The “Fragging” Phenomenon

For anyone that has been in the reef keeping hobby for any
length of time, the new found interest in coral cuttings, is
rather amazing. The propagation of corals, especially stony
corals, has been going on for at least the past fifteen years.
However, the discussion, sale, trading and passion for coral
fragments or “frags” is a rather recent phenomenon. Many of us
that were involved in keeping these corals in the early 1990’s
learned that it was possible to produce new stony coral
colonies merely by breaking off a branch from a mother colony
and attaching it to a substrate where it would encrust and
eventually form a new colony. Much of this early experience was
garnered as a result of the many problems that were initially
encountered in trying to successfully keep stony corals, which
at that time were much more difficult to keep than soft corals.
As a result of these difficulties, colonies deteriorated or
started dying after being kept in captivity for a period of
time. When this was happening, especially with problems such as
rapid tissue necrosis (RTN) or slow tissue necrosis (STN), some
of the colonies appeared healthy while other portions were
clearly in distress. To try and preserve the colony, the
healthy portion of the colony or branches from this section of
the colony were taken from the colony and placed on a piece of
clean live rock or some other desirable substrate in the hope
that they would attach. In these early days the outcome was
pretty much hit or miss, as fragmenting sick colonies is by its
very nature not a good place to start. Fortunately with
experience and through the sharing of information proper
fragmenting of corals is now relatively easy and in most cases
successful.

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The tank at Penn State designed by Sanjay Joshi. This tank
is filled with colonies that grew from fragments that Sanjay collected.

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Top view of that tank.

As the level of success has increased so too has the demand
for fragments from rare, well-colored or unique corals. This
demand for rare or brilliantly colored stony corals is at least
partially due to the level of success in the hobby increasing
dramatically in the last few years. Whereas ten years ago
90-95% of the hobby was focused solely on keeping saltwater
fish exclusively, the evolution in the hobby that has taken
place now shows that over 50% of marine hobbyists now keep some
form of reef tank. In addition, while most reef hobbyists ten
years ago kept mostly soft corals such as
Sarcophytons, Xenia, and Sinularia,
and a few stony corals such as Euphyllia and
Plerogyra, today almost as many reef keepers maintain
stony coral tanks housing corals such as Acropora,
Montipora and Pocillopora, to name just a few
of the genera kept. The other reasons for this increased demand
for fragments from propagated corals are a better understanding
of the need to preserve the reefs as well as the fact that rare
or beautifully colored corals are relatively rare on the reef.
This last factor I observed first hand on a dive trip to Fiji,
where the number of brown corals to colored corals was
approximately 100:1 on the reef. By trading or purchasing
propagated fragments, hobbyists now understand that not only
are they putting less pressure on the reef, but they are also
getting corals that have been shown to do well in captivity and
keep the beautiful coloration that is so desirable.

There are also several other reasons for the increase in
coral fragmenting. First it allows one to trade for other rare
corals that otherwise one would not be likely to obtain. Second
cultured coral fragments usually come from corals that have
shown to do well in captivity. Third, cultured fragments
usually have a lower likelihood of introducing diseases or
pests than do wild colonies. And fourth even when fragments
need to be purchased they are usually significantly less
expensive than wild colonies.

One interesting result of this is that several dozen
websites have popped up in the last couple of years
specializing in either the trading or sale of coral fragments,
with few to no wild colonies being available. As demand for
some of these fragments far exceeds the availability the prices
have increased as well. As a result, the price that some of
these fragments are bringing in is quite amazing with some
small ½”-3/4″ frags sometimes being sold for several
hundred dollars apiece depending on their coloration and
presumed rarity. Many of these entrepreneurs have a keen grasp
of marketing techniques and have learned that giving a coral a
catchy name or including the source of its origin can
dramatically increase not only its cache, but also its price.
Corals such as the Leng Sy cap (a purple rimmed green
Montipora capricornis), Tyree purple Monster (a deep
purple Acropora valida with a unique growth form) and
the palettablue acro (a deep blue Acropora
tenuis/pulchra
) to name just three started this trend.
Interestingly none of these individuals named the said type of
coral after themselves.

