Unravelling the challenges of Scolymia

Believe it or not, one of my favorite corals is Scolymia. Yup, that’s right, the “Scoly!” I used to look at them as high-priced “doorstops”, with...
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    As a lifelong reefkeeper and, more recently, a coral vendor, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to see and keep many different animals over the years. Corals, in particular, have dominated my attention in recent years, and I’ve developed a really good appreciation for their diversity, beauty, adaptability and biology. Not to mention that I think they're just plain cool to keep in reef tanks…assuming we understand their needs!

    Seems like I've embarked on "Coral Week", with my rants focused on the singular object of our obsession...Okay, so be it! I'll continue by yapping about one of my coral faves...

    Believe it or not, one of my favorite corals is Scolymia. Yup, that’s right, the “Scoly!”


    scolymia australis 11.jpg
    Way more than a "doorstop."


    I used to look at them as high-priced “doorstops”, with little to hold my interest: I mean, they don’t “branch”, they don’t wave around in the current, and they don’t encrust like other corals. And, they are surrounded by some of the same garbage-hype and pricing absurdity that I detest about Chalices and Acans...Yuck. You know how I feel about that stuff. However, over time, I found a lot of things that I liked about them...for that matter, admired about them! I mean, they have a few things in their favor that really hold my attention - and apparently the attention of other reefers:


    * They come in a seemingly infinite variety of color combinations, including some “standardized” color patterns (ie; the “Bleeding Apple”, “Reverse Bleeding Apple”, “Warpaint”, “UFO”, and the coveted but truly rare “Masterpiece” morph), including near-solid colors. Sort of something for everyone!

    * They fall into that lovely hobbyist-created “Large Polyp Stony” (“LPS”) category, which seems almost synonymous with easier husbandry for many….but these corals aren’t a piece of cake to keep by any stretch for lots of reefers!

    * They are relatively easy to feed, and their environmental requirements are quite distinct and simple to provide.

    * They actually lend themselves well to imposed propagation techniques.

    Of course, there is a dark side to Scolys in the hobby as well. Talk to enough reefers, or read enough on the forums and blogs, and you’ll hear things like:

    *"They are slow-growing corals that reproduce sexually, which makes taking them from the wild somewhat less responsible than say, an Acropora."

    *"Many uber-experienced reefers can’t keep ‘em alive for long periods of time. They seem to do well for months and then just start to wither away."

    * "They are the new millennium’s answer to Goniopora- alluring, yet not a great long-term choice."

    Well, it’s hard to argue with all of these points and dismiss them summarily. Let’s be honest- they are not beginner’s corals, as they require a slightly higher commitment than say, soft corals. Also, they do reproduce rather slowly, which in theory may put them under pressure from over-collection. Indeed, many reefers have kept them for a few months, only to have them seemingly die for no apparent reason.

    What gives?

    Well, let’s take a little more detailed look at these corals (from a reefer’s perspective), and see if we can get to the bottom of some of the issues that arise with them.

    IMG_1921.jpg
    The "Masterpiece Scoly"- a "Holy Grail" coral with a serious price tag. And no, this one is not available..LOL


    Scolymia are card-carrying members of the family Mussidae, and are fairly well-represented throughout the Indo Pacific, in particular, Northern Australia along the Great Barrier Reef. Science currently recognizes five species of Scolymia, and the hobby (bless our hearts) tends to only recognize one species, Scolymia australis. Since this species is the best-represented one in the hobby, and the most likely that you’ll encounter, we’ll make the assumption (gulp) that this is the species you’re most likely going to be dealing with whenever you see a “Scoly” for sale.

    They are often found in somewhat shaded areas on the reef (DING! A first clue about their captive care, right?), or oriented in such a way that they are not exposed to bright direct sunlight. Thye tend to be found in areas with moderate water movement- not on high-energy reef crests or surge zones (Ahh, another clue!), and tend to live a solitary life, maintaining some distance from other specimens. They are relatively slow-growing corals, and don’t require large quantities of foods to survive, although supplemental feeding goes with the territory when maintaining Scolymia.

    Selecting a healthy specimen is very important with Scolymia. If you are selecting the coral yourself, make sure that there are no substantial areas of receding tissue apparent anywhere on the specimen. A healthy Scolymia will retain an overall “inflated look”, with the tissue covering the skeleton amply. In fact, there should be no significant appearance of skeleton in a healthy Scoly.

    IMG_5920.jpg
    A fat Scoly is a happy Scoly!


    Damage to the mouth should be a primary reason to reject the purchase of the coral, as proper feeding is really important. Like many corals, damaged Scolymia suffering from tissue recession will retain their amazing colts even as their tissue recedes. Unless there is very slight damage to the outside edges of the coral, I would be extremely hesitant to purchase any Scolymia that shows tissue loss.

    These animals are often found attached to a rock substrate, and they should be left on the rock when placed in their new home. Attempting to remove the coral from the substrate upon which it has encrusted could cause sever damage to the coral, which can be life-threatening.

