Smurf Polyps, An Enigmatic Blue Soft Coral

Joe RowlettBy Joe Rowlett 8 months ago
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This sensational chunk of soft coral was happened upon by aquarist David Jones at the UK’s Maidenhead Aquatics, where it was found as a very colorful hitchhiker alongside another species of coral. At first glance, it seems to share some similarity to Alcyonium verseveldti, the blue-colored coral widely misidentified in the aquarium trade as Sympodium. The capitulum and polyps are roughly the same color and dimensions and are able to retract themselves in much the same way, but the tentacle morphology is strikingly different. Octocoral tentacles are nearly always covered with pinnae, small lateral projections that give them a feathery appearance. But this specimen has smooth, cylindrical tentacles, similar to what we see in a stony coral like Alveopora. Exceptions to this rule are quite few—a good aquarium example is the underappreciated Acrossota amboinensis. Clearly, though, this must be a soft coral, as it possesses eight (versus 6X) tentacles. We can even make out the faintest shagreen of sclerites present, as evidenced by the lighter coloration in the retracted specimen, seen below.This latter characteristic helps us narrow down a possible identification here, ruling out the xeniid corals, whose sclerites are largely hidden in life. Nephtheids are equally unlikely, as their polyps are non-retractile and generally adorned with a complex array of supporting sclerites. This MIGHT be an alcyoniid, the family that’s home to such familiar aquarium taxa as Sinularia & Sarcophyton (and many, many others which are quite unfamiliar). Or maybe it’s something entirely different? It’s remarkable to think that such a vibrantly colored coral could prove so challenging to put a name to, but such is the case when it comes to the alcyonaceans. Given the complete lack of any brown coloration on this colony, it’s safe to presume there are no photosynthetic zooxanthellae present. This certainly makes for a jaw-droppingly blue coral, but, alas, one which is likely exceedingly difficult to keep alive in captivity. Julian Sprung, ever the cunning linguist, has christened these Smurf Polyps—a fitting name, if ever there was one.  For now, it’s true identity (if it even has one) will remain a mystery, though this account will be updated should that change.

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  Corals
Joe Rowlett
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 Joe Rowlett

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Joe is classically trained in the zoological arts and sciences, with a particular focus on the esoterica of invertebrate taxonomy and evolution. He’s written for several aquarium publications and for many years lorded over the marinelife at Chicago’s venerable Old Town Aquarium. He currently studies prairie insect ecology at the Field Museum of Natural History and fish phylogenetics at the University of Chicago.

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