Red Gorgonian

Sea Fan, Sea Spray, Sea Whip

Red Gorgonian Leptogorgia chilensis (Lophogorgia chilensis)Leptogorgia chilensisPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy David Brough

The tall and elegant Red Gorgonian is a coral that can grow from the bottom to the top of your tank!

The Red Gorgonian Leptogorgia chilensis (syn: Lophogorgia chilensis) is a beauty. As its name suggests, it has red to orange branches that are flowered with white or yellow polyps. The branches usually point upward, though the direction of the water flow can create a different form. It is can also reach up to 13.8" (35 cm) in height, and can expand to a width of 11.8" (30 cm).

The Red Gorgonian may be confused with the Finger Sea Fan Diodogorgia nodulifera, but only because the red color form of the D. nodulifera is sometimes called a Red Finger Gorgonian. However, the D. nodulifera is a small, sparsely branched gorgonian that always forms a random "Y" shaped branch pattern. The Leptogorgia genus is very attractive with several shape formations, depending on the water movement. They can have a dichotomous structure, which is a random “Y” shaped branch pattern, or a pinnate (feathery) branch structure. Common names this group of gorgonians are known by are Sea Fan, Sea Spray, and Sea Whip.

The colorful Leptogorgia gorgonians are often found in red, or at times yellow and orange, and all have light yellow to white polyps or other light colors. The Red Gorgonian L. chilensis is just one member of this beautiful group. Its cousin, the Carmine Sea Spray L. miniata, is a red or yellow gorgonian with white flowers. Its branches are relatively straight but facing various directions, giving it an almost thicket bush-like look. The Violet Sea Whip L. virgulata is yet another attractive member, with violet red branches that basically point upward.

The Red Gorgonian and other members of the Leptogorgia genus can be moderate to difficult to care for. They are best kept by experienced aquarists who have had success with other gorgonians. These corals are aposymbiotic, meaning they do not carry the marine algae zooxanthellae, so they must be fed with zooplankton and other similar sized foods. The Leptogorgia species must be diligently fed on a regular schedule for continued health, because once 10% of their polyps have stopped feeding, death is imminent.

To keep them healthy the Leptogorgia specimens need good water movement, low light, and placed in a dim area in the tank. They are easily over grown by algae, especially if there is not adequate water flow. They cannot shed off their tissue like other gorgonians do to rid themselves of this nuisance. Obtaining a Leptogorgia with its roots attached to a piece of hard surface is your best bet for a specimen that can thrive. The yellow ones are the exception in that they do need light, and it has also been noted that they have done better in captivity than red ones. The Red Gorgonian is one of the more difficult species to care for.

To learn more about these fascinating Octocorals see:
What Are Gorgonians? Types of Gorgonians, Sea Fans and Sea Whips

Red Gorgonian, Red Sea Fan, Leptogorgia chilensis

Report Broken Video
Video of wild colonies of Leptogorgia chilensis

This video shows an amazing grouping of Red Gorgonians in the wild. The polyps need to be fed so often that the water quality of the tank will suffer. Once they loose 10% of their polyps, death is imminent. These are best left in the ocean, since they are quickly overgrown by algae even in the best aquariums.

Red Gorgonian - Quick Aquarium Care
  • Minimum Tank Size: 50 gal (189 L)
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Expert
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Temperature: 68.0 to 75.0° F (20.0 to 23.9° C)
  • Size of organism - inches: 13.8 inches (35.03 cm)
  • Diet Type: Carnivore
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Red Gorgonian Leptogorgia chilensis was described by Verrill in 1868. The accepted genus name for this species is Leptogorgia, but some resources may reference it by the synonym Lophogorgia chilensis as well.

About the Leptogorgia Genus:

The Leptogorgia genus was described by Milne, Edwards, and Haime in 1857. These are soft corals in the Class Anthozoa, Subclass Octocorallia, Order Alcyonacea, and Suborder Holaxonia (much sturdier species than Scleraxonia). The Leptogorgia genus is further placed in the Gorgoniidae family. The Leptogorgia genus is not on the IUCN Red List for Endangered Species, and some have been grown in captivity under ideal circumstances.

