For many hobbyists, SPS or Small Polyp Stony corals are the crown jewels of the coral kingdom. Like LPS corals, the SPS family plays home to many stunning species with vibrant colors and astonishing growth patterns. The color variation in SPS corals is simply unrivaled, with fluorescent pinks, blues, purples, oranges, and many others.
While many SPS corals have become collector’s items, they certainly are not for every reef hobbyist, given their often demanding care requirements. This article will teach how to identify SPS corals, why some hobbyists love them, and others hate them, and how to properly select and care for them. In addition, we have included our list of the most popular SPS corals, along with their primary care instructions and estimated costs.
Definition of SPS Corals
Similar to LPS Corals, SPS Corals have a hard-skeletal structure made of calcium carbonate. However, the polyps for SPS are significantly smaller. Most SPS polyps are barely noticeable to the naked eye and are not visible until they extend during feeding time. SPS corals are considered the most desirable by many hobbyists due to their vibrant colors and unique look.
Pros And Cons of SPS Corals
Please note, the following list of common pros and cons does not apply to every SPS coral.
Pros of SPS Corals
- Large color selection with much brighter colors than most other types of coral
- Available in different growth formations and styles such as branching (i.e., sticks), plating, and encrusting varieties
- Often don’t require regular feedings
- Unlike LPS, most SPS don’t have long stinging tentacles
- Easy to frag compared to other corals making them easier to trade and sell
Cons of SPS Corals
- Sensitive to fluctuations in parameters such as temperature, pH, alkalinity and calcium which can cause SPS to turn brown, lose polyp extension, and begin to show signs of either Rapid or Slow Tissue Necrosis (RTN & STN)
- SPS corals require a stable and mature aquarium
- Many species require intense lighting and high water flow
- Certain species are fragile and can break easily
- Higher price point than soft corals. However, prices can vary significantly between species depending on color and rarity
SPS Corals are sensitive to changes in water parameters, lighting, and flow making purchasing a healthy specimen essential.
Signs of a healthy coral frag:
- Coral is vibrant in appearance, and there is no noticeable damage to the coral or loss of flesh
- Coral colors should closely match similar specimens
- Polyps are easily visible
- Frags have healed from fragging and have begun to encrust over the plug or tile
To allow for a seamless transition, acclimate the coral slowly and make sure water parameters, lighting, and water flow from the original tank and new tank are a close match. For example, if it thrived in high flow and medium light, try to mimic those same conditions.
10 Popular SPS Corals
Below are the primary care requirements, expected purchase price, and the pros and cons of some of our favorite SPS corals. Most local fish stores will carry a solid selection of the following species.
Basic Care Instructions: Encrusting Montipora is available in many colors and has many unique names. “Encrusting” refers to their growth pattern, which will eventually grow over the top of any surface they are on. They are a bright addition to filling areas where there may be too much flow to place an Acropora. It is crucial to provide encrusting Montipora with plenty of space to grow as they will take over other corals if not monitored.
Estimated cost: $45 – $200 per frag
Pros of Encrusting Montipora:
- Available in numerous color combinations, different colors can be grafted together for a unique look.
- Not as picky as most SPS when it comes to water parameters and quality
- Unique growth pattern
- Does not sting other corals
Cons of Encrusting Montipora:
- Requires medium to high lighting
- Strong flow is needed to keep debris from piling up on the coral and causing damage
Basic Care Instructions: The most well-known Acropora Latistella species is the Bali Shortcake, which comes in many unique colors. The base is generally a different color than each of the corallites and polyps. Like most Acropora species, taking the time to place Latistella specimens in areas with large amounts of light and flow is essential. Due to Latistella’s unique growth pattern, you will also want to provide plenty of space to accommodate its future growth.
Estimated cost: $50 – $200 per frag
Pros of Acropora Latistella:
- Grows in a plating form that brings a unique look to any display
- Colors can range from deep purples to blush pinks and yellows
- Has become more prevalent in the hobby, which has helped decrease their cost
- Most of these specimens are fully aquacultured, making them well-suited to aquarium life
Cons of Acropora Latistella:
- Requires both high-light and high-flow
- Due to their unique growth pattern, they provide plenty of space to accommodate future growth
- Relatively slow-growing
Basic Care Instructions: A relatively easy to keep species compared to most SPS, the Montipora Digitata is a favorite among hobbyists with SPS-dominant or mixed reefs. As with most SPS, nutrient control and parameters are essential. However, this beautiful coral does tend to be more forgiving than most.
Estimated cost: $20 – $75 per frag
Pros of Montipora Digitata:
- Available in a whole host of color combinations.
- One of the easier to keep SPS varieties
- A peaceful temperament allows them to live near other corals.
- Easy to frag
Cons of Montipora Digitata:
- It can grow fast, so careful placement is vital to keep it from overgrowing or shading other corals
- Prefers large amounts of flow
Basic Care Instructions: Tenuis corals are known as a favorite amongst hardcore “Stick-Heads.” It is tough to beat the stunning colors of an Acropora Tenuis. When it comes to their requirements, Tenuis requires stable water parameters and low nutrients.
Estimated cost: $100 – $800+ per frag
Pros of Acropora Tenuis:
- Tenuis offers some of the most brilliant colors of any Acropora variety
- Maricultured and Aquacultured Tenuis are prevalent within the aquarium trade
- Some of the more stunning types can make an excellent centerpiece for your SPS system
Cons of Acropora Tenuis:
- With Tenuis being one of the most color-diverse varieties of Acropora, many of them are extremely expensive
- Due to their high cost, frags are often smaller than your fingernail
- The light and flow demands of Tenuis can make them challenging to keep for many beginners and even intermediate-level reefers
Basic Care Instructions: The most commonly recognized variation of Carduus is the Red Dragon Acro which is a deepwater species. Despite their deep origins, these corals prefer powerful light. Carduus is unique in appearance with its thin, sensitive branches and multitude of color variations. Be sure to place these Acros where their thin branches won’t break when you perform maintenance.
