Do Acropora corals change color during shipping?

by / Friday, 17 April 2015 / Published in ReefCorner Ramblings
Crazy milli

You see this all the time in the on-line forums.  People buy coral based on a brightly colored picture that they see on the internet and what they receive is a brown or dull colored frag or coral.  That may be a minor annoyance for a $20 frag and a major annoyance for a $200 frag or colony.

It is explained that the coral turned brown during shipping due to the stress of shipping.   Just give it some time and it should color back up in your tank.  If it doesn’t color back up, it must be due to poor husbandry on your part.

When Acropora turn brown (vs lose color and go pale), it is because they have an excess of the symbiotic zooxanthellae algae in their tissues which is masking the underlying color of the coral.  The excessive growth of zooxanthellae algae is caused by high nutrient levels in the water combined with light that the algae needs for photosynthesis.  This browning of the coral occurs over some period of time, typically measured in weeks or months.

When Acropora is shipped, there is simply not enough time for zooxanthellae to suddenly have a population explosion and that  is certainly the case when the coral is devoid of any light as is the case in the shipping carton.  What you take out of the shipping carton as far as color is concerned is pretty much what went into the shipping carton.

One of two things has typically occurred here and possibly a combination of both.

First is that the picture shown on the internet is an accurate representation of what the coral can look like under ideal conditions, but the colonies or frags are held in less than ideal conditions and therefore brown out in the tanks they are housed in.  This occurs well before shipment.  Given a few weeks or months under better, lower nutrient conditions, they may regain their color.

Second is that the picture is overly optimistic as to what the coral actually looks like due to the misuse of photo editing software.  Nothing the hobbyist is going to do will make the coral in their tank look like the picture that they saw on-line.  A good indication of whether this may be the case is when you see on-line stores where every coral looks brighter and more colorful than any that you have ever seen in person.  Either this store has somehow managed to corner the market on all of the very best coral or they are getting creative with their photo editing.  There are in fact some sites that claim that they go straight to the source and cherry pick every one of the very best corals, but that simply is not possible since there are many sources of exported coral and no one is going to corner the market on all the best ones being exported.  Retailers can however improve their overall selection of coral for sale using this method.   Another indication that they are likely getting creative with their photo editing is when they are also get creative with their names and descriptions for the coral such as the “AWESOME ULTRA SUPER METALLIC NEON RED AND SCREAMING LIME GREEN ULTRA ULTRA COLORED AUSSIE”

While photo editing “PhotoShopped” coral has a bad connotation, the truth is that it is generally necessary to photo edit the images to make level corrections for the lighting so that the coral looks correct in the pictures.  This is especially true when taking pictures under LED lighting and we use Photoshop to correct all of our pictures.  Unfortunately Photoshop is a powerful tool that allows you to not only correct the pictures, but to also enhance the pictures, make it tempting to do so.


There are a couple of other factors that can also affect how the coral looks in the picture as compared to how they look in person once you get them into your tank.

First is that the pictures may be taken under heavy actinic/blue lighting to get the coral to fluoresce.  Technically the coral can look like this, but only under that same lighting which does not represent normal reef lighting.   You can typically tell this is the case when the background or the egg crate the coral is sitting on has a strong blue or red coloration to it.

Second is the orientation that the picture is taken of the coral.  Corals typically look their most colorful when viewed from above which is the direction that the light hits the coral.  There is nothing wrong with this and we do the same as it is also the easiest orientation in which to take pictures, but with corals that have a large side profile, we also try to take pictures from the side to give a better sense of the overall color of the coral from different angles since not many people view their corals from the top of their tanks.

Third is that frags made from a parent colony will sometimes lose some of the color of the parent colony until the frags have grown back out to some extent.  That is why we take pictures of the actual frags as well as the parent colony when a picture is available.  Since frags can grow and morph quite quickly, it can be difficult to keep pictures updated when frags sit around for a while before sale and that frankly creates a challenge for us at times.  The same can be true for colonies as well which often start to color morph once placed under artificial lighting.

Acropora echinata - Blue Tipped Echinata Colony 1 - Standing

Fresh import

Acropora echinata - Blue Tipped Echinata Colony 1 - Standing 2

Color morph under artificial lighting


Finally, some extremely colorful recently imported wild Acropora colonies will sometimes lose some of their color in captivity for reasons that we often don’t fully understand and frags made from them never fully regain the original color that the wild colony had when first collected.  That appears to be the case with the colony that is in the title picture, though perhaps and hopefully there is a colony grown from one of the frags that still looks like that in someones tank somewhere.

— Ken

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