    As mentioned above, these corals are not high-light-demanding animals, and tend to do better over time in systems that are not ridiculously over-illuminated. At Unique Corals, we have maintained them under balanced T5 lighting, as well as under diffuse LED lighting with great success.

    _DSC0292-ultrascoly-720-$175.jpg
    Scolys don't need to be blasted with high-intensity lighting.


    Okay, we started talking about feeding, so let’s look at the topic a bit more deeply, because I feel that it’s one of the single biggest contributors to long-term failure-or success- with this species.

    As I stated above, these corals need to be fed. I think that this may be one of the areas where some hobbyists have trouble keeping these corals long-term. Scolymia demonstrate an amazingly strong feeding response. Indeed, at night, they extend feeding tentacles which virtually change their appearance to something unrecognizable! They are very efficient in capturing prey items.


    The fact that they extend their tentacles at night is a big clue to their feeding habits: In my humble opinion, they are best fed either at night, or at the very least, during your reef’s “dark” hours, as this is when they are most likely to demonstrate their best potential feeding response. That’s what we do at the Unique Corals facility, and it works very well for our Scolymia.

    It’s my thinking that many hobbyists try to squirt food into the body cavity of a Scolymia when it is simply not ready to eat. This stresses the animal in a couple of ways. First, the physical intrusion of a squirt of food into the moth cavity of the animal in “non-feeding mode” is obviously sort of traumatic.

    Think of it: How would you like to have someone walk up to you oat some random moment n the middle of your day and cram a baster full of ground-up hamburger into your mouth? I mean, that’s hardly conducive to happy living, huh?

    So, timing is very important here.

    When you “force feed” the coral when it is not ready, the food simply ends up accumulating in the body cavity of the coral, where it can simply remain, decomposing and creating a potentially toxic mess that can break down the coral’s health over time. As an added insult, opportunistic reef creatures, ranging from hermit crabs to fish, can saunter on up to your improperly-fed Scoly at their leisure, and pick out a few tasty treats from the coral’s body cavity, further stressing the animal.

    Finally, there is the issue of exactly WHAT we’re feeding. Sure, “meaty marine-based foods” is a correct recommendation, but it’s a pretty broad category, huh? What’s worked for us? Foods like small mysis, oyster eggs, and other small-particle- size foods have worked best for us. Some hobbyists report success with some of the higher-quality prepared foods, like Fauna Marin, etc.

    The important lesson here in feeding Scolys is that you need to feed the right-sized food at the right time! In my opinion, following this one simple rule will GREATLY increase your possibilities of success with this group of corals.

    _DSC0285-purple-redwysiwygscoly-720-.jpg
    Feeding Scolymia is a matter of both what and when to feed!


    Since sustainability is on the mind of almost every reefer, we need to take into account the fact that this coral does grow rather slowly, and sexual reproduction has proven elusive in captivity. However, a number of hobbyists and industry people have experimented with propagating these corals via imposed fragmentation (ie; they took the coral to the saw!). In our personal experiments with propagation, we have sliced Scolymia specimens into several pie-shaped segments, making sure that the cuts include at least a small section of the mouth. Over time, when provided with good flow, clean water conditions, and proper feeding (as outlined above) the frags will heal up fully, and begin to grow into duplicates of the mother coral.

    We've played with (on these pages) grafting these corals, and are currently monitoring the results as they heal out. The fact that they survive imposed fragmentation so well is testimony to the real (and apparently under-appreciated) durability of the species.


    It is our hope that, over time, it will be possible to substantially reduce the cost of Scolymia specimens and help lower collection pressures on this species by creating and marketing more and more captive propagated frags and specimens to our customers. Of course, the long term goal would be sexual reproduction of these corals in captivity, which, to my knowledge, has not been achieved with any regularity or control.

    In the end, the decision to purchase a Scolymia, like any other coral, rests with you- the consumer. If enough people kill Scolymia, eventually, reefers will stop purchasing them, and vendors will stop importing them until we get a better handle on what's going on. However, in my personal experience, as well as the experience of thousands of reefers, is that these corals can be maintained for the very long term if their needs are understood and met. This species doesn't seem to hold the same hurdles to care as say, Goniopora or Elegance Corals did several years past. Our knowledge, technique, foods, and attention is far better than it has been in years past, making Scolymia, in my opinion, a viable choice for experienced reefers.

    As always, let's hear about your experiences- good and bad- with this species. I'm sure there are plenty of stories from both sides of the camp, and everyone can benefit from hearing about them!

    Thanks as always for stopping by. Keep sharing, and...


    Stay Wet.

    Regards,

    Scott Fellman
    Unique Corals

    This Article is Sponsored by @uniquecorals
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    scolymia australis 11.jpg

    IMG_1921.jpg

    IMG_5920.jpg

    _DSC0292-ultrascoly-720-$175.jpg

    _DSC0285-purple-redwysiwygscoly-720-.jpg

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