The Best SPS Corals for Beginners
Is your tank established and mature to the point that you are ready to try your hands at SPS corals? If so, hopefully by the end of this article you will be browsing our website for some SPS corals to add to your tank! SPS corals are not only beautiful to look at, but they complete a reef aquarium by keeping a balanced look and adding dimensions to make it look like a wild coral reef!
In nature, stony corals are the building blocks of coral reefs. Among them, small polyp stony corals, or simply referred to as SPS corals by those that keep them, are the quintessential reef building corals that we have come to know and love for their varying shapes and colors.
Keeping SPS corals is both fun and challenging. The result, when everything is growing and thriving, is quite rewarding. For beginners, it is recommended to attempt keeping SPS corals after having success keeping LPS corals and soft corals.
SPS was originally a blanket term coined very loosely by hobbyists to refer to a few genera that fall under this categorization. You have probably heard of Acropora and Montipora corals, but SPS corals go way beyond these two genera. SPS corals have become better known by common names among the coral-keeping community:
- Acropora = Acros
- Montipora = Montis
- Stylophora = Cat’s Paw Corals
- Pocilopora = Cauliflower Corals
- Seriatopora = Bird’s Nest Corals
As a beginner hobbyist, Acropora corals may be a bit challenging. They require much more patience and care than other SPS corals and are more susceptible to rapid or slow tissue necrosis (RTN/STN). Being able to consistently keep and even grow them, is the pinnacle of reef-keeping.
Which SPS Corals Are Beginner Friendly?
When it comes to reef hobbyists selecting which SPS coral to buy, it can get overwhelming! That is why we have put together our favorite beginner-friendly SPS corals and how to care for them.
Bird’s Nest Coral (Seriatopora hystrix)
The Bird’s Nest coral is by far the most popular beginner SPS coral due to their attractive appearance, inexpensive price, and less demanding care requirement. They come in a wide variety of bright neon colors (green, yellow, pink, and purple), and thickness.
These corals are rapid growers, so you will need to ensure they have enough space from their neighbors, as they can usually fall victim to chemical warfare.
When first placing fragments of Bird's Nest in your aquarium, you will want a moderate flow if the branches are thin so they do not break off. You can increase the water flow as it starts to branch out and get thicker.
You may find that their needle-points and blunt-tips may break off. If they do, do not worry as they can quickly regrow them. These needle-points can quite easily puncture the skin, so be careful if handling or moving them in the aquarium.
Stylos also come in a variety of bright colors, with green, pink, and purple being the most common. These corals like space as they can grow quite large.
Pink Stylophora coral (Stylophora pistillata), commonly known as Cat’s Paw or Club Finger Coral, is popular with beginners thanks to its beautiful pink neon coloration. This branching coral is a keen colonist and traveler due to its ability to spread larvae beyond the parent reef. This coral does best with moderate to high lighting conditions - best results with the use of a T-5 fluorescent or a powerful LED light, or the metal halide for very high intensity.
The Pink stylo is a hungry coral. You will want to feed them with marine snow or zooplankton as they do not do well solely relying on zooxanthellae. At night they can be seen extending their sweeping tentacles to catch prey. So, give them some space from their neighboring corals to prevent them from fighting over food.
Montipora corals come in different shapes, colors, growth patterns (mainly encrusting), and can adapt to different light conditions. They are pretty hardy and fast-growing making them popular for coral reef hobbyists, especially beginners.
These keen reef builders make up ⅓ of the coral mass on Earth, so, once they grow you will need to manage them due to their rapid growth.
Water flow requirements depend on the monti’s structure. Monti corals with a smoother surface require a mild water flow, while montis with a rougher texture will use their shape to channel incoming water flow.
As these corals are generally peaceful, they do not like aggressive neighbors that have sweeping tentacles, so place them far enough from any aggressive corals you may have to keep them happy and healthy!
Two Types of Montis That Are Great for Beginners!
Montipora capricornis (caps)
This coral consists of thin coralline plates that will encrust onto rocks as well as plate out - so keep this in mind when placing them on rocks. They are one of the fastest growing corals in captivity. In the wild, they are usually brown or green, but in captivity, they display red, pink, purple, and bright green colors.
A field of Montipora capricornis in a dive spot in Tahiti. Photo taken by Kenny Lin.
Porites Corals (Porites sp.)
Porites corals impressively are one of the longest-lived organisms on the planet, which is why they deserve to be showcased in every beginner’s coral reef tank!
Porites corals are also known as “Christmas Tree Corals” due to a common host - Christmas Tree Worms. I am sure if you have ever been snorkeling or scuba diving you would have seen these interesting “tree-shaped” worms sticking out of Porites corals, usually in pairs.
Porites corals grow at a "snail's pace", so you do not need to worry about them taking over your aquarium. In the wild they are used to turbulent conditions, therefore they require a strong water flow to allow them to catch prey, get ample lighting, and this also helps remove waste from the water.
They are peaceful corals, yet put an aggressive neighbor too close, the Porites coral is likely to take some damage. If they do get damaged, these hardy corals are extremely good at recovering from attacks.
