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John Kelly on Goniopora
Founder of Goniopora.org discusses this little understood animal


John Kelly is the founder of Goniopora.org, a website dedicated to all things related to coral species from the genus Goniopora. An acknowledged expert, John has been a guest on Rob Weatherly's Talking Reef Podcast, and he was also invited to speak on Goniopora at the 2006 International Marine Aquarium Conference. Despite his busy schedule, John was kind enough to take the time to sit down with Blue Zoo News to discuss this beautiful, albeit too little understood, animal.

BZN: Thank you John for taking the time to speak with us about coral from the genus Goniopora. These are beautiful animals, but they also have a somewhat poor reputation in hobby circles owing to their alleged predilection for sudden recession and death in many hobbyists’ tanks. We hope that you may provide some insight into this phenomenon, but for starters, why are you so interested in Goniopora species?

JK:  For me, keeping corals has always been more like an assemblage of scientific experiments instead of a “hobby.” After a friend of mine gave me an ailing Goniopora to experiment with, I became obsessed with figuring out how to overcome the problems with keeping them. As I learned more about their behavioral habits and needs, they became more like pets that require regular care and attention.

BZN: What do you think the attraction is to these animals for reef aquarists?

JK: Just like most saltwater beginners, the first time I saw a Goniopora coral (G. stokesi), I wanted one. Their color, numerous flowing polyps, symmetry, and structure give them a mystical quality, which is a notch above normal beauty.

BZN: Mystical is a good way to describe them. There is no doubt they are beautiful, and yet so many hobbyists report difficulty in keeping them alive long-term. Given this, do you think that Goniopora species are appropriate aquarium corals?

JK: I think most of the Goniopora species are okay for the aquarium as long as they aren't blasted with a ton of water flow and lighting, and as long as they are regularly maintained and fed. There are several larger-polyped species, specifically Goniopora pendulus and Goniopora stokesi (the “green Goniopora”), that really are not appropriate aquarium corals; unfortunately, they are the most common species in the hobby. I wish there was some type of advanced saltwater certification required in order to purchase these species.

BZN: So, in your opinion, Goniopora species are not appropriate corals for the beginning aquarist?

JK: Absolutely not.  There are not ANY species of Goniopora that are appropriate for beginning aquarists. Goniopora would be fine for a dedicated advanced aquarist who is willing to expend the effort to thoroughly learn about Goniopora and go to the extent required to maintain the coral's needs. This also includes the G. stokesi and G. pendulus species; although these two species are definitely the most difficult to keep long term.

BZN: What do you think the most important factor in Goniopora husbandry is?

JK: The most important factor in Goniopora husbandry is realizing that there isn’t a single most important factor in Goniopora husbandry. It is a number of factors all working together that creates a balance which allows the coral to live. In the saltwater aquarium, the coral must remain within this balance; otherwise, if one of the factors is either lacking or too much, it will inevitably lead to the coral's death.  In order to keep Goniopora alive for more than two or three years, the nutritional needs must be maintained, but the coral won't live for one year if the lighting is too strong, and it won't live for one week if it is handled or placed in a way that leads to infection. As far as filtration is concerned, it is best to have a “clean” water aquarium. If a true nutrient rich, clean water aquarium could be achieved, then that would be ideal, but too many people confuse the idea of “nutrient rich” water with water that is truly “dirty” water.  [See John’s advice on filtration on Goniopora.org www.goniopora.org/acclimation.htm. -ed]

BZN: You have made several references to various species within the genus, but the animal is usually just sold as Goniopora spp. Can the average aquarist differentiate between species of animals from the genus Goniopora while the animal is alive?

JK: Yes. Most of the common species in the hobby could be identified by the average aquarist if they had a detailed reference guide to consult. There are many species-specific traits that are observable, such as growth form, corallite depth and diameter (seen when polyps are retracted), polyp diameter (seen when polyps are extended), color of fluorescent proteins, tentacle shape, tentacle length and diameter, oral disk size, and mouth size; plus, there are behavioral differences too. One thing that makes identification confusing is when the coral is in an unhealthy state. Unfortunately this is all too common. A starving or bleached Goniopora will appear much different than a healthy one of the same species. Once a person becomes familiar with the different species, they can be identified at a glance.

BZN: Anecdotally, we have heard people claim that red Goniopora spp. do better than other color Goniopora spp.; would you agree?

JK: Overall yes, I agree.

BZN: Why do you think that is?

JK: The species which contain red fluorescent proteins seem to be a little less sensitive to stronger light than other species; although strong light can bleach them. I would guess that the nutrition they receive from their zooxanthellae accounts for a greater proportion of their energy needs when compared to other species of Goniopora. They do not require as much direct feeding in order to maintain them and they tend to grow faster than the other common purple or green colored species. Also, their polyps and corallites are a little smaller than the largest species.

