Asparagopsis - y'know, that red cotton candy algae stuff from hell...

Discussion in 'Other Reef Talk' started by Mr. Ugly, Feb 8, 2008.

  1. Mr. Ugly

    Mr. Ugly Past President

    Good article from:

    Asparagopsis taxiformis: A troublesome reef algae

    By Michael P. Janes

    In the past, the thought or mention of algae was something that conjured up concern, emotion, and even fear in some marine aquarium hobbyists. Today, most modern coverage on the topic of algae emphasizes the important role they play on a healthy coral reef and how they may do the same in your tank. A relationship exists on coral reefs between algal growth, nutrient processing, and grazing. Nuisance algae in aquaria can be the result of a change in the pathways by which nutrients are processed. These changes can be subtle and difficult to detect. By the time a problem occurs it can be too late for any kind of rapid correction. Another important component of algae control in aquaria is herbivore diversity. Typically excessive algae growth is the result of an insufficient variety of algae consuming animals and/or excessive nutrients.

    Even among reef keeping hobbyists who are well aware that over feeding and insufficient water changes can contribute to algae problems, and who diligently do maintenance and routine testing occasionally an algae can appear that defies conventional reasoning and solutions. Such is the case with the red hair algae, Asparagopsis taxiformis.

    The genus Asparagopsis contains two species A. taxiformis and A. armata. They belong to the red algae division Rhodophyta that has about four thousand described marine species. Examining the branches in sexual forms at medium magnification can separate the two species of this genus. As its name suggests the species A. armata has small spines on the branches. Asparagopsis taxiformis has smooth branches.

    Red algae have the most elaborate lifecycles of all the marine algae. Successive generations alternate between an asexual sporulation stage and a sexual stage composed of male and female plants. The physical appearance of these two stages is quite different making identification difficult at times. Early investigations into the species A. taxiformis initially lead to its asexual stage being classified as a different species! The characteristic red color in the Rhodophyta is the result of a water-soluble pigment called Phycoerythrin. This pigment not only reflects light but also absorbs and converts it to a narrow band which it reemits as a fluorescing red color. Phycoerythrin also assists in photosynthesis by making light usable at low intensities.

    Aquarium Observations

    Asparagopsis taxiformis is typically introduced into aquaria attached to the substrate of coral specimens. Cured or uncured live rock does not seem to harbor these algae, suggesting that it is not usually associated with fish only tanks but rather reef aquaria. It initially appears as small tuffs or balls growing to about one inch in diameter. They are soft to the touch and are comprised of thin, segmented threads that break apart easily. Once present, this insidious alga usually spreads quite rapidly. It is often epiphytic and will attach to almost any available surface including the fronds of macro-algae, sand, coralline covered rocks, and even corals where any skeletal portion is exposed. Fortunately this alga does not cause direct harm to corals resulting from any chemical secretions or allelopathy. It will, however, shade corals and also create a barrier that prevents coral tissue from being exposure to passive water flow. Both of these events ultimately produce ill effects on corals.

    Environmental conditions such as light and water chemistry would be the typical troubleshooting areas to investigate. Unfortunately, no direct link has been found to indicate lighting or a particular water parameter was to blame. Examination of parameters from a number of aquaria showed that Asparagopsis taxiformis can grow in low light refugia, brightly illuminated reef aquaria with metal halide and/or power compact lighting, and even dark sumps. Water chemistry of the systems tested revealed no abnormal parameter. Nutrients were low with orthophosphate levels reading 0 parts per million (ppm) and nitrate 0 to 10 ppm in various aquaria tested with low range test kits.

    Kalkwasser will often reduce the abundance of unsightly filamentous algae and may also assist in the control of these red algae over time. It is used as a means to encourage encrusting coralline algae to flourish and at the same time bind orthophosphate. Iodine tests on a number of systems revealed levels that were most often 0 or did not exceed 0.06 ppm, which is near natural seawater concentrations. Interestingly, Codmier et. al. (1979) working on Asparagopsis armata found that iodine levels of 0.6 ppm provided the most rapid growth in this algae species. Growth was inhibited when concentrations of iodine were increased above 1.8 ppm.

