News / Species Spotlight / Revisited - The Purple Frilly Gorgonian (11/01/11)

Revisited - The Purple Frilly Gorgonian

by: Kevin Gaines


  • Class: Anthozoa
  • Subclass: Octocorallia (Alcyonaria)
  • Order: Alcyonacea
  • Suborder: Holaxonia
  • Family: Gorgoniidae
  • Genus: Pseudopterogorgia
  • Species: elisabethae


The Purple Frilly gorgonian is a commonly collected species for the aquarium trade. With its beautifully dark purple branches and contrasting white polyps, it is a wonderful specimen for the modern reef aquarium.

The Purple Frilly, Pseudoterogorgia elisabethi, is a member of the Gorgoniidae family, commonly called Gorgonians. This group of octocorrallians are soft corals because they lack hard, rigid, permanent skeletons. This family includes animal colonies commonly called sea rods, sea whips, sea plumes and sea fans. All gorgonians consist of a central skeleton or axis. P. elisabethae is photosynthetic and contains a wood-like core that is surrounded by a gelatinous material called the rind. Polyps are embedded in the rind and extend their tentacles through surface openings called apertures. Both the shapes of the polyp apertures and the rims around them, called calyces, are often used in identifying the genus, and sometimes, species. Most gorgonians are attached to hard bottom by a holdfast and contain various branching patterns.

The appearance, when the polyps are extended, is a feather-like plume. The branches are more or less in a single plane and secondary branches or branchlets, are pinnate (feather shaped).

Natural Habitat

The Purple Frilly distribution ranges throughout the tropical Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean. Typically found in offshore reef environments, this species prefers coral reef overhangs and ledges, where is can absorb sunlight and catch both phytoplankton and zooplankton. Currents, both long shore and wave oscillations, are an essential habitat feature for most of the Atlantic/Caribbean species. Just like in the Indo-Pacific region, where large concentrations Alcyonacean soft corals occur, photosynthetic gorgonians are unique to the Atlantic/Caribbean. Average size of P. elisabethae in the field is anywhere from 10-20 inches in height and occur at depths from 15-40 feet or more. Interestingly, P. elisabethae has been studied for the past 20 years due to its chemical activity. Gorgonians contain numerous bioactive compounds, and P. elisabethae specifically contains pseudopterosins, seco-pseudopterosins and elisabethadione. These compounds have been shown to have strong anti-inflammatory and even cancer fighting properties! These chemicals are used for defense and reproduction. P. elisabethae is a gonochoric (separate sexes) brooder. The female releases eggs from the polyps to the surface of the colony where they brood while waiting for sperm to be carried from the males. This strategy allows for better fertilization and chemical defense is believed to be an important factor in high success rates.

Aquarium Suitability

The Purple Frilly is an ideal specimen for the aquarium. Almost all of the photosynthetic gorgonians in the aquarium trade come from the Florida Keys. Typical aquariums to house stony corals, especially of the SPS (small-polyp stony) coral variety make a perfect habitat for P. elisabethae. Strong water motion, together with good lighting is key requirements to keeping the purple frilly. Temperature range is 74°F- 82°F. When these attractive species are added, they give the aquarium a sense of mesmerizing movement. This species does not grow too large and can be kept in tanks ranging from 40 gallons and up. Supplemental feeding will increase the growth rate of P. elisabethae, but it not required. Once purchased, the specimen should be mounted using aquarium safe epoxy in an orientation extending out over the display or rock wall in strong and preferably irregular current. Gorgonians are the most over-looked and under-appreciated aquarium animals and hopefully this article will convince hobbyists to try this spectacular coral.