Leathers & Other Soft Corals


Sarcophyton Leather

Leathers and other "not necessarily related, but similar-appearing soft corals" are corals without an exoskeleton. They are extremely varied in shape and form, as well as color. Most commonly, they are shades of browns and grays, but there are also many brightly colored types of greens and yellows.

Dendronephthea Dendronephthea

Carnation (Dendronephthea)

The colors are sometimes a result of the symbiotic zooanthellae (algae) that live within the animal, just like hard corals. Some, such as the "carnations," are brightly colored, but not from zooanthellae. As with hard corals, the sugary byproducts of the algae's photosynthesis is a valuable food source for the animal.

In general, leathers are another of the easy "starter" corals for folks who are not expert, long-time reefkeepers. Most of the hardcore reefkeepers, however, have some prized leather corals in their tanks and collections.

They are the perfect visual contrast to the hard corals. Their names tell much about them: Finger Leather, Yellow or Green Leather, Toadstool, Mushroom or Umbrella Leather, Stubby Finger Leather, Hairy Leather, Rose Leather, Cabbage or Flower Leather, Devil's Hand or Finger, and so on. Get the idea?

Sarcophyton Flower Leather

"Toadstool" or "Umbrella" Sarcophyton and Flower or Cabbage Leather

Leather and Polyps

Stubby Finger Leather Stubby Finger Leather
"Stubby" Finger Leather

There are ones with short stalks and long polyps, short polyps with long stalks, and others without stalks. Some have polyps that are colored in contrast with the main body of the animal. They have an amazing diversity of growth forms.

While their polyps are retracted they appear smooth, but when they are distended, they often appear nearly fuzzy. It really is neat to see them all smooth when the lights come on in the morning, and watch as they extend their polyps for a day of feeding. They often react quite quickly and extend polyps and maximize size when I feed them my "free invert food." (See article link at bottom of page.)

Like mushrooms and polyp rocks, most types do very well under less than halide lighting ... a big "plus" in my view. Any of the various reef-type fluorescent lighting will usually be sufficient for keeping and growing them. They often are abundant in lagoons, which are areas of higher turbidity and poorer water quality than the outer reef.

Leather and Polyps Yellow Leather-Blue Mushrooms

Yellow Leather with Blue Mushrooms

Leather Coral Clown Fish

Another neat thing about leathers is that some will be accepted as a host for Clown (anemone) fish (genus Amphiprion) when a suitable anemone is not present. This has been recorded in the wild, not just in captivity in aquaria. Clownfish have spawned in captivity with a leather coral for a host as well! The soft frilly Sarcophytons would seem to be the best candidates for this.

Lobophyton Lobophyton

Lobophyton "Special Finger Leather"

The most common leathers we see are in the genera Sarcophyton (Toadstool, Mushroom or Umbrella Leathers), Lobophyton (Ridge, Rose, and other wrinkled types), and Sinularia (finger types).

Sarcophyton (Kupang)

Sarcophyton Sarcophyton


Speckled Leather
Speckled Leather


Ridge Leather
Ridge Leather

I once had a conversation with a leather researcher who said that Sarcophyton should actually be split into three genera, so the ones that we all know as "Sarcos" would no longer be classified as such due to the rules of taxonomic nomenclature. So that change will not happen.

Flower Leather Flower Leather

Flower Leather Flower-Cabbage Leather

Flower or Cabbage Leathers

Some very similar looking corals are often sold as leathers, particularly fingery things, such as Cladiella, Xenia, Lithophyton, Capnella, Dendronepthea, Nepthea, Lemnalia, and others which are "soft corals," but not actually leathers.




Another amazing aspect of leathers is that many can be cultivated by cutting them! Many people do this by slicing them with a single-edged razor blade, in half, or quarters right down the middle, and each piece will often grow into a new leather, when done properly. WOW!, eh?

Leathers practice chemical warfare, since stinging polyps (aggressive defense) or a hard skeleton (passive defense) are not available options.

They emit chemicals toxic to potential threats, mostly such as other corals trying to horn in on their turf, so it is important to not let them touch, or even be too near other corals. Of course hard corals like Euphyllia or Galaxea are trying to sting them with nettling polyps at the same time. Usually this is why with all corals, a few inches on either side of the fully extended opened up animal is proper spacing. Some of these chemicals are believed to have or hold potential for being anti-carcinogens - that is they might be cures for cancer. Research is currently underway into this possibility.

Special Finger Leather

Don't be fooled if they appear to shrink in size, which they sometimes do ... appearing to be dying off. They then often shed an outer layer of "skin," followed by a growth period after which they are larger than before, when you thought it was dying. During shipping they also contract amazingly and on arrival will be small and shriveled. They often blow up, then deflate, obviously flushing, and then re-inflate and stay that way.

Leather Coral Leather with Spotted Mushrooms

Besides size, costs are generally based on color. Bright yellow is more expensive than dull yellow. The Tonga Yellow Leathers which everyone wants when they see them, ship incredibly poorly. Those that do well with them, keep them in bright light, often near the surface, with super high water quality and flow.

In stores, most leathers run from $30 (small brown or gray ones), to $60 (large brown or gray or small-med. colored types). More costly are the fancy, large, or rare types and colors, which may be $100 or more. You must keep in mind the large and colorful types require lots of water for shipping, and at 8.6 lbs. per U.S. gallon and that gets expensive!

Hopefully the photos on this page will help you sort out the types of leathers and maybe help you decide which types you would like to have in your tanks. I heard of a guy in St. Louis that grew a Sarcophyton Mushroom or Umbrella Leather to three feet across in a 400 gallon.

Love Your Leathers!


(Dull) Yellow Sarcophyton Leather, with Polyps Extended


Lemnalia (Neospongoides)

Maroon Carnation

Red Carnation
Red Carnation

Green Leather
Green Finger Leather

Green Finger Leather
Green Finger Leather

Finger Leather
Devil's Finger Leather

Stubby Finger Leather
"Stubby" Finger Leather

Lemnalia Lemnalia
Lemnalia - Neospongoides

Ordering Information:

Related articles ...

Our Toll-free Phone:

(866) 874-7639

(855) 225-8086

Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Central Time)

(If you have trouble with the first number, please use the second one.)

Our E-mail

Phone: (866) 874-7639 or (855) 225-8086
E-mail: birdfish@livestockusa.org
Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm Central

© www.livestockusa.org, 2003-2022