Lowes stands before a 125-gallon saltwater tank – his display aquarium – that holds a glorious array of coral, anemones, and colorful fish. One large anemone looks like a Victorian love seat with purple edging and lime-green interior. The intense colors of the corals are heightened by lighting and the nutrient levels, which stress the corals a bit and bring out the color.
“These are all Indo-Pacific corals – it’s illegal to take corals from American waters,” says Lowes. Corals come in an astonishing variety of sizes and shapes. Lowes does not collect his own coral – that requires a license – but all the coral farmers he knows trade with one another for different species to keep stock varied.
All the corals Lowes grows have a symbiotic relationship with a plant – a one-celled algae known as zooxanthellae – that lives inside their tissue. That’s how corals get their color. When light hits coral, the algae converts it into sugar via photosynthesis. The coral, in turn, eats this sugar. Competition among corals for access to light is played out in the tank.
Lowes points to the top of the display tank. “Look at how that green coral is right up against the pink coral,” said Lowes. “It will eventually grow over the pink one in an effort to grab all the light.”
Corals also eat other creatures such as zooplankton, shrimp, and fish – all of which are in Lowes’s tank. In fact, some creatures in the tank wouldn’t normally occur in nature. An unusual-looking black-and-white clownfish nuzzles the edge of the purple-and-green anemone. “I’m keeping my eye on that,” says Lowes. “That’s a captive-raised clownfish that has somehow been able to build up enough protection against the stings of that anemone that it’s able to hang out inside it now. In the wild, clownfish would never be in that anemone.”