Yeah, if you have any choice, I would always recommend starting out with captive-bred-and-raised seahorses over wild-caught ponies even if the wild caught individuals will accept frozen Mysis. Cultured seahorses have many big advantages for the home hobbyists compared to wild-caught seahorses, as explained in more detail below, sir.
The development of hardy farm-raised seahorses that are pre-conditioned for the captive environment and pre-trained to eat frozen foods means that, for the first time, these fabulous fish are no more difficult to feed and maintain in the aquarium than the average angelfish, and are far easier to breed (Giwojna, May 2002). For the first time, modern aquaculture techniques, successful breeding and rearing protocols for Hippocampines, and effective grow-out technology and maturation methods have brought the Holy Grail of aquarium fish within easy reach of the average hobbyist. And that changes everything.
When we eager hobbyists finally got our hands on the first cultured seahorses it quickly became evident that they were superior to their wild conspecifics as aquarium specimens in every respect. Vastly superior! In every way. In terms of their hardiness, ease of maintenance, disease resistance, longevity, adaptability, suitability for the captive environment, willingness to breed in the aquarium, genetic diversity, vigor, friendliness and sociability, coloration, and especially their feeding habits, they put wild seahorses to shame. No contest. Generations of selective breeding have transformed cultured seahorses into far different animals — a whole new breed — than wild seahorses. Compared to their wild-caught cousins, the captive-bred-and-raised seahorses are far more fun, much easier to keep and more convenient to care for, and generally more attractive specimens as well.
In short, the advantages of farm-raised, captive-bred seahorses over wild-caught specimens are many, obvious, and compelling. For starters, let’s examine their different feeding habits. Before captive-bred specimens were available, one of the seahorse keeper’s greatest challenges was providing wild-caught seahorses with a balanced, nutritious diet, stemming from their reliance on hard-to-provide live foods. Meeting their long-term needs was a difficult, expensive proposition. It required numerous live food cultures, rigorous field trips to collect live foods, and special training sessions to try to teach them to eat frozen foods, which often proved to be a prolonged, highly frustrating exercise in futility.
Easy to-Feed Galloping Gourmets
By comparison, feeding farm-raised seahorses is simplicity itself. Raised in captivity, all captive-bred seahorses are pre-trained to eat frozen Mysis shrimp as their staple diet. Frozen Mysis relicta have an extremely high protein content, and when fortified with special enrichment products rich in highly unsaturated fatty acids, carotenoids, Vitamins C and A and essential minerals, it provides a highly nutritious diet that contains all of the crucial components necessary for the long-term health of the seahorse. The best of these enrichment products is a dry powder formulation developed for Ocean Rider specifically to provide a balanced diet for seahorses when used in conjunction with the protein-rich frozen mysis. A diet of enriched, frozen Mysis relicta thus ensures long-term survivability, high health, high mating frequency and beautiful, vibrant colors in our pampered pets.
In fact, this is such a superb diet that it is strongly suggested that the aquarist “fast” his seahorses one day per week, and feeding live foods is totally unnecessary except as an occasional treat that offers behavioral enrichment for our prized tank-raised thoroughbreds. Contrast a trip to your refrigerator twice a day to thaw frozen Mysis, and no feeding at all once a week, with the collecting expeditions, live food cultures, and painstaking training procedures required to sustain wild-caught seahorses and wean them onto frozen fodder, and you can see there is really no comparison (Giwojna, May 2002).
Breeding is another area where wild seahorses simply cannot compete with their captive-bred counterparts. In the olden days, greater seahorses removed from the wild rarely bred in captivity. There were a number of reasons for this ranging from traumatic capture techniques and mishandling by dealers to difficulty adjusting to a captive environment to the sort of feeding problems we’ve been discussing above. But one big factor was that in the aquarium they lacked the type of seasonal or cyclical environmental cues (falling water temperature, changes in day length, reduced salinity from monsoon rains, moon phases and high tides, etc.) they normally experience in the wild that regulate the breeding season. These environmental stimuli trigger the secretion of gonadotropin and other key hormones that prepare them for breeding and govern their reproductive activity. Without these environmental cues and the hormonally induced changes they trigger, many times they simply ceased to breed in captivity. Researchers dealt with such setbacks through wild procurement of gravid males. In other words, loaded or pregnant males removed from the wild provided the fry needed for rearing projects and laboratory study in those days. Those were truly the Dark Ages of seahorse keeping.
