Is My Leather Coral Dying?

Does your leather coral look like it is dying, and you have no idea why? If so, you have come to the right place!

Leather corals are most commonly known as toadstool leathers (Sarcophyton), devil’s hand leather (Lobophytum), and finger leathers (Sinularia). They are considered an easy coral to care for, should they be kept in a properly maintained reef aquarium. 

Leathers are a type of soft coral with tough leathery skin, hence the name! They come in a wide range of attractive colors and shapes, creating a very dynamic aquarium for any reef hobbyist. However, just like keeping any pets, occasionally corals fall ill, and in some cases, they may start dying. 

Signs Your Leather Coral Is Dying

Newly added leather corals can look a little sad, but that is because they are getting used to their new environments, not because they are dying. 

However, if your leather coral rapidly declines after acclimation, it usually means something has gone wrong inside your aquarium. 

What Does A Dying Leather Coral Look Like?

Just like any dying animal, your leather coral will start rotting, melting, and the tissue will start breaking down. If your leather coral is unfortunately dying, you will start to see holes in your coral’s flesh that are smothered in algae and bacteria. 

Once the algal communities take over, your leather coral will not be able to consume the nutrients they need from the water column. If the algae are not removed from your leather coral, your coral will continue to perish, shriveling up, and eventually detaching from its base. 

If you are worried about your leather coral dying, frequently check your leather’s polyps. Often, leather corals will deflate their polyps during a periodic event such as reproduction, closing up from a photoperiod, or something physically touching them like a fish brushing up against them, or detritus settling on top of their polyps. This is what is called ‘normal deflation’. 

However, sometimes ‘abnormal deflation’ occurs from something traumatic. This can be from an injury, illness, significant fluctuations in temperature and salinity, allelopathic reactions, or a chemical mishap. 

The difference between the two is simple. If your leather coral has a normal deflation, it will return to its normal shape and size relatively quickly, but if an abnormal deflation occurs, your leather coral may result in a body-shape deformation or death. 

What To Do If Your Leather Coral Is Dying?

Firstly, check the water parameters. Even though leathers are known to be more forgiving with fluctuations than their stony coral counterparts, you want to maintain conditions in the following ranges:

  • Temperature: 76-82℉
  • pH: 8.0-8.4
  • Salinity: 1.025
  • Calcium: 350-450 PPM
  • Magnesium: 1250-1350 PPM
  • Nitrates: <10 PPM
  • Phosphates: <0.10 PPM

If any of the above are outside the recommended range, perform a 10% water change and dose your aquarium with calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium (if needed). These three parameters are vital for your leather coral because they are major constituents of the skeletal needles on your leather and for maintaining proper biological functions.

Next, check the lighting and water flow. Leather corals thrive in low to moderate lighting (PAR 50-150) and moderate to high flow.

Your aquarium lighting may be stronger than the one at the store it came from, so it may just be adjusting. If possible, turn down the lighting intensity as leather corals do not like to be moved around. If lowering your lighting intensity is not possible, move it down to the bottom of your aquascape where the lighting is not so strong.

In terms of water flow, you want to ensure it is strong enough to keep detritus off your coral’s tissues, but not too strong that your leather is being blasted, as this can cause its precious polyps to tear, exposing your coral to bacterial infections and death.

It is also recommended you add some carbon filtration and switch it out every two weeks. Carbon filtration is beneficial for treating coral illnesses as it removes general contaminants, odors, tannins, and other pigments in the water, and toxins from leather corals that can be harmful to aquarium life. 

Why Is My Leather Coral Turning Brown?

Corals like your leather will typically turn brown as a result of the overproduction of zooxanthellae, the symbiotic algae that live inside your coral’s tissues. When zooxanthellae populations increase, they block your leather coral’s natural pigments, causing them to turn brown. 

If your leather coral is only turning brown on its surface layer of tissue, then there is nothing to worry about. Your leather coral will shed regularly, sloughing (shedding) off the brown skin when they do. However, if your leather coral leaves an indentation in the flesh after shedding, it is more likely a bacterial infection, which is a sign your leather coral may be dying. 

If your leather coral is in an area with insufficient flow, detritus can collect in low spots on its surface. These create clogged areas that bacteria use as a breeding ground, stripping your leather’s tissue and spreading the infection. If the infection continues to spread, your leather coral will start dying. To prevent further tissue loss, cut away the infected tissue with a scalpel to make sure none of it remains and continue to maintain tank stability.

How Do You Know If A Leather Coral Is Shedding?

Coral shedding is often confused with coral dying, especially if you are a newbie reefer. When leather corals shed it can look like your leather is dying because it will start to shrivel up and shrink, however, this is usually nothing to worry about, unless it stays like this for a couple of weeks. 

When your leather coral sheds, it will look waxy, and it may get some faint white spots over the tissue as the skin starts to break and shed/peel off. If your leather coral is shedding, in around a week, your leather will fully open again looking bigger, brighter, and healthier than before!

Reasons For Leather Coral Not Opening

Stress is usually the main reason your leather coral may close their polyps for a long time. 

Stress can be associated with unfriendly tank inhabitants, poor water conditions, and unwelcome pests and parasites.  

Leather corals enjoy having tank mates, but any fish or invertebrates that start to become a nuisance will make your leather coral feel uncomfortable, usually causing them to retract their polyps. Some fish such as tangs are known to nip coral polyps, so these types of fish should be avoided. 

Always check if any fish or other marine life are reef-safe. If you are ever unsure, always ask your local fish store (LFS) before adding them to your reef tank.  

If everyone seems to be living in harmony, next check the water conditions inside your aquarium. Leather corals have specific requirements for them to thrive in a reef tank. These include enough water flow, lighting, and maintaining stable water parameters. If your leather experiences drastic changes to any of these, it can close up. 

Did you dip your leather coral before adding it to your aquarium? Dipping your leather coral should prevent any pests from hitchhiking on your coral, but sometimes, these pests are masters at hiding, and therefore, they can still find their way into your aquarium. When these pests are present on your leather coral, it can make your coral feel very uncomfortable, causing them to retract their polyps in defense of the unwanted occupants. 

Pests are usually very small, and they are masters at hiding in coral polyps. To check if any pests are hiding on your leather coral, take a turkey baster and gently blow near the base of your leather coral. If anything kicks loose, remove the pests to prevent them from spreading to other corals. 


Leather corals are beautiful soft corals that are easy to care for in a well-maintained aquarium. Often these corals like to shed, which can often look like they are dying, causing concern amongst hobbyists, particularly newbie reefers. 

When leather corals shed, they will cover themselves in mucus and peel away their tissue, just like how a snake sheds its skin. However, if your leather coral is decaying, there is significant discoloration, or chunks/holes have appeared in your leather’s tissue, it may be dying. 

If you think your leather coral is dying, check the water conditions (lighting, flow, and water parameters), add carbon filtration, and take a close look at your coral’s polyps. If your leather coral is dying, then cut infected sections off, or remove it from the aquarium to prevent it from spreading to other corals in your aquarium. 

  • Roy Lee

    I have an unhealthy obsession with reef keeping and maintaining successful tanks. If you haven't noticed from the website, I love everything related to saltwater tanks like coral, fish, and everything else in between.

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