BZN: Are smaller polyps and corallites better?

JK: Yes. In general, the species with the largest and deepest corallites are the most difficult to keep, and the species with the smallest and most shallow corallites are the easiest to keep.

BZN: What is the best feeding regiment for Goniopora spp.?

JK: The best feeding regimen is to mix and mash a number of small foods together in an attempt to replicate a zooplankton-like meal. There are plenty of commercially available foods that can be used to create a mix such as Cyclopeeze, DT’s Oyster Eggs, Coral Frenzy, GP Diets, raw sea foods, frozen brine and mysis shrimp, frozen rotifers, and many more. Using the mix, patiently target feed a number of individual polyps located around different areas of the coral once every three days, preferably in the mid-morning. It often takes at least a few feedings before the coral becomes accustomed to being target fed and their acceptance of the food becomes more apparent over the first few weeks. It is pretty interesting to witness that a coral can actually “learn” to take its food.

Unfortunately, Eric Borneman, in his book Aquarium Corals, tended to emphasize the possibility of phytoplankton over zooplankton as a potential food source for Goniopora. Since then, hobbyists have been purchasing and dumping phytoplankton into their reefs only to have their Goniopora end up slowly starving to death. What Eric said in his book is that recent research (1994) suggests that almost half of this coral’s diet is phytoplankton. This means LESS THAN HALF. I spoke to the woman who did the research which Eric refers to. Not only did zooplankton, along with invertebrate larvae and eggs, appear to be the dominant food source found in the gut samples, but the phytoplankton was not identified down to the species level, which means that the species we dump in our fish tanks may not even be the same species seen in the gut samples. From my own research, additions of phytoplankton to the food mix is not necessary at all in order to maintain Goniopora long term.

BZN: Would you consider Goniopora spp. to be incompatible with clownfish that may attempt to host in the Goniopora specimen?

JK: About the only thing that I didn't experiment with was Goniopora hosting clownfish. I don't believe they are completely incompatible, and I have seen more than several instances where they comfortably co-existed, but generally it is not a good idea to keep the two together unless there is a backup plan. A larger, healthy, and well maintained Goniopora in tip-top shape should be able to easily host a clownfish or two as long as the fish are not too aggressive in wallowing around in the polyps. Goniopora have a natural polyp extension and swaying cycle, which would be interrupted by wallowing clownfish. If the Goniopora are not extending due to the wallowing, then it would be difficult to maintain their nutritional needs.  If the coral extends, but expends more energy while trying to maintain the swaying motion, this may cause the coral to use up food resources faster, which may cause an increase in the amount of food it needs, which may dictate a necessary change in the feeding regimen. It’s all about keeping the causes and effects in balance.

BZN: Are there issues about which people should be aware in terms of handling and shipping Goniopora spp.?

JK: The tissue of Goniopora is very thin and delicate and can tear or be easily damaged. It is very important to not grip the coral by the tissue if at all possible and handle them with a very light touch.  Damaged or abraded tissue around the lower perimeter of the coral, where they have been handled or set too deep in the sand bed, is the main cause of brown jelly infection.

Julian Sprung wrote an article in the December 2002 issue of Advanced Aquarist's Online Magazine in which he mentions that “Newly imported specimens of Goniopora may suffer from the effect of air trapped in the skeleton, which may make them prone to infections.” I don't have a clue of how he came up with this hypothesis, but after more than 3 years of handling and experimenting with dozens of different Goniopora I haven’t seen a shred of evidence for this. The shipping stress related “disease” that he mentions, which appears as a white film over the colony and necrosis of the tissue, isn’t initially caused by a disease, it is caused from a temperature swing during shipping towards either too hot or too cold. As with most corals, temperature extremes during shipping will kill them.

BZN: What, in your experience, is the leading cause of death for Goniopora spp.?

JK: Ignorance. Widespread ignorance is the leading cause of death for Goniopora species. Ignorance, impatience, a (previous) lack of research, a lack of experience, a lack of good skill, and a lack of teaching. The real mystery of keeping Goniopora lies in the ability to identify and solve compound problems, and tend to these problems by adjusting husbandry methods. 99.99999% of hobbyist's, including the hobby “experts,” when faced with the problem of a dying coral, look for a linear cause and solution, such as a microbe and a medicine, but with Goniopora there are usually several problems occurring at one time which gives the illusion of a single problem.