Estimated cost: $25 – $100 per frag
Pros of Acropora Carduus:
- The thin branches of Carduus make them one of the more unique Acropora species
- Available in a variety of colors from deep reds to light blues
- Known for its fast growth
- Not as flow demanding as typical Acropora species
Cons of Acropora Carduus:
- Their sensitivity to water quality can cause a rapid color change
- Their thin branches make them incredibly fragile
Basic Care Instructions: The most famous Acropora Microclados is the Strawberry Shortcake which features pink/red polyps and a lime green base. This coral prefers pure water with minimal nutrients, so keeping up to date with water changes and performing frequent maintenance on your protein skimmer is crucial. Microclados will benefit from occasional target feedings.
Estimated cost: $90 – $150 per frag
Pros of Acropora Microclados:
- Acropora Microclados are prevalent in the hobby, and it is generally not too tricky to track down a fully aquacultured frag
- Available in eye-catching yellows, pinks, purples, and greens
- Their tabling growth pattern allows for a unique and visually pleasing aquascape
Cons of Acropora Microclados:
- These corals tend to require high amounts of light in the 350-450 PAR range
- Microclados benefit significantly from weekly feedings, and we recommend adding this routine to your maintenance schedule
- Despite being regularly available in the hobby, frags like the Strawberry Shortcake Acro are still expensive
Basic Care Instructions: Acropora Echinata have a very distinct growth form with long tubular radial corallites. These are also known as smooth skin Acropora, and they can be very touchy with changes in water parameters and temperature.
Estimated cost: $40 – $100 per frag
Pros of Acropora Echinata:
- Echinata is a great way to introduce stunning blue and purple hues to a reef tank
- This coral has a unique growth form and smooth skin
- While this coral is rare in the wild, it has been propagated and aquacultured for years and is generally available for a reasonable price
Cons of Acropora Echinata:
- Its smooth skin and lack of a typical slime coat make Acropora Echinata especially sensitive to fluctuating water quality
- Despite their beauty, there is not a lot of color diversity within this species
- Without a typical slime coat, this variety is also susceptible to changes in temperature
Basic Care Instructions: The most common Tortuosa is the Oregon Blue Tort, known for its intense deep blue color. Most torts grow very slowly, but they have been a longtime favorite of hobbyists as they have adjusted well to life within a standard SPS dominant reef tank. As long as you source a healthy specimen and provide plenty of light and flow, most Tortuosa varieties are easy to please.
Estimated cost: $60 – $90 per frag
Pros of Acropora Tortuosa:
- Torts are renowned for their deep blue color that pops in a display aquarium
- Hardy and well suited to aquarium life
- Look like staghorn corals once they grow into a colony
- Their sustained presence in the aquarium hobby has helped make them quite affordable as far as SPS corals
Cons of Acropora Tortuosa:
- Sweeper tentacles are long and will disturb neighboring
- Torts’ smooth skin often makes them susceptible to red bugs
- Relatively slow-growing
- Tortuosa requires plenty of light and flow, making finding a suitable space in your aquarium a challenge
Basic Care Instructions: An encrusting coral, the Stylocoeniella grows fast under good flow and medium to high lighting. This variety grows well in the cracks and crevices of your rockwork. The polyps are pretty small, but they will benefit from feedings. Due to its discrete nature, Stylocoeniella is also commonly found as a hitchhiker coral on live rock.
Estimated cost: $35 – $60 per frag
Pros of Stylocoeniella:
- Different texture and look than most SPS Corals
- Stylocoeniella comes in a variety of different colors
- Grow significantly faster than most other SPS corals
- Peaceful coral, although will encrust over other corals if given the chance
Cons of Stylocoeniella:
- Requires good flow to keep free from debris
- Stylocoeniella often can’t be found in large colonies
- Needs trace amounts of nutrients to thrive in a reef tank
Basic Care Instructions: These corals live in shallow reef waters and prefer large amounts of light. They often have a cream-colored base and bright pink or blue tips. Nasuta has been kept in aquariums for quite some time and has adjusted well to most properly kept SPS systems with low nutrient levels.
Estimated cost: $50 – $300 per frag
Pros of Acropora Nasuta:
- This shallow-water species brings a plethora of pastel colors to your aquarium
- Nasuta has bright blue polyps that contrast very well with their often light body coloration
- Grows into small tables, creating natural shelves within a display tank
Cons of Acropora Nasuta:
- Plenty of space is needed to allow a Nasuta variety to table without shading other coral species.
- Some of their more unique color variations can get pricey
- Keeping ideal water quality is especially important
The name SPS usually bears a warning sign in the hobby due to the high care requirements. With so many notable species and such a rainbow of color, it would be a shame to dismiss the world of SPS. If you’re considering adding some to your reef or starting an SPS dominant system, there may be no more rewarding task in the hobby. Just ensure your tank is well established and your lighting and flow requirements are up to par! The work is worth the wait when it comes to creating a flourishing system filled with SPS.
Have a question or recommendation for us? Feel free to drop us a line here. If you are in need of saltwater aquarium supplies, Simplicity Aquatics offers a variety of products including protein skimmers, pumps, dosing containers, and filter media.