Sweeper Tentacle Epiphany

Albert B Ulrich III Coral Leave a Comment

I’m not sure how you feel about it, but whenever I imagine the ‘ideal’ reef aquarium, I conjure a vision in my mind of a bountiful, reef tank chock full of corals. The hypothetical aquarium is an aquatic cornucopia with SPS, LPS, leather coral, mushrooms and more all living together, filling nearly every square inch of rock work, cascading in all directions. That vision has been ingrained in my mind since the first day I decided “I have to have a reef tank.” Do you share my vision?

In fact, I have seen pictures of a few tanks that look like that. Almost every ‘tank of the week’ that you will see on other aquarium websites looks like that. I want my tank to look like that. But it doesn’t.  

The reason I’m writing about this now is because I had a bit of an epiphany this weekend related to my previous image of what the ideal tank should look like. I took my kids to the Adventure Aquarium, which is a pretty cool public aquarium in Camden, NJ. I brought my camera with me and  took as many pictures as I could before my kids would drag me onward to towards the next exhibit.  They don’t nearly have the same nerd-power that I do, but they are still young…I’ll work on that.

The kids were really interested in this display that allowed them to crawl under and then pop their heads up into a ‘bubble’ that allowed them to look through the tanks from the inside-out.

sweeper tentacle epiphany

Of course, while they were doing that, it was my opportunity to take pictures of an adjacent coral display. There were electric-looking brain corals, hairy mushrooms the size of dinner plates, and then I noticed this humble-looking favid species, tucked in between. I wasn’t blown away by the colors, but I distinctly remember thinking to myself, that it was so ordinary that it looked peaceful…tranquil. So, I checked back on the girls playing ‘prairie dog’ popping up and down along the display of aquaria, and then finally, ‘click’ I snapped the photograph.

When I got home, I pulled out my SD card and downloaded the images. I flipped through, sometimes impressed with the sharpness of the photos, other times disappointed at the grainy, blurry images. When I got to the picture of the ‘peaceful’ favid, I was shocked to see that the image wasn’t peaceful at all. Extending precariously from a polyp near the base, I noticed the long, thin profile of a menacing sweeper tentacle.   

Favid species with sweeper tentacle

Sweeper tentacle not causing any harm

 I’ve definitely seen my share of sweeper tentacles before—it’s not like it was the first time I had ever seen one, but I think the surprise was in capturing this ‘hostile’ act in what I thought was going to be a tranquil picture. That image really gave me pause.  

The realization I had come to is this: while this hobby may be a stress relieving, peaceful activity for us—every day is still a life and death battle for invertebrates in our care.  The coral don’t know they are ‘supposed to’ be tranquil. They simply carry out the actions coded for in their genes. Sometimes, that program says… “begin war with the coral next to you. Take it out at all costs.”

Please forgive the anthropomorphic liberties I took there, but I think you get the point. As much as we may want them to be, our tanks may not be the placid paradise we want them to be for our corals. And while the natural coral reef environment may look like an underwater city with coral ‘skyscrapers’ racing to the surface and occupying every possible millimeter of substrate, the reality is that what looks like a seemingly placid underwater scene could be characterized as a violent battle (in some cases) fought on a coral-by-coral basis.

So maybe the ideal tank shouldn’t be crammed to the brim with different colonies. Maybe the ‘tank of the week’ shouldn’t be so loaded that any minor blip in water parameters is likely to cause a catastrophic cascade of events that causes a significant die-off.

These coral are in our stewardship, but they are battling for their lives every day. Can we agree, as hobbyists, to try to take that into consideration when we plan out our tanks?

I hope this doesn’t come across as too preachy. But that simple little sweeper tentacle really gave me pause, and I was wondering if anyone else out there felt the same way.

What do you think, am I being to sappy, or do we owe it to the invertebrates in our tank to provide enough space for them to coexist without provoking them to initiate war on their coral neighbors? 

The next time you find yourself daydreaming about what new frag you want to glue into that 1 x 1 inch bit of space between your frogspawn and your zoanthid polyps—try to remember this article—and that one little sweeper tentacle in the image above. And let’s band together and vote for the tank of the week…that gives each colony enough space to grow without being attacked by the other corals around it.

Albert B Ulrich IIISweeper Tentacle Epiphany

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