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Sarcophyton is a genus of soft corals in the Family Alcyoniidae. They are commonly called "leather," "toadstool" and "mushroom" corals. Characterized by a conspicuous stalk that lacks polyps and a broad and often folded polyp-bearing upper surface (the capitulum and polypary, respectively), they are among the easiest soft corals to identify. Small colonies do not have a folded polypary. These corals are dimorphic, and the smaller siphonozooid polyps appear densely as small dots or depressions between the feeding polyps (autozooids). The autozooids are completely retractile, with the oral disk and tentacles perched atop long stalks called anthosteles.

Sarcophyton colonies can grow very large - colonies weighing over 50 pounds are common in private aquaria. They can contract dramatically, and the whole colony can fold sideways or stand erect. The folding of polypary and colony is likely a reaction to water flow and to maximize capture of food particles from the water. Common colors are shades of brown and tan, yellow, cream and green. Some beautiful morphs have fluorescent green tentacles.

They are zooxanthellate and are extremely easy to maintain in aquaria. They are among the most abundant soft corals and are widely distributed in terms of geography, depth and reef habitat. Large areas nearly covered in Sarcophyton colonies are common in soft-bottomed and turbid nearshore environments, while colonies on oligotrophic reefs tend to be more solitary, though they can be numerous. The colonies are broadcast spawners, but also reproduce asexually by budding from the base, colony fission or budding from the edge of the polypary. Asexual reproduction is more common in those found in turbid and muddy water. Movement of colonies is also possible within the tank, and Fabricius and Alderslade report movement of up 0.5m in a few months.

These corals produce abundant secondary metabolites, and while they are commonly maintained in tanks without apparent problems, some species of corals may be sensitive to these toxic chemicals. In particular, members of the Family Euphyllidae seem very sensitive to Sarcophyton. Common problems of the genus include a "rotting condition" where open lesions form on the stalk or, more commonly, on the polypary. This may be most common when sediments or foods settle within the colony's depressions and folds. Several predators are known, including nudibranchs and snails. Sarcophytons may also periodically slough a surface layer known as a mucus tunic, a process during which the colony may look "unhealthy" with the autozooid polyps failing to extend. Strong water flow generally helps shorten this process, and a well-flushed colony seems to slough a mucus tunic only rarely. Additionally, many fishes may perch atop the polypary, and clownfish may even adopt colonies as surrogate anemones.

Propagation of Sarcophyton is easy and commonly done. Simple core punches or snips of the colony, or complete fragmentation or horizontal to vertical division of a colony will generally be well tolerated and result in the reformation of the adult growth form in short order. However, because of the toxic chemicals contained in the tissue, it is not recommended to conduct fragmentation within the main tank; it should be performed instead in a container with resulting propagules well rinsed and flushed prior to returning them to their culture tank or the main tank. Cut edges heal quickly by forming a callus, and placing cut edges into strong water flow facilitates the process.

These corals are among the first to be kept in reef aquaria, and are common in the wild and in the trade. Their durability and beauty no doubt are reasons for their continued popularity.

Text by Eric Borneman.
Many thanks to John Love (Rock Anemone) for his assistance with this project.

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