A few of the more common species are L. californica, L. cardinalis, L. caryi, L. chilensis, L miniata, L. virgulata, and L. hebes. Though once thought to be a different species, L. caryi is considered to be the same as L. chilensis. Some common names these corals are known for are Sea Fan, Sea Spray, and Sea Whip, with some individual species being called Red Gorgonian L. chilensis, Carmine Sea Spray L miniata, Violet Sea Whip L. virgulata, and Regal Sea Fan L. hebes.

There has been some debate about this genus and Lophogorgia genus. According to Eric Borneman in his book "Aquarium Corals : Selection, Husbandry, and Natural History" (2001), experts Bayer (1981) and Cairns (1992) claim these are two are separate genera, however, both Humann (1993) and Grasshoff (1992) claim that the Lophogorgia genus has been absorbed into the Leptogorgia genus. Today the scientific community seems to have moved toward the latter. The WORMS World Register of Marine Species currently shows 107 accepted taxonomical species in the Leptogorgia genus and only one in the Lophogorgia genus.

The classification of gorgonians in general is done by some simple visual clues such as colony size, shape, axis structure, color, polyp placement, and pattern of branches. Getting a little more technical, they also look to see if the polyp is autozooid or siphonozooid. Then there is the more exacting use of chemotaxonomy, used to show the different terpenoids or other chemicals produced by each gorgonian species. The Leptogorgia corals actually secrete a substance that inhibits diatom growth, called homarine.

The Leptogorgia genus are found on reefs of the tropical Atlantic, Indian Ocean, western Pacific, and the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. They inhabit coastal areas with moderate water flow and also are found in areas where the light is dim.

About the Red Gorgonian:

The Red Gorgonian is found in the in subtropical waters of California, United States of North America, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and down to the Channel Islands and south of Valparaiso, Chile of South America.

Red Gorgonians live in the subtropical waters of coastal areas. They are a colonial species of soft coral that inhabits areas with rocky bottoms at depths between 50 to 200 feet (15-61 m). They occur where there is a moderate water flow and are often found in areas with dim lighting. Red Gorgonians feed on small planktonic animals that rush up from deeper waters carried by currents. The nutrient rich waters support a dense population of these planktonic animals.

  • Scientific Name: Leptogorgia chilensis
  • IUCN Red List: NE - Not Evaluated or not listed


The Red Gorgonian and the other members of its genus belong in the Suborder Holaxonia. These corals have a rigid structure of branches that consist of a protein substance called gorgonin, thus the name gorgonian. The Gorgoniidae family has its coral structure covered by a rind, or tissue layer. Coming out of this tissue are the polyps, which can retract all the way into this rind, leaving oblong openings.

The Leptogorgia genus have irregular long branches that are thin and flexible. Starting with the skeleton or base, there is a central "chord" that is the main branch that runs up the middle. From the cord the rest of the coral grows into a rigid structure of branches. They have a pinnate or feathery branch structure, or a dichotomous structure which is a random “Y” shaped branch pattern.

What sets the Leptogorgia genus apart other members of the Gorgoniidae family is that they cannot shed off their rind, or tissue layer. Thus they are easily over grown by algae, especially if there is not adequate water flow, and can't rid themselves of the nuisance in that manner. They are also aposymbiotic, meaning they do not carry the marine algae zooxanthellae, so they must be fed regularly.

Leptogorgia corals can come in white, orange, yellow and red, but red is the most common color. The polyps can be yellow, white or other light colors. The orange variety may be a little hardier in captivity. They can be 18” tall (45 cm) and their life span is unknown.

The Red Gorgonian is a light orange to red and its polyps are white or yellow. The colony has irregular and pinnate branches. The branches have pointed ends and usually extend upward, though that can be affected by water flow direction. It can reach up to 13.8" (35 cm) in height, and can expand to a width of 11.8" (30 cm). Colonies appear long, limp and straight yet bushy, with long, thin yet flexible branches.