It is difficult to explain and easier to show in the form of a “Map of Goniopora Wasting” such as I have posted on my website [http://www.goniopora.org/troubleshooting.htm –ed]. The leading causes of compound problems are light overexposure, tissue damage, lack of nutrition, dyed tissue, and amphipods. Light overexposure and lack of nutrition are the most prevalent with tissue damage coming in a close second. Fortunately, dyed tissue and amphipods tearing at the tissue are much less common, but when they occur they are very harmful to the coral. 

BZN: What are the most effective treatments for ailing Goniopora specimens?

JK: The most effective treatment for reducing the vast number of Goniopora deaths in the hobby is to reduce the vast amount of vain ignorance that prevails in the hobby. I believe that a saltwater certification program is long overdue. There are quite a few corals that would fall into a certification program while other easy-to-keep, easy-to-grow corals wouldn’t need to be included. Unfortunately, I think an outright ban on certain corals would occur before a certification program would be organized though.

BZN: That is an interesting idea, although probably not terribly realistic. In terms of aquarists who keep Goniopora spp. in their aquarium right now, what are some effective treatments?

JK: To be more realistic, the most effective treatment would be better education on the husbandry needs of the coral. The lack of good husbandry methods account for much of the compound problems. In the past, “experts” kept trying to pin down some bacteria or boring algae or disease causing microbe to blame, or some other “mystery,” but in reality, the problems mostly arise from a lack of husbandry knowledge and skill.  Part of the reason I created Goniopora.org is to help people get the information they need. For example, by following the Pre-Purchase Inspection information posted on the site [http://www.goniopora.org/PPI.htm –ed] and utilizing the acclimation information I have posted [http://www.goniopora.org/acclimation.htm –ed] many problems with Goniopora, such as the dreaded brown jelly infections, can be dramatically reduced or avoided altogether.

BZN: Tell us a little more about your website. What is Goniopora.org?

JK: Goniopora.org is the result of my personal research into the mysteries of keeping Goniopora corals.  The research began in late 2004 and early 2005, and the site was created in July of 2005.

BZN: Why did you start the site?

JK: I began the site to document my research and to show proof of what methods work in order to keep Goniopora long term. At the time, posting information about Goniopora in saltwater forums (especially on ReefCentral.com) usually led to a heated debate with so-called “experts” and moderators jumping in the fray, so Goniopora.org became my way of making myself heard over the enormous amount of misguided misinformation that permeates the saltwater hobby through magazine articles, books, local fish stores, and, especially, in the various online saltwater forums. I felt that the web site would be the best method of dispelling myths about Goniopora and to teach others what they need to know before attempting to keep these corals.  Hopefully the web site scares beginners away from purchasing Goniopora until they are responsible, educated, and experienced enough to keep them. Then, hopefully, the web site will be used to guide them when they are ready.

BZN: What is your background?

JK: I have a degree in Fine Art from the Kansas City Art Institute. Before attending the Art Institute, I was a biology major at the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO.  My interest in the saltwater hobby stems from a variety of interdisciplinary scientific studies outside of the hobby itself. I have kept a number of fresh water aquariums since 1980 and set up my first saltwater “reef” in 2003. I was the president of our local saltwater club (www.theseas.org) in 2005 and 2006, and previously worked in the horticulture industry as a greenhouse grower. In addition to the Goniopora.org web site, I was a guest on Rob Weatherly's Talking Reef Podcast [You can find “Goniopora Podcast Episode 45” here  http://www.talkingreef.com/forums/podcast-episodes/693-goniopora-podcast-episode-45-a.html. -ed]. I was also invited to speak at the 2006 International Marine Aquarium Conference [You can get a copy of John’s presentation entitled “Goniopora: A New Beginning” at http://www.goniopora.org/gonioporadvd.html  -ed].

BZN: Blue Zoo News readers, like many aquarists, often like to experiment and contribute what they have learned in their own systems. What sort of data would be most useful to collect from marine aquarists who have experienced success with Goniopora spp.?

JK: The most useful data would come from people who were making more than just casual observations. The information gathered through purposeful research by hobbyists who were following the methods outlined on the web site would be very helpful. It has taken several years for the information to really have an impact on the hobby—information such as foods and feeding, lighting requirements, water flow, and careful handling.

BZN: Can this information be posted on Goniopora.org?

JK: Goniopora lovers are free to post their experiences and photos in the forum [the forum can be accessed here: http://www.goniopora.org/forum/ -ed].

BZN: Well, John, we really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience with us regarding these beautiful animals. We always applaud hobbyists that are dedicated to improving the hobby through researching alternative and advanced husbandry methods and then sharing those with others in the hobby. Goniopora.org is a great resource, and we will certainly encourage our readers who keep Goniopora spp. to check it out. Please feel free to be in touch with any new information about Goniopora husbandry, and we will gladly share it with our readers.

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