The Comeback Kid

I bought this beautiful Euphyllia divisa in July of 2000. One of the common names for this coral, "frogspawn," is most appropriate, as it does remind me of a mass of frog's eggs immersed in jelly. The colony I purchased had two large main branches with about six polyps each. The whole colony was roughly the size of a cantaloupe. The delicate green coloring on its oral disk and knobby brown tentacles with pinkish tips were certainly not as flashy as some of my more colorful corals. However, I found the gentle swaying of its' tentacles in the current pleasantly hypnotic, thus making it an immediate favorite of mine.

All was well with my new Euphyllia until the spring of 2001. I came home from work one day to find several polyps completely retracted into their corallites. That was highly unusual for a coral that generally only retracted if I pestered it. (Now don't take this to mean that I was constantly harassing the poor thing! I refer to the time when I had to move it from one tank to another.) Closer examination of the withdrawn polyps revealed that the tissue was covered in a tan-colored slime. Visions of "The Blob" oozing out of its' meteorite flashed through my head as I realized that I had the dreaded brown jelly infection. Aughhh! This being my first encounter with the brown snot-like substance, I did what any good hobbyist would do: I posted a panicked message at Reef Central and went scrambling for my reef books. I learned that a brown jelly infection is really a mass of opportunistic protozoans and other microorganisms digesting coral tissue which usually begins at the site of an injury. Infections of this type can progress rapidly, consuming an entire colony, and even spreading to other corals nearby. I separated the three sick polyps from the colony, and treated them with freshwater dips. Freshwater dips are effective because the drastic change in osmotic pressure between freshwater and seawater kills many of the microorganisms present without killing the coral polyp. (Assuming, of course, you don't leave the coral in the freshwater too long.) I'm not sure if it was the stress of treatment, the microorganisms or both, but after just a few days the sick polyps died. While I grieved the loss of part of my beautiful coral, I was encouraged when the remainder of the colony showed no signs of infection. A week later it still appeared perfectly healthy. Three months passed with no sign of a "Return of the Blob," and I breathed a sigh of relief.

My relief, however, was short-lived. In the summer of 2001, for no apparent reason, a polyp started lifting from its' skeleton. I watched as over the course of two days the polyp separated completely from the skeleton and finally went floating like a fall leaf to the bottom of the tank.

I knew that polyp bailout was a form of asexual reproduction for some corals, and I thought perhaps the Euphyllia was trying to reproduce. Cool! I confined the polyp to a corner of the tank by building a retaining wall out of live rock. I assumed that the unattached polyp would have to generate a new skeleton (Otherwise, what's the point of bailing out?) and I was anxious to watch its' progress. While the retaining wall seemed like a good idea at first, the water current eventually swept the polyp over the wall and beneath the rockwork where it died. (Not a very effective method of reproduction!) When another polyp took the dive, I decided stronger intervention was necessary and constructed a small plastic mesh cage to keep the wandering polyp safe. The difficulties of caring for a polyp in a cage included such things as keeping algae from growing over the box thereby cutting off light to the polyp, protecting the cage and it's occupant from being covered in sand by an excavator-damsel, or being overturned by a bulldozing abalone. These tasks were child's play compared to simply keeping the polyp in the cage. The darn polyp ended up being as talented an escape artist as Harry Houdini! It was almost comical watching how the polyp worked its way out of the box. The deflated polyp would somehow end up with half its tentacles through the mesh. When it expanded during the day, it was half in and half out of the box. The next evening after contracting, the polyp would work the rest of the way out of the box and I would find it floating free the next morning. I modified the box several times (trying to outwit the polyp) but it seemed determined to escape. Freeing itself from its confinement during the day while I was at work resulted in polyp number two being swept under the rockwork where it died, just as the first polyp had. I tried again with polyp number three, but the results were the same. Frustrated, I gave up trying to rescue the "jumpers" and concentrated my efforts on the polyps that remained in the colony. I did my best to find the cause of the bailouts. Nothing was amiss with any parameter I could test and none of my advisors had any insight into its cause. I watched helplessly as the mass exodus continued. In the end, I was left with nothing but one lonely little bud that had grown just below one of the original polyps. It seemed unlikely that this one little polyp (indicated below with the arrow) would survive.

While patience is something I'm always trying to cultivate, stubbornness I have aplenty, so I refused to give up on even this one lone survivor. It was a challenge to find a place where the little guy would be safe. The fact that it was a very small piece of tissue on a comparatively large chunk of dead skeleton almost resulted in its demise on more than one occasion. It was easy to overlook the little polyp, especially when it was contracted, and it almost ended up in the rubble rock pile in the sump. Algae overgrowth was a constant threat. Bryopsis had to be picked off with tweezers, and cyanobacteria were carefully siphoned to avoid damage to the delicate tissue. Clumsy mollusks repeatedly knocked the coral to the tank floor, despite my efforts to epoxy it securely in place. It seems I was constantly relocating the polyp to shield it from strong currents and aggressive neighbors. Feeding the little guy was another challenge. I would drop a couple of krill pellets on its' oral disk and then stand with my hand in the tank chasing fish away until the food had been ingested. Despite the difficulties, the polyp survived and started to grow.

By February of 2002, my one little survivor had regenerated a colony that was about half the size of the original.

Of course, I couldn't be happier. The colony continues to thrive. I placed it front and center in my tank where I can once again enjoy its' gently swaying tentacles. I guess the moral of the story is: it isn't over as long as one polyp survives. Just ask my "Comeback kid"!

If you have any questions about this article, please visit the Notes from the Trenches forum on Reef Central.

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The Comeback Kid -