The Leptogorgia genus are found on reefs of the tropical Atlantic, Indian Ocean, western Pacific, and the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. Some of the more commonly known species from this genus are:

  • L. miniata (Milne Edwards & Haime, 1857)
    Carmine Sea Spray is found in the Caribbean in deeper waters with a turbulent flow and stays at 6" (15 cm) or less in height. It is usually red, though some specimens are yellow, and has white polyps. It has a bush-like branch orientation, giving it an almost thicket-like look. However, the branches are not crowded, typical of the genus, but they are relatively straight and facing various directions. It does well in water that is 70 to 80°F (21 to 28°C). The yellow varieties need moderate lighting.
  • L. virgulata (Lamarck,1815)
    Violet Sea Whip, Purple Sea Whip, or Colorful Sea Whip is found in the subtropical Western Atlantic from Canada, Chesapeake Bay to Georgia, USA, and from the west coast of Florida to Brazil. It occurs in shallow waters and can tolerate low salinity found in tidal creeks and bays.
    It is often violet red, but can be all yellow, orange, purple, white or many shades in between. It has many rows of calyces housing white or translucent polyps. Branches are 2 to 5 mm in diameter and basically point upward. Colonies can be whip-like and can reach 3 feet (1 meter) in height. However, in some areas they only reach 18" (45 cm) and are more "bush" like.
  • L. hebes (Verill, 1869)
    Regal Sea Fan is found North Carolina to Brazil and west coast of Florida in subtropical waters. It has orange or red colonies with translucent white polyps.
  • L. californica (Verrill, 1868)
    This species is found in Baja California and Mexico in subtropical waters. It is reddish ochre with irregular and pinnate branches, flat polyp mounts. Branches are 2 mm in diameter and polyps are found in 3 row around the branches and retract into flat slit like openings. Color is reddish purple with yellow grooves in some areas of the branches. Specimens have been found that are 5.9" (15 cm) high and 3.9" (10 cm wide).
  • L. cardinalis (Bayer, 1961)
    This species is found in the Gulf of Mexico and Northern Florida to Cuba. It inhabits subtropical waters at depths between 62 to 253 feet (19 to 77 m). Branches are pinnate and in one plane and the 1.5 mm branches are either straight or slightly curved. Calyces are prominent and rounded. The colonies are a bright red or orange.

Another notable species is the King Sea Fan (possibly Lophogorgia sp.) originating from the Caribbean and Colombia. It is similar to the Red Gorgonian but more bushy in appearance as its branches are of differing heights. Besides red, it can also be orange or purple, and has polyps that are usually white or transparent.

  • Size of organism - inches: 13.8 inches (35.03 cm)
  • Lifespan: - Unknown

Difficulty of Care

Red Gorgonians are very difficult members of the Leptogorgia genus to care for and are not known to last very long in captivity. Due to their aquarium requirements and heavy dietary needs, they are best kept by advanced to expert aquarists. These beauties live in cooler waters that are only 68 to 75°F (20 to 24°C), so the need for a chiller in warmer climates may be required. In contrast, the Carmine Sea Spray L. miniata is tolerant of higher temperatures, making it a little easier to care for.

The need for daily feeding may necessitate a set up of a continuous planktonic drip which can be costly and tends to foul the water. If they loose any more than 10% of their polyps, however, they will start to starve. The addition of these high nutrients, though easily handled in the ocean, will quickly cause growths of micro algae or cyanobacteria in captivity. These can quickly cover and smother the gorgonian, causing it to succumb because it cannot shed its rind like others gorgonians in their family. Lightly “brushing” the rind will often help, but the best defense is very strong water flow and very low light. Anchor gorgonians firmly into the substrate to prevent them from whipping around the tank.

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult to Impossible - Red Gorgonian is not known to last very long in captivity. L. miniata may be a better choice.
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Expert

Foods and Feeding

In the wild, Red Gorgonians capture planktonic organisms and microscopic food particles from the water column that well up within nutrient rich waters in the ocean. They do not contain the marine algae, zooxanthellae, so the need to take in “mass quantities of food” from these strong water currents is very important to their survival.

Red Gorgonians do not need light since they have no zooxanthellae to make use of it. Because of this, in captivity they need to be fed planktonic type animals/food daily to survive. Provide feedings of Marine Snow, PhytoPlan, and other micro-plankton foods including, live baby brine shrimp, frozen thawed foods broken up into very small pieces, like copepods and other foods eaten by filter feeding corals.

Red Gorgonians need several feedings a day. A continuous drip of live planktonic animals is expensive, yet can vital to their captive survival.

  • Diet Type: Carnivore - Nutrition is obtained by capturing food particles from the water column and absorbing dissolved organic matter.
  • Flake Food: No
  • Tablet / Pellet: No
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Most of Diet - Live planktonic prey.
  • Liquid Foods: Most of Diet - Marine snow or other phytoplankton substitutes.
  • Meaty Food: Most of Diet - Zooplankton they capture from the water column.
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day - Continuous plankton drip recommended.

