Cutting It Up –

Fragging Branching Soft Corals
Article & Images By Richard Ross


ow that your tank is established and your corals are growing nicely, it is probably time to start thinking about fragging – cutting a fragment of coral from the parent colony to grow into another parent colony. Growing out frags is a great way to generate corals to trade with other reefers, as well as lessen the pressure of coral collection on wild reefs. If you haven’t fragged a coral before, it can be a little intimidating. But, once you get used to the idea of cutting up the corals in your tank, you’ll see that it can be very easy. While each species of coral must be handled in specific ways during fragging, I hope to give you a general overview of two methods which can be applied to a wide range of soft bodied, branching corals including; Nepthea (green tree coral), Sinularia (finger leather), Lobophytum (devils hand leather), Cladiella (colt coral) and Xenia. The first thing you need to get used to is the idea of cutting up the coral you have spent so much time and effort trying to grow. Just watching a coral pull in its polyps and shrink from being disturbed is difficult enough, but cutting up soft corals can seem extra disturbing because slicing into their soft flesh makes us think about cutting up our own bodies. Never fear! Hopefully, your corals have been growing so well that, like plants in a flower garden, they actually need pruning because they are growing into each other. Prepare yourself to do something that needs to be done. Once you are over your initial squeamishness, you will see that fragging corals can be fun and rewarding, and that the corals you care so much about recover very quickly.

A colony of pulsing Sinularia “Bookfish Red” before fragging.

Before starting, it’s important to note that when disturbed or fragged, many of these soft corals will produce mucus as a defense mechanism. This slimy mucus can be toxic to other animals, so it’s best to take precautions to minimize the amount that gets into your show tank. The obvious solution is to remove the parent colony from the show tank before any cutting takes place. I like to place my parent colony in a bucket or bowl of tank water in my kitchen sink, and have another bucket or bowl of tank water standing by for the frags. After cutting, the corals go back into their containers where the mucus they produce can safely be contained. You can even continue to do ‘water changes’ with tank water in these containers, rinsing away the mucus. Generally after 15-30 minutes, the corals will stop producing mucus and you can safely return the corals to the show tank. To protect yourself from the corals’ mucus, you can wear latex gloves and safety glasses, and use tools dedicated to coral fragging. Thoroughly wash all surfaces that have come into contact with corals or coral mucus. It is not always possible or practical to remove the parent colony from the show tank. The coral may be too large to safely move, or it may be encrusted onto some rockwork that is not removable. In these situations, there are a few common sense precautions you can take if you do need to cut the coral in situ. First, minimize the number of cuts in the tank. Either cut a small frag or cut one large piece and immediately remove the cut piece to a container of tank water. Less cutting equals less mucus. Second, do your fragging on a day when you are going to do a water change, and change the water as soon as possible after you are done cutting. Third, run some carbon in the tank, either in a mesh bag in the sump, or better yet, in a hang on back filter or canister filter. The carbon will help adsorb the toxins the stressed coral puts out. Soft corals are actually pretty easy to cut because they are...well... soft. Sharp scissors are an obvious tool for the job, but in the process of cutting, they can crush tissue resulting in the creation of more mucus and extended healing times. A razor blade or exacto knife makes a great cutting tool, though in slippery hands they can be more dangerous than scissors. Regardless of what you choose to cut the coral with, one swift cut rather than a series of halting cuts will result in less stress on the animal.

The same colony of pulsing Sinularia after being removed from the show tank and placed into a bowl of tank water. Notice the retracted polyps and branches. The branch in the upper right of the picture will be cut.


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Choosing where to cut a branching soft coral is also pretty easy. Look for a place where a decent size ‘branch’ connects to the ‘trunk’, and then prune the coral, like cutting a branch from a tree. For aesthetic reasons, some people cut as close to the trunk as possible, while others will cut through the middle of the branch so that, after the coral starts to regrow, the branch will look similar to how it looked before it was fragged. It is up to you to decide whether to cut the coral in or out of the water. If the coral cannot be removed from the show tank, you will be cutting underwater, and in my experience, scissors will be more efficient than a straight blade. Before you start cutting in your main tank, make sure to turn your pumps off; chasing a softie frag that is floating around in the current can lead to loss of the frag or damage to your other display corals. Even worse, in your attempt to catch an errant frag that is floating around, you could accidentally destroy your perfectly placed aquascaping, and rebuilding will never look the same. If you have removed the parent colony from the main tank, and are using scissors, you can do one of two things - either cut the coral in the container of tank water or remove the coral from the water, hold it with one hand, and cut with the other, letting the cut piece fall into your extra container of tank water. If you are cutting with an exacto or razor blade, it is much safer to cut the coral out of the water and on an appropriate cutting surface like a hard plastic cutting board. This surface should be used only for your aquarium (preparing food on a surface that you cut potentially toxic corals on

