means the feeding response is failing in his sun coral. I’ll probably leave a comment on the YouTube site, but the omens aren’t good

How to save a starved sun coral

I’ve brought a sun coral around before, although it was nothing like as far gone as this poor specimen. It can be done, but it is very hard once the coral has stopped feeding. I’m certainly not claiming to be an expert keeper of these corals, but here’s what I’d do in this situation:

  1. Let the coral settle in for a day or two. I know the desire to feed such a desperate specimen will be overwhelming, but it really needs to recover from the move first
  2. Put it in a tank without any lighting. Consider blacking out the tank. If algae starts growing on the sun coral you’re doomed, since most of its skeleton is already bare and it won’t fight back in this state.
  3. Choose a time when you can feed it every day without fail. It doesn’t matter what time, it could be before breakfast or before you go to bed, as long as it’s consistent.
  4. At feeding time, turn off all the pumps. Then:
    • Squeeze a few drops of something like the juice from mysis into the aquarium water over the coral
    • Hope that after 10-15 minutes the sun coral extends its tentacles
    • Individual feed each polyp a mysis shrimp using a turkey baster or plastic forceps
    • If by the time you’ve fed each polyp any have expanded again, feed them again
    • Consider vitamin enhancing the mysis before feeding
    • If it didn’t extend tentacles, try again the next day, at exactly the same time
  5. Repeat daily, monitoring the water quality closely
  6. Perform regular water changes, and be sure to remove any obvious loose food
  7. Keep things clean: Consider adding something fairly slow and harmless like blue-legged hermits or a couple of omnivorous snails to help keep things clean. Don’t add shrimp, as they’ll steal the food before the sun coral has fed

Longer-term recovery in a sun coral

When the sun coral has recovered and has lots of little yellow polyps where it’s currently bare skeleton, you might consider the technique of removing it to a separate tub say twice a week at feeding time, and squirting lots of food into the tub.

Stir things up again every five minutes. After it’s fed – say 20 to 30 minutes, but be careful in a cool house – remove the coral back to the aquarium, then strain the water back into the tank (or better yet add new, freshly made up sea water). At no point expose the coral to the air! Personally, I prefer to spot feed, but a few keepers swear by the removal-to-tub method.

I don’t think the cyclopeeze option this video refers to is a good one. Firstly, it’s not going to provide enough food, especially for a coral in this condition, and second, most of the cyclopeeze is going to miss the coral and pollute the tank. Big lumps of well-targeted food is what’s required.

Be aware that sun corals need to be fed at least once or twice a week, even when healthy, so they’re a long-term commitment. Watch their polyps to ensure they’re puffing up; a retracting, shrinking sun coral is an underfed one.

Here’s a great video of a sun coral feeding on live brine shrimp:

YouTube Preview Image

Aside from the food issue – and the need to keep them out of the light – they’re among the more hardy corals, as is evidenced perhaps by their wide range in the wild. A decent current is perhaps the third most important special criteria.

I certainly wish this aquarium keeper the very best of luck; he obviously cares very much about the creatures we remove from the wild. If only all aquarists (and pet shops!) felt the same.

Got any other advice on sun corals? Let us know below.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathy Lee 03.11.09 at 9:28 pm

My husband and I just purchased a sun coral well my lfs put in an order for me and my husband picked it up for me not knowing what they are spose to look like well to make a long story short “the poor thing” so I am going thru what you guys are…so what was your ending story did you save it? and any help saving mine?

Owen James 03.11.09 at 10:12 pm

Hi Kathy Lee

It wasn’t my sun coral – it was a blogger on YouTube.

Unfortunately, I believe the sun coral died. If you follow the YouTube video above back to YouTube then click on the poster’s name you’ll find another video where he says it sadly died.

I hope the tips above might help? Sun corals are a difficult species to keep alive due to the need for a lot of spot feeding, and also the consequent water quality issues.

Good luck!

Kathy Lee 03.13.09 at 9:51 am

Thank you…my coral is slowly comming out I just think it needed some time. I am in love with my saltwater tank and spend most of my time with it. It is a time away :) better than tv

Daniel K 09.27.09 at 2:15 pm

I just bought a sun coral from the LSF yesturday and didnt realise the amount of care these corals need for feeding. The coral has not opened up yet while I’ve seen the tank. Looks to be nice and health(fat tips). I think it might have opened up late lastnight while I was asleep, ebcause somehow it moved from the original possition I had it in.

Is there any way that I can get it to open up during the daylight hours? Or do I have to wait for them to open up by themselves to feed? What would you reccomend feeding it? I currently feed my tank with frozen brine / mysis shrimp, marine snow, and phytoplankton. I also made a home made marine mix using scallops, shrimp, haddock and a rew other fresh seafood items that were soaked in selcon, and frozen.

YayHeaven 12.31.09 at 5:36 am

Hi Owen, I am the owner and ran across my video being embedded on your site. Thank you for the compliments. It was a wonderful surprise to find one of my videos here!

The tubastreas are such an addiction for me. I have beautiful photos of of them thriving and growing from such tiny things! I’ve had the pleasure of nursing a few sick sun corals back to health. There is one food in particular that seems to do really well for them. San Francisco Bay Reef Plankton Mini Cubes is a food that mine have all taken very well to. The variety of foods in the mix as well as the fat content seems to be something they appreciate a great deal. It is a tank polluter though, so a very good cleanup crew is absolutely necessary.

@Daniel – Mine are all trained to come out during the daylight hours. Sometimes they will not open up for weeks once newly introduced, but with some patience and the right food for them to detect during feeding times, their own biological clocks will sync and they will open early to prepare for your daily feedings if you are feeding at the same time every day consistently. Hope that helps.

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