Aquarium Care

Stable tank conditions are needed to keep Red Gorgonians and other members of the Leptogorgia genus. Water changes of 15% biweekly or 30% a month is needed, although it is suggested that doing 10% water changes once a week will replenish many of the needed additives and help keep water conditions high.

With higher concentrations of coral with calcareous skeletons, there may be a need put in additional additives to maintain proper levels for good growth. Iodine, calcium, strontium, and other trace elements can be added. Phosphates should be maintained as close to zero as possible.

  • Water Changes: Weekly - 10% weekly to keep water clean.
  • Calcium Levels: 400.0 - 450.0 ppm - If using Seachem's calcium, 385 should suffice.
  • Alkalinity Levels: 8.0 - 11.0 dKH - 10 dKH is best.
  • Magnesium Levels: 1,200.0 - 1,350.0 ppm - Magnesium makes calcium available, so if your calcium is low, check your magnesium levels before adding more calcium.
  • Strontium Levels: 8.0 - 10.0 ppm
  • Iodine Levels: - Dose per recommendation on label.

Aquarium Setup

The Red Gorgonian can reach up to 13.8" (35 cm) tall with a width of 11.8" (30 cm). A typical live rock/reef environment in a tank that is at least 50 gallons and 14" deep is needed to provide room for growth. Other species may need a taller or not as tall tank. A mature tank (well over a year old) is advised to increase the life span of Leptogorgia corals.

Quick Reference Chart
Lighting: Prefers Low Lighting Levels Prefers Medium Lighting Levels Prefers High Lighting Levels
Water Flow: Prefers Low Water Flow Levels Prefers Medium Water Flow Levels Prefers High Water Flow Levels
Temperament: Peaceful Temperament Semi-Aggressive Temperament Aggressive Temperament

Any substrate is acceptable but they must have proper lighting and water movement, and they must be anchored down. A dimly lit environment is needed along with rock work providing overhangs to place them under. Some of the Leptogorgia species require more light, however, generally those that are yellow or orange in color. These Octocorals are very peaceful but can be overgrown by other gorgonians, so adequate space should be provided between the different species.

A moderate and turbulent water flow is needed for the Red Gorgonian to do well. It also needs cooler aquarium temperatures of 68 to 75°F, so a chiller in warmer climates may be required. The Carmine Sea Spray L. miniata can tolerate the normal reef temperatures of most marine tanks and so it may be easier to keep.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 50 gal (189 L) - A minimum 50 gallon tank or larger that's at least 14" tall.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Live Rock Requirement: Typical Amount - Provide over hangs to hide them from light.
  • Substrate Type: Any
  • Lighting Needs: Low - subdued lighting - Dim lighting is needed unless stated otherwise in the description of a specific species.
  • Temperature: 68.0 to 75.0° F (20.0 to 23.9° C) - The Carmine Sea Spray L. miniata tolerates 70 to 80°F.
  • Specific gravity: 1.023-1.025 SG
  • Water Movement: Moderate - They need a moderate and turbulent water flow.
  • Water Region: Bottom

Social Behaviors

The Red Gorgonian and other Leptogorgia corals are very peaceful and pose no threat to any other corals or gorgonians. This gorgonian should be kept with other "no/low light" corals that need constant feeding. They get along with their own genus, but other gorgonians can over take the Leptogorgia corals so they will need to be kept at a distance.

Butterflyfish feed on gorgonian polyps or tissue. Butterfly fish will constantly chow, so they are not the best idea for a tank mate. Some angelfish will also pick at the polyps, but can be housed with them if the angelfish is well fed.

The Leptogorgia genus is preyed on by White Frilly Sea Slugs in the Urticina and Tritoniopsis genus. Avoid the Flamingo Tongue Snails Cyphoma spp. which are readily available for purchase. They are often sold as a "pretty" snail, but these pretty snails may eat your gorgonian. Also avoid snails from the Murex genus as they may also attack this gorgonian.