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This colony of emerald Stylophora was grown from a frag of less
than 1″ from Leng Sy

The history behind the palettablue acropora is an
example of how this phenomenon began. In the early1990’s, when
keeping stony corals such as Acroporas was still
relatively rare I was fortunate to be able to bring in several
boxes of stony corals from Jakarta from time to time. For the
most part, all of these corals were brown or beige, and if we
were lucky some of them would have colored tips. When these
corals came in, which was infrequent, I shared them among my
friends and all of us more or less shared in the booty. As I
said above, most of the corals we got were brown or beige with
colored tips, so those went first. This coral when it came in
was so dark brown that no one wanted it. Since I did not hold
out much hope for this coral coloring up, and since we really
did not understand the factors that would enhance a coral
coloring up I kept this coral, which was more like a 4″ brown
stick, and placed it at the bottom of my tank behind another
coral, where I proceeded to forget about it. Nine months or so
later, when I happened to move the coral in front of it, I was
startled to find the most brilliantly colored blue coral I had
ever seen. At that time, there were virtually no blue or other
brightly colored corals coming in, so this one was indeed quite
rare. As luck would have I was going to speak in Boise, Idaho
for Sally Jo and Leroy Headlee at GARF and I promised to bring
them out some coral fragments to trade. I had traded with them
in the past, and the one thing I knew was that if I gave them a
fragment they would not lose it, as they kept virtually
everything they ever got alive. So as part of the package of
fragments that I brought was a 1″ piece of this blue Acropora.
We did not know the genus, as the colony was still so small
that it was still relatively difficult to get a positive ID.
Over the next year of so they grew out the fragment and started
to sell of fragments of their own. Once people started seeing
this blue Acropora word of mouth spread and people started
asking for the blue Acropora. Since Leroy had no way of
differentiating this from some of the other blue Acroporas he
had at that time, he started calling it the palettablue acro,
to separate it from the others he had. So this is how the name
for this Acropora was established. The same thing has happened
with dozens of corals since then and now that the demand for
certain corals is increasing this practice. The intent of this
practice now though is to raise the price for these
interestingly named corals. Some of these new names include
Alien eye Chalices, Superman Montipora, or Incredible
Hulk Acropora. What is interesting about this
practice is that many of these corals that demand a high price
due to their unique or vivid coloration look very different
when kept under different conditions and unless they are kept
under optimum conditions they are just as likely to be brown as
they are to have the vivid green cast of the hulk. The result
of this may be that in the future, some corals may acquire
different names depending upon who is keeping it and under what
conditions.

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Proper Fragmenting Techniques

As mentioned above, in the past when corals were fragmented,
successful outcomes were often more a function of luck than of
skill. Now after many years of fragmenting corals, and knowing
that fragmenting healthy colonies is far safer and more likely
to be successful than fragmenting sick colonies, the success
rate is much greater. In addition the techniques and necessary
equipment have been standardized to be relatively simple and
straight-forward. However, there is still some difference of
opinion into the nuances of properly fragmenting corals for
optimum health and growth of both the mother colony and the
fragment. The first thing that is necessary is to have the
proper tools. For stony corals the equipment is relatively easy
to get and most hobbyists already have most of it. For cutting
the corals, a sharp pair of wire cutters and needle nose
pliers, are the best tools. The wire cutters are good for
cutting thinly branched corals like most Montiporas,
Acroporas, Seriatoporas and Stylophoras and
any of the thin plating corals like Echinophyllias and
Oxyporas. The pliers are useful for fragmenting thick
bulky corals like Pocilloporas, Acroporas humilus,
etc. In addition to these tools, several pairs of tweezers are
useful including a pair that is very long. Long tweezers are
useful in that invariably a fragment will fall in between the
rocks where it will be difficult to retrieve without tearing
down a lot of live rock so having a pair of these will come in
handy. Several adhesives that can be used in saltwater are also
imperative to have on hand. The best of these are gel type
superglues and waterproof epoxy. In addition to the adhesives,
a substrate of some type such as pieces of clean live rock,
plastic florists’ plugs or cured homemade cement plugs will be
useful to attach the fragments to. Lastly brushes with which to
keep the substrate clean and free of algae around the fragment
are essential for the growth of the fragment. Hard toothbrushes
as well as brushes for detailing a car are very good for this
purpose.

