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Pet Product News Editorial Blog:

July 12, 2011

Sea Anemones in the Reef Aquarium

By Patrick Donston


I’ve never been an advocate of keeping sea anemones in reef aquariums. Although anemones are similar animals to coral (phylum: Cnidaria), they tend to require more care and better filtration than their counterparts. Like corals (class: Anthozoa), both types contain stinging cells called nematocysts, which are used for protection and paralyzing prey. An anemone sting is more potent than most corals, thus will burn or kill a coral if close by. Sea anemones are mobile Anthozoans (order: Actineria).

Although they attach to firm substrates, such as live rock or sand beds, they can climb throughout the aquarium, posting themselves in a position to feed and retrieve light. As an anemone moves about, there is an inherent risk that it may rub against stony or soft corals.

To understand the husbandry of sea anemones is to understand the anatomy and physiological differences among Anthozoans (corals and anemones). Unlike coral, which has a “skeleton,” gelatinous matrix and soft tissue, anemones are 100 percent soft tissue. Yes, even soft coral has a skeleton because of the calcium carbonate spicules found within the tissue. Corals need and utilize a number of trace elements in water to build this skeleton, e.g., calcium, strontium, carbonates, magnesium, etc. Soft tissue is built from the amino acids and protein they capture, e.g., diatoms, plankton, etc.

What this means is marine-soluble trace elements are not as important to anemone care as feeding high-protein foods, such as frozen or planktonic liquid forms. Although both corals and anemones contain zooxanthellia (a symbiotic algae that lives in the soft tissue and benefits the animals by supplying energy through photosynthesis), biologists believe anemones are less reliant on this algae for caloric intake. A mistake aquarists make is to rely on the intensity of lighting as with corals, but neglect the value of chopped-frozen or protein-based liquid foods.

The outer layer of soft tissue is only one cell deep. Anemones damage easier than corals through pollutants in water, abrasion and transport. They may appear intact when opened from a shipment, although they can disintegrate over time when placed in a holding tank. Water flow is a necessity to anemone care. Removal of settling sand and oxygen are vital for their tissue regeneration, health and damage during the shipment process. I’m also a firm believer of well skimmed water through fractionators, even more so than for a majority of coral species. I don’t feel sea anemones are for beginners and should be added to systems aged at least 3 months or longer.

Clownfishes are the most popular marine fish purchased. Many of your clients may want sea anemones to go along with these fish for the enjoyment of watching their symbiotic relationship. I think it’s important we convey pertinent information to our clients before they make a decision. Sea anemones are not for everyone and there are plenty of other alternatives.

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