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Peaceful - Easily taken over by encrusting corals and easily stung.
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species - conspecifics: Yes
    • Anemones: Threat - They will not survive in the low light and temperatures that subtropical gorgonians need.
    • Mushroom Anemones - Corallimorphs: Threat - They will not survive in the low light and temperatures that subtropical gorgonians need.
    • Leather Corals: Threat - They will not survive in the low light and temperatures that subtropical gorgonians need.
    • Zoanthids - Button Polyps, Sea Mats: Monitor - Most will not survive in the low light and temperatures that subtropical gorgonians need.
    • Sponges, Tunicates: Safe
    • Starfish: Safe - Only subtropical, reef safe starfish.
    • Feather Dusters, Bristle Worms, Flatworms: Safe - Only subtropical and reef safe species.
    • Clams, Scallops, Oysters: Monitor - Only subtropical scallops and oysters, and some clams that do not need light.
    • Crabs: Threat
    • Snails: Safe - Only subtropical snails.
    • Sea Apples, Cucumbers: Threat
    • Urchins, Sand Dollars: Safe - Only subtropical and reef safe species.
    • Nudibranch, Sea Slugs: Safe - Only subtropical and reef safe species.
    • Copepods, Amphipods, Mini Brittle Stars: Safe - Only subtropical and reef safe species.
    • Stony Corals: Threat - is aggressive - They will sting the gorgonian and will not survive the cold waters and lack of light
    • Soft Corals: Threat - is aggressive - They will sting the gorgonian and will not survive the cold waters and lack of light

Sex: Sexual differences

These corals are male and female, but no sexual difference in appearance is known.

Breeding / Reproduction

Some Leptogorgia corals have been propagated in captivity under ideal circumstances. These corals can reproduce reproduce by breakage or fragmentation, and they may also spawn like other gorgonians for sexual reproduction. When ready to spawn the Red Gorgonian will release mature gametes into their digestive system, which is then released up and out through the mouth. After this spawning method, the zygote will develop into planktonic larvae or free floating in open waters. They will form tentacles, septa and a pharynx right before they settle into the reef with the mouth pointing upward.

Although this coral is not typically propagated due to its short life span in captivity, others in its genus may survive longer. Propagation of gorgonians consists of using severing or clean cuts. Tearing the coral will result in infection. Be cautious with the use of glues epoxy or cements, as many gorgonians react badly to the chemicals. Containment is recommended if the frag survives. This involves keeping the frag in one spot, say a small piece of upright pvc about the same height as the frag, with sand or rubble at the bottom. This will keep the frag from blowing over before it can take root. It is suggested to drill holes in the pvc to keep the water flowing.

  • Ease of Breeding: Difficult

Ailments / Diseases

The Red Gorgonian, as well as the entire Leptogorgia genus, is very susceptible to being smothered by micro algae even in dimly lit tanks, as well as cyanobacteria. If they are exposed to light, which will not harm or help them, they can also get red band and black band infections that are also caused by cyanobacteria. Keeping water flow very strong and gently regularly “brushing” their rind will help prevent this. If your gorgonian does get this, you can at times cut off the bad part and hope the rest will recover. Freshwater dips can also kill cyanobacteria, and are an effective treatment.

  • Black Band Disease (BBD)
    This ailment is characterized by a leading band of black gooey material (mostly algae), which leaves a denuded skeleton behind. The bare skeleton then becomes covered with many species of algae. You can use a needle to lift the black band from the coral skeleton. With a small diameter airline tubing, siphon the black front away, catching any loosened debris as well. If it is not possible to remove all of the black band, you may be able to treat the area directly by applying a small amount of Erythromycin or Chloramphenicol.
  • Red Band Disease (RBD)
    As the name "red band" indicates, this ailment is characterized by a brick red or dark brown band. The band is a soft microbial mat which will easily dislodge from the surface of the coral.

The second highest mortality for the Leptogorgia genus is starvation. They may have open polyps but can slowly starve over several months. Leptogorgia species may also be a food source for Flamingo Tongue Snails Cyphoma spp., snails from the the Murex genus, and Frilly Sea Slugs of the Tritonia and Tritoniopsis genera. These pests feed on many Caribbean gorgonians, including photosynthetic gorgonians.


The Red Gorgonian, as well as other species of the Leptogorgia genus, are not readily available at pet shops or on line. Certain species have been grown in captivity under ideal circumstances and some reef clubs may have a specimen. One of the more often seen is the Purple Sea Whip Leptogorgia virgula. This species has been available as an approximately 1" size frag, and moderately inexpensive.


Author: Clarice Brough CRS, Carrie McBirney