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Pagoda, Sun, Cup Corals and More, Family Dendrophylliidae Gray 1847

By Bob Fenner

 Turbinaria reniformis

Dendrophylliidae: Characteristics of the Family: Most species lack zooxanthellae. In fact this family contains the most common azooxanthellate species found on reefs. They're either solitary or colonial, with corallites are mad up of walls that are porous, mainly filled with coenosteum in life, fused with distinct (Pourtales plan) septa. 

      Of the genus with photosynthetic endosymbiotic algae, Turbinaria often finds its members employed in ornamental aquatics. As far as ahermatypic species of this family, only Tubastrea is regularly imported. 


Dendrophylliids are found in tropical and nontropical regions of the worlds oceans, some of the ahermatypic, azooxanthellate ones to a depth of a 1,500 meters. The genera Turbinaria and Tubastrea are prominent shallow reef species in large parts of the tropical Indo-Pacific. Some Dendrophylliids are inconspicuous, but found in the tropical West Atlantic.  

Dendrophylliid Genera You're Not Likely To See: (There are others); Balanophyllia, Dendrophyllia, Not distinguishable from very similar Tubastrea without examination of dead skeletal (septal fusion) characteristics.  Eguchipsammia: Mud dwelling, azooxanthellate. Heteropsammia...

Genus Balanophyllia: Solitary polyps, calyces appear round in cross section.

Balanophyllia sp. Either B. hawaiiensis or B. cf. affinis. Here off Hawai'i's Big Island at night, though can be found in caves and crevices open during daylight hours. About one inch in all dimensions. 

Genus Dendrophyllia: Near impossible to distinguish from Tubastrea w/o microscopic analysis of corallite skeletons.

Dendrophyllia arbuscula

Photo by Andrew Kwon (See Dendrophylliid ID FAQs re)

Dendrophyllia californica Durham, 1947... a coldwater species. Pic taken at SIO by BobF.

Dendrophyllia sp. Nuka Hiva, Marquesas, Polynesia at about forty feet, under an overhand during the day. 

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Genus Duncanopsamia: One species. 

Duncanopsamia axifuga Wells, 1936: Long branching corallites. Whisker Coral, Australia, PNG, Indonesia. Only rarely encountered in the wild or the pet-fish interest. At right: in an aquarium. Below, some Australian pix by PeggyN of www.all-reef.com


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Genus Tubastrea Lesson 1829: Azooxanthellate branching, tree-like corals found in many places in the tropical and Indo-Pacific. Due to feeding nature they require little light (non-photosynthetic), but the aquarist must take care to see that each polyp is individually fed as they are separate.  About their biggest downside is the mess keeping Tubastrea can entail. With heavy feedings of meaty foods comes concurrent high nutrient levels. Often found in the wild in caves, but also in direct sunlight. Most species are palm-sized, composed of tubular polyps, with T. micrantha being the large exception. Easily encouraged to produce new polyps by regular feedings, especially when these foodstuffs are pre-soaked in a vitamin preparation (like Selcon, Microvit...).

Tubastrea coccinea Lesson 1831, Orange Cup Coral. Caribbean and Indo-Pacific. Right: Closed, open colony pix in the Bahamas. Below, close up of a colony under an arch off of Kailua Kona and exhibit images shot at the Waikiki Aquarium.

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Tubastrea  faulkneri Variously sold as Sun, Orange Cup/Turret, Sunflower, Sun Polyps... Circumtropical distribution. A can-be kept species if you constantly feed it, and can keep up with concurrent water quality maintenance from the feeding. Shown at right in an aquarium and the Red Sea by day. Below in Australia's Great Barrier Reef during the night, Bunaken/Indonesia by day and Mexico's mid Sea of Cortez at night. Predated by Epitonium billeeanum (see below)

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Epitonium billeeanum (DuShane & Bratcher 1965). Distinctive yellow body and shell color... matching their prey, the ahermatypic Dendrophylliid genus Tubastrea. Tropical Indo-Pacific. N. Sulawesi pix. Snail, eggs, acoel flatworms... on Tubastrea.

Tubastrea micracantha (Dana 1849), Black Sun Coral. External flesh (coenesteum) green to brown to blackish in color. Colonies are often tree-like, up to a meter in height. Also exceptional for the genus, T. micrantha is a poor captive survivor. Consummate with its feeding habits are good current, filtration to remove foods, wastes. Generally found in areas of good current. At right in an aquarium, in Cebu (P.I.). Below in the Red Sea in ten feet of water and growing on the end of a Whip Coral, and N. Sulawesi close-up. 

