Rescuing Dying Corals: Lobophyllia

Many large-polyp stoney corals are difficult, if not impossible, to identify without examination of a coral’s skeleton.  Thankfully, the genus Trachyphyllia is not as it only has one species:  geoffroyi.  They are usually hourglass-shaped (like the one pictured below), but they also exist in solitary polyps and occasionally meandering colonies (polyps where it is difficult to tell where one starts and another stops – think of how the human brain looks.)  And, even so, I got this ID wrong.  It’s actually a Lobophyllia (originally stated it was a Trachyphyllia based on the skeletal shape.)

This Lobophyllia was obtained November 2010.  Note the freshly exposed skeleton showing bright in white.  The tissue is pulled tight against the skeleton, and the mouths are gaping.  Without having a laboratory in my house, I attribute this coral’s condition to rapidly deteriorating water conditions.  The freshly exposed skeleton indicates something drastic changed, and the fairly uniform amount of exposed skeleton around the coral suggests the source of the problem surrounded the coral.  Lack of bleaching can probably rule out Vibrio and stress due to lighting.  The skin clinging to the skeleton and gaping mouth suggests the coral was not eating – possibly a defensive mechanism to reduce its exposure to poor water quality.

November 2010
Poor water conditions could mean allelopathy (chemical warfare between corals), high nitrates, high organics, etc.  To treat this coral I purchased for $10, I decided the best course of action was just a good aquarium.  After completing my coral examination and dip, I cut the coral’s septa (the teethy-ridges).  I have found that if a large polyp coral was to suddenly inflate in excessive flow, the flesh will easily rip on the septa.  With a sick coral, one small tissue tear can continue to rip or become infected and quickly lead to the demise of the coral.  To prevent this, I carefully trim back the septa and remove all sharp points.  The coral can then expand with little difficulty, and corals seem to have more ease in growing back over the existing skeleton this way.
The following photos show progression:
February 1, 2011: Coral is starting to grow over skeleton and is eating pellet food
February 24, 2011:  Once a coral is healthy, growth can be very rapid, even within a single month!
October 2011: Coral is fully healed and has two separate mouths now
January 2012:  Coral continues to grow!
In rescuing corals, the first step, even before taking the coral home, is to identify the root cause of the coral’s problem.  Once you identify what is wrong, you can take corrective action to restore the coral to its full health.


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  1. ghurlag

    Nikki, what criteria did you use to know how far back to cut the septa? I have had a trach for a couple months now that was a little worse than the one you show here. It's not been healing as well as yours is. And your mention of the sept cutting inflated flesh may well be part of the reason.

  2. Reef'd Up

    I try to cut the sharp points down as much as possible without stressing/harming the coral. On areas where there is no chance of harm to the coral I nearly smooth the skeleton out. On other corals where cutting the septa could hurt the coral, I just knock the sharp points off. As far as a guideline goes, press your finger on the point and apply a bit of pressure (don't hurt yourself). If it isn't comfortable to your hand, it probably won't feel good to the coral. If any edges feel knife-like, then they are probably also a problem. Send me a pic, and I'll see if I can help more. 🙂

  3. Paul Yjares

    hey man! good job on saving that coral. anyway, have some questions coz my brain coral is dying too.. and maybe you can help me.. how often should i feed it? thank you!

  4. Reef'd Up

    Thanks, and I'm sorry you're having some difficulties. Feeding depends on what is wrong with the coral. If it is severely bleached, I feed every day until it starts actively looking for food on its own (extending tentacles at night) or starts regaining color. If it is dying from poor water conditions (no bleaching involved), then feeding is probably not going to help except in the recovery phase. Feel free to send an email to me at ReefdUp@gmail.com or join our Facebook page (link at the top right), and include pics and tank details. Best of luck!

  5. Arbin

    Wow that’s awesome change. I got my brain coral recently he has 3 mouth and they are open really wide. it hasn’t opened up completely but its mouth is open wide enough to see skeleton. It hasn’t bleached. i think its loosing its tissue too. Can you please help me?

    1. admin

      Thanks for the compliment! I’m sorry to hear about your brain coral. I’m happy to help – please contact me at reefdup@gmail.com. I’ll do what I can! Just please include detailed water parameters and a photo. Good luck!!

  6. grobert3

    i am in the process of reviving a bleached open brain, i have been feeding good deal of mysis close to everynight and is has shown significant progress, starting to get some color back and getting very large during the day, i have had it a week or more and as pleased as i am with the progess it still is not putting out its feeder tentecles, sometimes when its inflating i can see just a few tiny nubs (basically cause its puffing up so much they cant help to be seen) but they have never fully extended, how long do you think it will take to finally extend them? (there was no necrosis when i got it, only bleached)

    1. admin

      If you’re already seeing improvement, then that’s a great start! I wouldn’t get too impatient – what you’re seeing so far is quite fast. If you don’t see decent tentacle extension about a month later about an hour or two after the lights go off, then it may be time to rethink the plan. If you can’t sleep one night, look for polyp extension around 3am. It may just want to eat at its usual dinner time, which doesn’t correspond to what you may want. Some corals just need to be trained to eat at a different time. A bleached coral may just not have the energy. After a month, if the color is decent, it should have the energy to fully extend its tentacles. Hope that helps!

