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The Allure of Chalice Corals

By Matthew Stansbery Posted Jul 30, 2011 08:00 AM
When it comes to coral crazes, one of the newest and most captivating additions to the marine aquarium hobby is the chalice coral. These corals come in vibrant color combinations, can sell at high price points, and are sought after by just about every dedicated coral collector.
The Allure of Chalice Corals

The enchanting gaze of an Echinophyllia sp. Chalice eye. Photo by Craig Bagby.

Introducing the Chalice Family

One type of large polyp stony coral (LPS), the aptly named Chalice is a term used when referring to a small group of cup coral species. The Pectiniidae family of calcifying coral contains six different genera commonly found in the trade and is a wonderful display of color and form.  These genera include:
•   Echinophyllia
•   Echinopora (Though Faviid and not Pectiniid, it is included here because of similar morphology)
•   Oxypora
•   Mycedium
•   Pectinia
•   Physophyllia
•   Echinomorpha

This list of chalices is put in order of most commonly found to seldom, if hardly ever found in the hobby. The most colorful and diverse, the top two “echinos” are often interchanged with identifications and are the most common examples of chalice. With his successful cultivation of the famous Echinopora lamellosa “Blue Chalice” Steve Tyree probably coined the term itself. He has maintained this specimen in one of his aquariums since 1995.

Captive Cultivation

Often found for sale in small fragments, chalices can range in price from low to exorbitantly expensive.  Because these corals reproduce both asexually and sexually, those lucky collectors who obtain the most intense color combinations can easily propagate them through some very simple techniques. For plating chalices, you can simply cut or snap off a piece from their thinner structure, making sure to remove a fragment that has one or more “eyes” or feeding polyps.  Some cultivators utilize a wet operating band saw to cut sections from larger colonies in an attempt to minimize inducing stress upon the piece. This technique works well for encrusting chalices.  In my opinion the best way to cultivate chalice corals and especially for more sensitive specimens is suspending the chalice colony on rocky overhangs.  This technique will cause them to 'drip' tissue from the main colony site creating an entirely new colony.

What genus is this?  Chalices are often difficult to ID due to their similarities.
What genus is this? Chalices are often difficult to ID due to their similarities.

Feeding Chalices

Chalices are stony corals, therefore requiring sustained levels of calcium carbonates along with other trace elements to thrive. Thankfully, their diets are very easily managed, as they are capable of gaining nutrition through two ways. With their tentacles extended, chalice corals can absorb microscopic reef food like phytoplankton and Nannochloropsis (1-15microns), as well as capture larger food items like mysid shrimp and oyster eggs. Pulling the larger prey items to digestive filaments lying underneath each polyp site, the growth rates of chalice corals are highly influenced by a technique called “target feeding.” This process involves the use of pipettes to administer coral food directly over each polyp location. Chalice are nocturnal feeders, but they will readily adapt to a daytime feeding schedule and this ability makes their presence in the tank during lighted hours that much more rewarding.  The Pectiniidae family also harbor zooxanthellate symbionts and so will derive additional nutrition through photosynthesis. With proper lighting accommodations and diverse feeding opportunities chalice corals can achieve amazing growth structures and striking colors combinations.

Beware though, as these species also contain “sweeper” tentacles with which they use to capture food and defend their territory. This scenario requires proper placement allowing additional room for long stinging tentacles.

The foliacious growth form of Echinopora lamellosa in Terry Siegel's reef tank
The foliacious growth form of Echinopora lamellosa in Terry Siegel's reef tank

More on Aquarium Care

Hobbyists have found chalices do well in varying conditions of lighting and flow, so they are most commonly placed in middle to lower portions of the tank. For example, lighting recommendations for chalice corals are low to moderate and some hobbyists have reported moving specimens into shaded areas to combat bleaching while others state they derive great color from intense metal halide or LED lighting. Often due to misidentification or incorrect classification, this large swing in husbandry conclusions, coupled with the broad taxonomic range, only adds to discussions on how to properly cultivate the chalice collection.

In the wild, the different Pectiniidae species can grow into the shape of a cup, or encrust over live marine rock, sometimes form plates (laminar), or fold over itself in a fabulous display of shape and texture. They are usually collected in sizes ranging from 6 inches to around two feet.  Unfortunately, this is a slow growing family of corals, and most will take years for a small fragment to achieve this shape or size in the marine aquarium. For this reason most hobbyists have set up additional smaller “nano” tanks in order to view and appreciate their collection of chalice frags. Hobbyists who can stomach the wait for their frag to grow into something worth putting in a display will utilize the rockwork and ambient conditions to influence the ecomorphology of their piece.

Warning: Highly Addictive

I myself am a victim of the chalice craze and my collection has me glued to my tank day and night observing their captivating colors and waiting for feeding opportunities. I hope you find this lineage of coral as fascinating as I do and take the opportunity to own one of these species, as it will only add to evolution of your Marine hobby!

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