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Tools of the trade.

DSC00027.jpg

Frags being acclimated in mesh basket.

The desired mother colony for fragmenting should be selected
that is healthy and growing. Many of us learned to fragment
corals when colonies were dying and fragging them was the only
means for keeping even a small portion of them alive. However
as we have gained experience we have learned that taking
fragments from healthy colonies produces fragments that have a
much higher likelihood of succeeding. Once the colony has been
selected, the branch on the colony should be chosen for
removal. Usually this branch will be on the lower portion of
the back or side. These branches are chosen as their removal
will not detract from the beauty of the colony. The branch
selected should be snapped off as cleanly as possible with the
wire cutters or the needle-nose pliers. The goal is to snap it
off in one quick motion rather than to cut or smash the tissue
on either the fragment or the mother colony. When this is done
properly and cleanly there is little likelihood of infection to
the mother colony or the fragment. In some of the colonies that
I have fragmented I have seen some of the mother colonies grow
faster after being fragmented than I had observed when I had
left them alone. The fragments themselves should be as large as
possible at least 1″ in size. The larger the coral fragment,
the greater the likelihood that it will do well over time. I
have purchased and traded fragments that came to me at less
than ½” in size. These fragments have traditionally done
much worse than the fragments I received that were 1″ in size
or larger. These smaller fragments are harder to work with,
fall and get lost easier, are more sensitive to changes in
water quality and take much longer to grow to a reasonable size
than do larger fragments. That is why when trading or
purchasing fragments you should know in advance the size of the
fragments you are getting so as not to be disappointed.
However, for rarer corals where demand far exceeds supply the
only opportunity to obtain these corals my be a willingness to
accept a smaller fragment.

Regardless of the size of the fragment obtained the handling
of them should be the same. First it has been my experience
that newly obtained un-mounted fragments should be given a
couple of days to recuperate after shipping before being
mounted in a new tank. To allow these corals to recuperate I
place all new fragments in a perforated box that allows for
strong flow to move across them. These boxes are easily
obtained at pond supply stores. In addition to good flow the
corals are exposed to moderate light. The corals are never
placed under strong intense light after their arrival is this
is likely to lead to their bleaching out. The box holding them
is placed off to the side away from intense light and egg crate
is placed over the box to further shield the fragments.

After two or three days and after they are observed
extending their polyps the corals are mounted. Initially most
hobbyists mount fragments so that the cut portion of the
fragment is attached to the substrate and the branch tip is
face up as this looks like how the mother colony is growing.
Unfortunately this is not the optimum way for getting a
fragment to grow. After observing the growth of several
fragments that I had inadvertently knocked off while working in
the tank it was apparent that when a fragment falls in the wild
it does not fall broken end down, but rather the entire branch
falls flat against the substrate. As a result of this
observation I conducted an experiment where I mounted three
fragments from the same mother colony differently. One was
mounted in the traditional manner, one was mounted lying on its
side as I had observed to occur naturally, and one was mounted
with the growth tip down, as the growth tip is where the most
rapid growth is occurring in the colony. After one month and
two months the differences in growth was significantly
different. The colony that had been mounted in the traditional
way had encrusted around its base as was normally the case.
However the fragment mounted on its side encrusted along the
entire fragment, producing a much larger area from which to
grow. The fragment ant mounted growth tip down had encrusted
very little. As a result of this experiment, I now mount all
fragments so that most of the fragment is touching the
substrate with only the portion of the fragment that was broken
off not touching the substrate. This is done to allow the cut
portion to heal away from the substrate where bacteria are more
likely to be present and where this cut tissue is a more likely
point of entry for bacteria and other pathogens.

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The best means for mounting a fragment is to attach it to
its desired location either with any of the gel-type superglues
on the market or with some of the waterproof epoxies.
Regardless of which media is chosen the key thing to keep in
mind is to use an adequate amount of the adhesive. The fragment
can be mounted either to a location in the tank, in which case
the desired location should be considered permanent, or on to a
small piece or live or similar substrate. This latter method
should be chosen if the eventual permanent location has not
been decided on or if it is easier to keep track of the
fragment by having it on a small piece of substrate.