      1. grobert3

        hello again, i wanted to get your opinion, the same coral mentioned above is still making progress, now it has very little “white” area, and parts are starting to really get saturated with color and more and more florescent protiens are being produced as well, the question is…have you ever seen an open brain or any other lobo not have its feeders and need to grow them back? i belive this is the case with my coral, i was able to snap a picture of its baby feeders today, once i get it on my computer i could send it along, but to describe it, the lip area where the feeder would come out was seperated and you could clearly see very small tenticles, so when feeding the fish i squirted a little brine shrimp on them and they caught it and ate it like a normal response but they are just extremly small, about 4 mm long and 1 mm wide

        1. admin

          Hi again! That’s great to hear! Tentacles are able to expand and retract as necessary. Unhealthy corals do not extend them as far as healthy ones (maybe in an effort to conserve energy, avoid an attacker, or limit exposure to toxins). As the coral heals, it will probably extend its tentacles out further. They also extend them further at night and when there is food in the water column. About an hour after the lights go off, feed the tank, and watch what happens. You may notice “normal” sized tentacles then. There’s a lot we still don’t know about polyp extension (tentacle extension), but those basics seem to hold true. Keep us posted!

  7. Ceasar

    What did you use to cut the septa? My trachyphilla looks just like the one that you rescued. It puffed up for a day after purchasing it from my lfs, and then has receded showing parts of its skeleton since. It think it is in big trouble since my peppermint shrimp have been scoping it out the last two days. Hopefully by following how you save thins one will work for me. I hope it isn’t too late to save it. Any help or advice would be appreciated.

    1. admin

      Hi Ceasar!

      I used “bone cutters”, or as they are less-affectionately known as, “giant toenail cutters” that you can find at your local pharmacy, Walmart, etc. (They’re cheaper if you buy them as toenail cutters rather than bone cutters). Just carefully nip the tips off. You could probably also use wire nippers or any other sharp and small clipper. Once the coral starts to heal, you can use a Dremel tool to smooth out the rough parts, but I don’t recommend doing this to a sick coral. Yes, you definitely want to keep the shrimp away from it if they’re bothering it. Is it taking any food (if you can keep the shrimp away)? Are all other corals in the tank ok? Any nipping fish (angels)?

  8. Ceasar

    Thank you so much for getting back to me. I will dip it tonight and start clipping the exposed skeleton. I was able to feed it last night, but today when I got home even more of the skeleton is exposed. As for the other corals in my tank everything Iis thriving, I have a maxima clam, few other Lps (torch Duncan frogspawn), a bunch of Zoas, and 3 bubbletip anemones and none of them are showing any signs of stress. All have great polyp extension. My parameters are: temp 79 ph 8.2, ammonia 0, nitrite 0, nitrate under 5ppm, Cal 485, Alk 9.1, Mg 1485 and phosphate0. My livestock 3 clownfish, bicolored pseudo, coral beauty(never saw it pick at anything but my rock), hippo tang, 6 line wrasse, two linka starfish, 4 hermit crabs, two peppermint shrimp, blood shrimp, and cleaner shrimp. My sump has protein skimmer, cheatomorpha, and running GFO and carbon reactor. Is there anything that stands out that can potentially be causing this to my trachyphilla?

    1. admin

      I would probably wait to clip the skeleton until you’re sure it’s healing, unless the tissue could be catching on the septa and tearing. You don’t want to stress it unnecessarily. Unfortunately, I have seen too many cases like this…where it was ultimately the Coral Beauty. They seem to be sly little nippers. Can you put the coral in your sump? I’ve also seen bicolored pseudos occasionally nip, and sometimes clownfish will host in a coral until it dies. Plus your peppermint shrimp. I’m really leaning toward some other creature bothering it, not water issues. Trachs are just such a tempting and delicious meal (albeit an expensive one!)

      1. Ceasar

        Unfortunately today it has gotten much worse now about 75% of its skeleton is showing. It’s not looking very good. There is no room in my sump and I don’t have a light in it that would be sufficient. Maybe I’ll see if someone that I know can take it and try to nurse it back to health in a tank where there is nothing that could potentially nip at it. Thank you for your help.

        1. admin

          I’m so sorry! Did you dip it? That’s a really fast decline. If you have a photo that you wouldn’t mind sharing, please send it to reefdup@gmail.com. Photos are always helpful. I would try someone else’s tank if it isn’t too late.

  9. Carol

    Great article and very helpful. I also have a dying coral and now I need to fix it. What are those food pellets that you fed yours?

    1. admin

      Aw, thank you! Why is your coral dying? I use Spectrum or Formula Two. There are many other good brands, but those are the two I prefer. You can also try dosing amino acids when you turn the lights off. Then about an hour later, try feeding. The darkness and amino acids should also help trigger a feeding response.

  10. Sujit

    Can you please help me save my coral. As my scribbled Angel ripped the flesh of it up till its mouth. The condition is very bad of this coral. Please help me save

    1. admin

      Hello! Hopefully our emails back and forth were useful!

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