Porites corals will get sufficient food from lighting and dissolved nutrients in the water, however, if you do decide to keep the Christmas Tree worms too, they will need additional food such as phytoplankton and zooplankton, which the porites coral will also happily feed on.
Green Bali Slimer (Acropora yongei)
And last but not least, an Acropora coral. The Green Bali Slimer originally from Indonesia (hence the name), is extremely popular due to its dazzling neon green branches and general hardiness.
They are very fast growers. They are in fact one of the fastest-growing Acropora species in the world!
They do not require a strong water flow or very intense lighting. However, their bright coloration does depend on the intensity of light, the more light, the more neon green they will appear.
As the name suggests the Green Bali Slimer produces an external “slime” if touched or disturbed as a defense mechanism. Despite the production of this protective slime, this coral is actually quite peaceful towards neighboring corals.
If you want to add some beautiful green into your aquarium then the Green Bali Slimer may be what you have been looking for!
A Beginner's Guide to SPS Coral Care
Corals are very sensitive to changes, especially SPS corals. But as long as you keep the water parameters within the ranges recommended below and do not allow them to spike, you should be fine keeping any of the above corals. It's true that the most important parameters when it comes to SPS corals are phosphate and alkalinity. While there are ideal levels most people have success with, such as < 0.1 for phosphate and 7-10 dKH for alkalinity, we have seen many successful SPS reef tanks with these levels outside of those ranges.
For example, there are some successful SPS reef tanks keeping phosphate from 0.1 - 0.5, and alkalinity either at 7 or 11 dKH. The point here is that you must resist the urge to chase numbers. Stay consistent, and only tweak one thing at a time, and in slow fashion. Watch your corals - they are the best indicator of your tank health. And be patient - it usually takes time for a tank to become established enough for SPS growth.
Overview of SPS Coral Care Requirement
- Lighting: Moderate to High
- Water Flow: Medium to High
- Temperature: 72-78℉
- Salinity: 1.025-1.028
- pH: 8.1-8.4
Overview of Water Parameters
- Nitrate: 5-20ppm
- Phosphate: < 0.1ppm
- Magnesium: 1200-1400ppm
- Calcium: 400-450ppm
- Alkalinity: 7-10 dKH
This is one of the most important factors to get right, as it will determine how well your SPS corals will grow and also if they survive or not.
SPS corals do best with high-intensity light, otherwise, they can lose color and/or growth can be hindered. The best lights for SPS corals are T5s, metal halide, or LED lighting.
This often gets overlooked and in our opinion is more crucial than lighting. Corals can't move on their own, so they rely on water movement to bring them oxygen, nutrient, and other trace elements. At the same time, it helps them remove waste. Imagine if you were in a room with no windows and stagnant air. You would not do so well and worse, suffocate.
Be sure to keep you flow random and wide. Single-speed, focused current directed at a coral is not a good thing. If your powerhead comes with a controller, which most do in this day and age, you want to put them on either wave mode or random lagoon/reef crest mode.
Feeding & Diet
SPS corals are mostly photosynthetic corals, but they can also benefit from heterotrophic feeding.
Most hobbyists rely solely on light for growth. This is not usually a problem, but there has been studies that show that growth rate increases with feeding.
When it comes to direct feeding, the polyp size is a great indication to know what to feed your SPS corals. The smaller the polyps, the smaller the food particles need to be, and vice versa.
So, what food should you give to SPS corals?
SPS corals do best with powdered food containing zooplankton. At POTO, we use a mixture of Oyster Feast, Reef Roid, Coral Frenzy, and crushed clam juice. This is because SPS corals have small polyps and are unable to catch large prey. With SPS corals, you should only feed them every 2-3 days. Remember they are getting food from lights too.
The best time to feed is actually an hour or so after lights out when they extend their tentacles. Remember to turn off flow if possible so the corals can easily catch prey.
Keeping SPS requires patience. Sometimes it takes from 6 months to a year for a tank to build the necessary biological layer to support the stability needed to grow SPS. It often helps to bring it live rock from another established system that has SPS growing into your tank to help with the establishing process.
There is saying in the hobby that SPS stands for Stability Promotes Success. But stability not only means your water parameters, but also your husbandry routine. Once you find that stability, your SPS will thank you for it. And remember, each tank is unique like a finger print. Make sure to not chase other people's numbers. Once your tank finds a happy balance, stay with it.
As a final word of advice if leveling up to the more demanding and coveted Acroporas, get into a good habit of testing. Always test. At a minimum, you should know phosphate and alkalinity just off the top of your head. Not testing while keeping SPS corals is like driving a car with your windshield blackened. Don't chase numbers. Stay consistent. Make changes slow. And remember to always dip your new corals. Select corals on your abilities, and most importantly have fun because that is what being a reef aquarium hobbyist is all about.
Keeping SPS corals can be daunting, even for expert aquarium hobbyists. We hope this article helps you in deciding your next coral purchase. If you are ready, you can find our selection of SPS frags.
Thank you for reading, we hope to see you again soon!