    Control of Asparagopsis

    The first line of defense is prevention. Carefully inspect the substrate of new corals and even live rock for signs of the red hair algae. Consider placing new specimens in a quarantine tank for the first one to two weeks. Not only will this quarantine period reveal the unwanted algae but it will also allow time for the coral to be monitored, feed, and given a period to adapt to captive conditions. Unfortunately for the reef aquarist the most common herbivores offered for sale do not rapidly consume this algae. A number of algae eating fish and invertebrates were rotated through a large tank with an outbreak of Asparagopsis taxiformis. These included the rabbitfishes Foxface (Lo vulpinus), and Gold-saddle (Siganus guttatus), Yellow Tangs (Acanthurus flavescens), Desjardini Tang (Zebrasoma desjardinii), the Lawnmower Blenny (Salaris fasiatus), and a number of invertebrates such as the Sally Lightfoot Crab (Percnon gibbesi), Emerald Crab (Mithraculus sculptus), Blue leg reef hermit (Clibanarius tricolor), Red leg reef hermit (Calcinus tibicen), a Sea hare (Elysia sp.), and a variety of snails from the Atlantic. None of these animals were observed to consume enough of the algae to overcome its prolific growth.

    Fortunately there are two ways to control a case of excessive red hair algae. The first is the least effective and that is manual control. In essence, the hobbyist becomes the “grazer” and physically removes the tuffs of algae from the aquarium. The best a hobbyist can hope for is a stalemate where the problem algae do not get much worse, but it remains an unsightly presence in the aquarium. Perhaps a more realistic solution is in finding a grazing organism that has a taste for Asparagopsis. Such is the case with the Pacific Turbo Snail, Turbo fluctuosus. It finds red algae very palatable and preferable to other green and brown micro-algae. This species should not be confused with another turbo snail sold in the hobby, Astrea tectum from the Caribbean. Ten Pacific Turbo Snails can typically be supported in a fifty-five gallon aquarium where micro and filamentous algae are present.

    Patience is a key component in controlling an outbreak of any algae. It is more important to maintain a more diverse assemblage of herbivores than to keep too many of one kind. Certainly there are bound to be other grazers out there that feed on Asparagopsis taxiformis and other red algae. But many are not regularly available in the trade. Thus far the Pacific Turbo Snail appears to be the best solution for marine aquarists.


    Algae will always be present in aquaria and their control is combination of minimizing excessive nutrients, maintaining water quality and having a diverse population of herbivores. Eventually a state of equilibrium will be reached which is unique to each tank where algae growth will be matched by algae consumption. By carefully inspecting new specimens and maintaining a variety of herbivores (particularly the Pacific Turbo Snail) Asparagopsiswill be just one more interesting life form to be observed and identified in the amazing microhabitats we keep rather than a pest.


    I would like to thank the kind assistance of Dr. Allan Miller, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, Australia, and Dr. D. Wilson Freshwater, Center for Marine Science, University of North Carolina, Wilmington for help in identification of the algae pressing. I also appreciate the project support offered by Scott Davidson, Sandy Shoup, Dr. Ronald Shimek, and AquaTouch, Inc., Phoenix, Arizona.
  2. GreshamH

    GreshamH Guest

    Mike thanks his own company at the very end :) He's the owner of AquaTouch in AZ. Top notch store!

    FWIW our Fuzzy Phytes are not this algae and won't ake over a tank like it :)
  3. Mr. Ugly

    Mr. Ugly Past President

    Funny on the acknowledgements :D

    Fuzzy Phytes - Acrochaetium

    Hmm... if Asparagopsis and Acrochaetium had a fight(phyte :D ), who would win?

    Ok, seriously... any chance that Fuzzy Phytes could outcompete Hell's Cotton Candy for nutrients?

    Gresh, how about a Fuzzy Phyte fuge? Do some tests for us, man!
  4. Mr. Ugly

    Mr. Ugly Past President

    Fluidized Fuzzy Phyte Bio Reactor... might be interesting.