To attach the fragment it should be removed from the water,
and the portion of the fragment to which the adhesive will be
attached should be gently blotted dry with a terrycloth or
similar towel. Drying the fragment is crucial as none of the
adhesives adhere very well to wet surfaces. If superglue is
being used, an adequate amount should be applied to the
fragment, the amount should be enough that some of the glue
should extend beyond the sides of the fragment. The fragment
with the bead of glue should be held out of the water for an
additional 30 seconds to allow for an air bead to form on the
surface of the glue. This air bead will allow the glue to be
moved underwater without dispersing. The fragment can then be
moved underwater to its desired location and gently mounted
into place. The fragment should be held in place for an
additional 60 seconds. This will give the glue time to adhere
and the coral should then hold into place. During this process
the water motion within the tank may be shut off and remain off
for 5-10 minutes. This will prevent the newly attached fragment
from being moved immediately after it has been attached. After
this time, everything can be run normally. This same procedure
should also be followed when epoxy is used. One other thing
that should be noted during this mounting process is that while
mounting the fragment the polyps and tissue should be touched
as little as possible and extreme care should be taken not to
smash any of the polyps on the fragment. Smashed polyps are
much more likely to become a source of infection than are
intact polyps. If the fragment is mounted on a small piece of
moveable substrate then it should be mounted in a similar
fashion and the substrate and fragment can be allowed to “cure”
for 30 minutes or more in a bucket or other receptacle outside
of the tank. This outside curing increases the likelihood that
the fragment will be attached firmly before being placed in the
tank. Once this is done the piece of substrate can then be
placed on mounted into the desired location within the tank. If
the initial location proves undesirable it can readily be moved
to another location. Signs of an undesirable location would be
limited or no polyp extension within 24-48 hours, tissue
sloughing, bleaching or limited or no encrusting by the
fragment onto the substrate after a month in the same location.
Lastly it should be noted that even the best adhesive will not
keep a coral fragment mounted forever. The goal of the adhesive
is to keep the fragment in place until it lays down enough
tissue to keep it in place. Under good conditions an adequate
amount of tissue should be laid down within 30-45 days. IF
after this time period the fragment is still become dislodged,
then the conditions within the tank should be checked to make
sure adequate calcium, buffer and magnesium are present to
allow the fragments to grow.

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A section of the author’s tank where frags are allowed to
grow
together.

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A blue Acropora millepora showing with the white areas
showing
where fragments have been taken.

Frag tanks

The fragmenting of corals has become so widespread that many
hobbyists now have a separate tank to house and grow coral
fragments. This type of tank allows the luxury of being able to
grow out even the smallest fragments without having to worry
about them disappearing by falling into the live rock or having
a predator wipe out a small fragment with one bite because the
fragments are out in the open and hence more conspicuous and
not overwhelmed by full-grown colonies. A special frag tank
allows for even the smallest fragments to be nurtured and cared
for more easily due to their being able to be seen and noticed.
This is important as the single biggest reason for a fragment
to fail to reach an adequate size is it falling off of the
mounting and being lost. For this reason, most frag tanks
should be bare-bottomed as it allows for fallen fragments to be
more easily seen. It is also easier to catalog and keep track
of the fragments in these tanks if digital pictures are taken
whenever new fragments are added or removed. By taking pictures
and comparing the picture with what is present it is easy to
determine if something has happened to a fragment. A by-product
of taking pictures on a regular basis is that it also allows
for growth of the fragments to be more readily assessed. In
this regard it can be determined if the growth of the corals is
constant and if it is not to start looking at wheat factors
have retarded growth or accelerated it. It also allows for the
growth rates of different corals to be compared. This is
important if one is looking to “farm” corals for sale in that
it is usually desirable to try and farm faster growing species
over slower one.

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Two blue coral fragments two months after being mounted on their
sides.

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Same two frags 4 months later.

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Close up of same two fragments.