is a bad idea). For practical purposes, you can think of the branching soft coral like a head of broccoli – much easier and safer to cut with a straight blade against a stable surface than in the air. Once you have cut your coral fragment, you need to attach it to some kind of substrate so you can place it back in your show Pulsing Sinularia being fragged with scissors. A quick, definitive cut is best. tank or trade it for another coral. While super glue or epoxy putty is great for adhering hard corals to reef rubble or frag plugs, the mucus that soft corals produce, as well as the soft bodies themselves, make it an impractical solution for soft coral frags. There are many methods of getting soft corals to attach to reef rubble or other substrate, but I feel the two easiest and most surefire methods are the use of a settling area and the “sandwich” method. A settling area is simply a place were the coral frag can rest against a substrate without being blown around by water movement. Settling areas can be made in plastic or glass bowls or trays filled with a layer of reef rubble, frag plugs or other substrate for the coral to attach to. For aesthetic and flow reasons, settling containers are often placed in a lighted area of the sump or in a frag tank rather than in the show tank. It is important that there is still some water movement in the settling area - just not enough to blow the coral around. Once your frag has stopped producing mucus in your cutting bowl of tank water, simply drop it in the settling area and wait. Over time, generally a week or two, the frag will attach to the substrate it is resting on, and can then be moved to an area of higher flow. The sandwich method involves making a coral and rock rubble sandwich, where the coral is the meat and two pieces of rubble are the bread. The coral frag is placed between two pieces of rock rubble, and the sandwich is held snugly together by rubber bands. It seems like simply rubber banding the coral to some rubble would be easier, but in reality, it is quite problematic. It is very difficult to have the right amount of tension in the rubber bands. Too loose and the coral will slip out. Too tight and the thin rubber band will cut into the flesh of the coral, splitting the coral into two pieces which will then float around your tank. Using two pieces of rubble gives consistent, even pressure along a large section of the frag resulting in fast attachment while minimizing the potential for the frag to split or Pulsing Sinularia parent colony and frag. Note float away. the clean cut and the water losing clarity due
to mucus production of the stressed coral.

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For the sandwich, I like to use one larger piece and one smaller piece of clean, live rock rubble because I think it makes the end product look less obtrusive. However, any size rock rubble will work. If the frag is going back into your show tank, take a minute to think about where the frag will go and try to pick some rock rubble that will fit that spot. If you use two larger pieces of rock rubble, you can double your number of frags; after the coral has attached to both pieces of rubble, use your straight blade to slice the coral down the middle, leaving coral attached to both pieces of the ‘‘sandwich’’. Once you have chosen your rock rubble, it’s time to make the sandwich. To help minimize stress on the coral, dip the two pieces of rock rubble you will be using in tank water before making the sandwich. Try to put the branch inside the sandwich while leaving some of the polyps exposed. Don’t be surprised or worried if the coral continues to contract during the process. Hold the sandwich in one hand and wrap the rubber band around the rock rubble with the other. You want the rubber band to hold the rocks against the coral snugly, but not crushingly. I like to use one rubber band to loosely hold the sandwich together, so I can make sure the coral is positioned to my liking. Then, I use a second rubber band to tighten everything up. When you are done, put the coral sandwich back into your container of tank water. Once the coral is done generating mucus, generally after 15 -30 minutes, you can place the sandwich into your show tank or frag tank. After a week or two, the coral should be attached to one or both of the pieces of rubble and you can glue that rubble to your existing rockwork (see ‘The Art of Frag Gluing’ in volume 1, issue 2 of RHM for details).

Pulsing Sinularia Sandwich. The top piece of rock rubble is much smaller than the bottom for aesthetic reasons.

Now, take a deep breath, calm yourself, and get fragging!
Pulsing Sinularia frag sandwich several hours after being cut.

Pulsing Sinularia parent colony after being fragged. The coral will extend its polyps and infl ate its branches within a day.


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