    Yah, I have the day off from work today, so there's all kinds of weird ideas in my brain.... unlike other times when there's all kinds of weird ideas in my brain :D

    Must label frag containers....
  5. Ibn

    Ibn Supporting Member

    Got some of this stuff from someone and it started growing in my sump. Got pretty bad and started covering some of the frags in there, but it eventually went white instead of the pinkish red color that it typically takes.

    Any one know what caused it? It didn't die off, just turned white and continued spreading, although at a much slower pace. I've manually removed the majority of it and haven't seen it crop up again.
  6. sfsuphysics

    sfsuphysics Supporting Member

    HA! Now people understand this algae I speak of! :D Worse than acro eating flatworms IMO!

    Anyways, pacific turbo snails... now if we can just get stores to properly label their snails I'd be fine!
    I'll be sure to mark this on frags I make for the swap as well.. very pesty!
  7. LeviT

    LeviT Guest

    [quote author=sfsuphysics link=topic=2983.msg32045#msg32045 date=1202498783]
    HA! Now people understand this algae I speak of! :D Worse than acro eating flatworms IMO!

    Anyways, pacific turbo snails... now if we can just get stores to properly label their snails I'd be fine!
    I'll be sure to mark this on frags I make for the swap as well.. very pesty!

    Have you been able to find any of the right snails?
  8. sfsuphysics

    sfsuphysics Supporting Member

    Well I thought I had one or two, but I don't think they were the pacific ones
  9. Ibn

    Ibn Supporting Member

    Check with Chris over at AC. Ian bought some as Mexican turbos and they went to town on his infestation in his frag tank.
  10. sfsuphysics

    sfsuphysics Supporting Member

    I'll see if I can't run over there today then, also need to stop by smart & final for some frag er I mean deli containers! :D
  11. GreshamH

    GreshamH Guest

    Pac turbos are Baja turbos :) I've never seen some one miss label them puppies :)

    Norm, beat you to that thought 9 months ago and built it :) Our scientist is using it to store a back up culture of Fuzzies :lol:
  12. Mr. Ugly

    Mr. Ugly Past President

    Mexican/Pacific, same difference.

    Mike, I've been telling you for months to get those snails :D

    Saw a thread on the RC chem forum about growing white "algae" after vodka dosing. Maybe super low nutrients does them in.

    I was just talking to someone yesterday that had been dosing vodka for a several weeks. The acros went all pastel like in some zeo tanks, and the zoas were waay unhappy. Color did come back after stopping the vodka.
  13. Mr. Ugly

    Mr. Ugly Past President

    [quote author=GreshamH link=topic=2983.msg32056#msg32056 date=1202504728]Norm, beat you to that thought 9 months ago and built it :) Our scientist is using it to store a back up culture of Fuzzies :lol:

    Wow, cool :D

    So what do you think about using a fuzzy bio reactor for nutrient export?

    If workable, it's another market for your fuzzies.

    Wonder if a Phosban reactor would be too small...
  14. LeviT

    LeviT Guest

    That's odd, I get all pastely after drinking vodka too???? ;D
  15. Mr. Ugly

    Mr. Ugly Past President

    Someone should start a DBTC for "Hell's Cotton Candy" :D

    Or post it for sale on RC :D
  16. Mr. Ugly

    Mr. Ugly Past President

    [quote author=LeviTillie link=topic=2983.msg32061#msg32061 date=1202505073]
    That's odd, I get all pastely after drinking vodka too???? ;D

    I turn red, so it all evens out :D
  17. GreshamH

    GreshamH Guest

    I get red after drinking as well Norm. The white bit is only after a long night of drinking :LOL:
  18. Mr. Ugly

    Mr. Ugly Past President

    Haha... I'm probably green and nauseous by then :D
  19. Ibn

    Ibn Supporting Member

    :haha: Might be low nutrients or something then. I stopped feeding the tank and let it run real lean while doing water changes. Skimmer production went way down and the colors on the corals were getting lighter.
  20. Mr. Ugly

    Mr. Ugly Past President

    Sounds about right then, Eric.

    Eeesh, so we have to kill our corals to kill that algae...

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