A fragment tank does not need to be anything special, nor
even particularly large. It can be a tank that is separate from
the main display tank that runs on its own, or usually it is
simply a small secondary tank that is attached to the main
tank. In fact many hobbyists are now using their sumps or parts
of their sumps as frag tanks. By having the frag tank attached
to main tank it allows the coral fragments to be in the same
water conditions that the show colonies are. As a result their
water has optimal nutrients as well as the proper temperature,
calcium and alkalinity. The only two factors that usually need
to be added to maximize the growth of the fragments are
lighting and water movement. Both of these are rather easy to
maximize with small powerheads and small lighting fixtures.
Using small units to supply these needs is possible owing to
the small size of the tank housing the fragments.

As mentioned above, some hobbyists are now using their sumps
to grow out coral fragments. Some have even taken this one step
further and have set up larger and larger sumps attached to
their main display tank in order to grow out large numbers of
coral fragments. These additional sumps need not be anything
special all they really need to do is be able to hold water.
Large plastic troughs or plastic basins are perfect for this
job and are easily drilled, which also allows for their
plumbing to be rather simple as well. These additional sumps
actually help the overall health of the display tank in that
they can dramatically increase the overall volume of the tank
while only minimally increasing the biological load.

Frag swaps

An interesting result of having so many hobbyists
fragmenting their corals and always wanting to add more and
different species to the collections is the advent of the frag
swap. Just as collectors of rare items have done for a long
time, hobbyists have found that getting together with others
that share their passion, some would say obsession, allows them
to readily and sometimes inexpensively add to their collections
via a frag swap. Usually these swaps are advertised by a local
club or via the internet and hobbyists from all over the
neighboring geography come and bring along fragments of corals
from their tanks. These swaps have become so popular that some
of them have induced hundreds of hobbyists to attend.

Initially these swaps were somewhat random unorganized
events where most hobbyists brought frags from corals that were
overgrowing their tanks while only a few hobbyists brought a
couple of rare choice fragments. As a result, the hobbyist with
eh choice fragments was overwhelmed while the common stuff
often went unclaimed, which frustrated the individuals that had
brought them. Fortunately as the swaps have evolved, the
organizing to set them up has improved as well. Due to internet
and club forums and bulletin boards hobbyists attending swaps
can now post what they plan on bringing and ascertain the level
of interest before they bring it and thus bring more or less of
the frags they have according to the level of interest. Some
hobbyists now go so far as to set up specific trades before
they go with other hobbyists to make things go more smoothly.
In the best conceived of these swaps hierarchies are set up
that allow individuals with the most desirable frags to get
first choice of the other most desirable frags. This new twist
increases the likelihood of rarer and better frags being
present and this increases the attendance even further. Since
many of these hobbyists are far enough away from each other
that they are unlikely to see each others colonies or frags,
many hobbyists now go so far as to post digital pictures of
their corals and fragments to give hobbyists attending the swap
an even better idea of what may be available. The more
information that can be provided before a swap the more likely
it is to be successful.

If a new hobbyist wishes to attend one of these all they
need to do is go on the many reef based message boards or
contact their local aquarium club or society and see if any
swaps are occurring locally. Even if one does not have anything
to trade, many of these swaps allow for fragments to be sold,
usually at very reasonable prices. The swaps provide many
benefits to the hobby. They allow for rare and even common
corals to be disseminated to more and more hobbyists without
the need for corals to be removed from the reef. Just as
importantly, many of the hobbyists attending these meets
readily provide useful information about what they are doing in
a non-threatening fun forum where they are less likely to be
flamed or criticized for expressing their opinion. As a result
the success of these frag swaps is further increasing the
overall success within the hobby in general. Lastly they also
provide another fun aspect to the hobby by allowing like-minded
individuals to get together.

As the hobby continues to expand it is becoming more and
more likely that eventually restrictions will be placed on the
harvesting of corals from the reef. Fortunately the increased
success in keeping of all corals over the past decade is
allowing more and more propagating of these corals to take
place away from the sea. As a result, even if the harvesting of
corals from the sea were to take place it is highly unlikely
that this would dramatically diminish the availability of
beautiful corals over time. In fact, it might even increase the
level of success as only those corals that had shown to be
tolerant of captive conditions would be available. Just as
“Stuber’s acropora” has been propagated and is now in literally
hundreds of tanks they same may become true for many of the
corals we are now propagating within or own tanks now.

Category:
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 Mike Paletta

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