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Genus Turbinaria Oken : Form large colonies with mainly laminar growth forms, common with several species. Round corallites which are immersed to tubular in appearance. A commonly offered and kept aquarium genus, whose members prove hardy amongst a wide range of conditions. Being hermatypic and sponsors of symbiotic algae, they do best in medium to bright (25k-50k lux) light and brisk water movement. The thinner, more laminar species and individuals (growth dependent on conditions...) are harder to keep than the more fusiform members of the genus. 

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Turbinaria frondens (Dana 1846), family Dendrophylliidae is a newly popular, hardy stony coral for reef tanks with good lighting and water quality. A spectacularly colored specimen here (most are green to brown) in my friend Maurice Bullock's main reef. 

Turbinaria mesenterina (Lamarck 1816). Pagoda Coral to hobbyists, Bowl, Cup, Lettuce, Scroll Coral to the trade. Indo-Pacific, Red Sea to Polynesia. Colonies laminar, more convoluted in shallow waters to upright in deeper water (see below). Corallites crowded, about 2.5 mm across, stick out further than similar T. reniformis. First two images, Fiji, next two Cebu, Philippines, bottommost N. Sulawesi.

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Turbinaria patula Dana 1846. Colonies are generally irregularly folded, upright, one-faced fronds. Corallites of about 5mm diameter with elliptical, leaning-over openings. Aquarium image.

Turbinaria peltata (Esper 1794), Cup Coral to aquarists (aka Octopus, Platter, Saucer, Turban, Vase in the trade). Indo-Pacific; east Africa to Samoa. A hardy species that often produces copious mucus that is perhaps a double mechanism to clean itself of detritus and possibly feed. Aquarium and N. Sulawesi images. 

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Turbinaria reniformis Bernard 1896. Yellow Scroll to aquarists (aka Yellow Turbinaria, Yellow Lettuce to the trade). A hardy aquarium species. Typically yellow with distinct colored margins. Pictured here in aquariums at right (one a frag/production set-up), below in Cebu, Philippines, a circular colony in captivity , and at night feeding in Fiji, north of Latouka. Below, second row: N. Sulawesi and two large colonies in the Red Sea. 

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    Do pay special attention during the initial inspection and quarantine phases of acclimating new specimens for the presence of predaceous pests. Small, cryptically colored Nudibranchs (e.g. the Aeolid, Phistella melanobrachia) and Wendletrap Snails are often accidentally imported with wild-collected specimens. 

A very pink dyed Tubastrea IZOO 2010


    For azooxanthellate species should include the application of juice and bits of meaty foods sprayed with a turkey baster in the colonies direction at night time (when their polyps are typically open), even if their tentacles aren't evident.


    Both photosynthetic and non-photosynthetic species can/should be placed in areas of good lighting... the latter to assure adequate water flow. Further, to prevent covering by detritus Dendrophylliids should not be placed on the bottom but anchored up and on rocky points to facilitate water flow around their colonies. 

Reproduction/Captive Propagation:

    Tubastrea has been reproduced by asexual budding, breaking as well as (sexual) planula release. Turbinaria are easily propagated by the breaking off of pieces from a well-adjusted, healthy colony. This genus has also been observed to release planula larvae in captivity.   


      Tubastrea need daily feedings to all polyps to stay healthy... a regular regimen of turning off filter pumps during these times (on timers best... so you don't forget to turn them back on) for fifteen minutes or so (with other, recirculating pumps running) is optimal. Photosynthetic Turbinaria can get by on foods manufactured by their endosymbiotic algae, but are better fed (small zooplanktonic items or mashes of larger items) a few times a month. 


    Without regular food offerings, azooxanthellate species will not open... begin tissue recession, and eventually succumb to algal overgrowth. 


    The lack of success with this family is principally due to two factors, for the azooxanthellate Tubastrea et al. genera, a lack of feeding (or provision for the consequences thereof), and for the photosynthetic Turbinaria, a general lack of "promotion"... they're easily kept, as long as maintained off the bottom and swept/blown clean of detritus and mucus. 

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Coral Search

Borneman, Eric H. 2001. Aquarium Corals, Selection, Husbandry and Natural History. Microcosm/TFH Charlotte, VT. 464pp. 

Fossa, Svein A. & Alf Jacob Nilsen. 1998 (1st ed.). The Modern Coral Reef Aquarium, v.2 (Cnidarians). Bergit Schmettkamp Verlag, Bornheim, Germany. 479pp.

Hoover, John. 1998. Hawai'i's Sea Creatures. A Guide to Hawai'i's Marine Invertebrates. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu HI. 366pp. 

Humann, Paul. 1993. Reef Coral Identification; Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas. New World Publications, Inc. Jacksonville, FL.  239pp.

Veron, J.E.N. 1986. Corals of Australia and the Indo-Pacific. U. of HI press, Honolulu. 644 pp. 

Veron, J.E.N. 2000. Corals of the World. Australian Institute of Marine Science. Queensland, Australia. three volumes. 

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