Captive-bred seahorses normally experience no such difficulties in the boudoir. They are highly domesticated and very well adapted to the aquarium environment. Unlike wild seahorses, they are not subject to traumatic capture methods or mishandling and abuse en route to the hobbyist. Born and bred for captivity generation after generation, for them the aquarium is their natural habitat. As a result, for the most part, they have lost their dependence on seasonal cues and external stimuli when it comes to mating. Rather than external environmental cues, for farm-raised seahorses, which have been raised at far greater population densities than seahorses ever experience in the wild, it is the presence of other seahorses — potential mates — that appears to get their hormones flowing and triggers courtship. (Pheromones or sex hormones almost certainly play a role in this.) In other words, living amidst a group of potential partners at all times seems to be what turns on captive-bred seahorses, and breeding appears to be their number one mission in life. Compared to their wild conspecifics, farm-raised seahorses seem to court constantly, breed like bunnies, and change partners often.
But to me, the most striking difference between cultured seahorses and wild specimens has always been the increased hardiness of the former. Captive-bred seahorses simply enjoy a huge advantage over their wild-caught brethren in terms of their health, disease resistance, and conditioning, and that naturally translates to greater longevity in the aquarium. To understand why they are so much hardier and healthier, we must examine how cultured seahorses and seahorses captured from the wild are handled before they reach the hobbyist. It is largely a matter of stress. In a nutshell, captive-bred-and-raised seahorses are not stressed by aquarium life and are not abused en route to the aquarist, and that makes all the difference in the world in terms of their fitness and lifespan in captivity.
From the beginning, cultured seahorses receive the highest standards of animal care and husbandry. They are provided with perfect water quality, the most nutritious diet experts can devise, and their health is monitored constantly right down to their DNA. For example, at the Ocean Rider aquaculture facility in Hawaii, the pampered ponies are provided with an endless flow of pristine, warm, oceanic water, the highest quality food possible, lots of frisky tank mates, and a tremendous amount of both horizontal and vertical space to cruise around in with nothing to do all day but eat, mate, and make baby seahorses under the tropical sun (Giwojna, Jul. 2002). We’re talking Club Med for seahorses here, folks! Inspectors from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the Controlling State Aquatic Veterinary industry, as well as independent examiners, supervise their health at every stage of their development (Giwojna, Jul. 2002).
When you place an order for these highly domesticated seahorses, they are delivered overnight directly to your door from Hawaii’s state-of-the art aquaculture facility, and thus reach the consumer well fed and in optimum condition. They arrive disease-free and relatively unstressed, at the peak of their health and coloration. This gives them a huge headstart over wild-caught seahorses, which are often beat up during capture (specimens taken in trawls, for example, often suffer considerable wear and tear during the collection process) and mishandled at various stops along the way to your local fish store (LFS). By the time they finally arrive at your local dealers, wild-caught seahorses may already have spent a long time in the collector’s holding tanks followed by an indefinite stay at a wholesaler and a high-risk respite at your local retailers, and have been exposed to all manner of pathogens and parasites at every stop along the way (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Due to their need for live foods, they are very likely to have gone unfed during this entire period, and they may have become malnourished by the time they reach your neighborhood fish store (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). And because they were taken from coastal waters, wild seahorses are frequently infested with a variety of pests and parasites ranging from sea lice (Argulus sp.) to nematodes, parasitic copepods and hydroids. Upon arrival, they will need to be quarantined for a period of several weeks, since they may also be carrying disease pathogens such as fungus, Vibrio, or deadly Glugea (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Captive-raised, high-health seahorses pose no such problems.
The greater adaptability of captive-bred and reared seahorses is another big plus. Cultured seahorses have now achieved a high level of domestication. They are pre-adapted to aquarium conditions and pre-trained to eat easily provided frozen foods. Because they are raised at much greater population densities than seahorses experience in nature, captive-bred specimens are accustomed to living in close quarters and withstand crowding much better than wild-caught ‘horses. Consequently, farm-raised seahorses have little difficulty adjusting to life in a captive environment. By contrast, field studies show that, in the wild, seahorses have a distribution pattern that can best be described as patchy, meaning they are few and far between, and that a female typically enjoys a home territory of up to 100 square meters (Vincent and Sadler, 1995). It stands to reason that wild-caught seahorses may have a more difficult time acclimating to life in captivity than farm-raised ponies that are literally born and bred for life in the aquarium. And that means that wild-caught seahorses will be under more stress in captivity, at least initially (Giwojna, May 2002).
The bottom line is that captive bred and raised seahorses are simply hardier, more disease resistant, easier to maintain and longer lived in captivity than their wild-caught counterparts. They reach the hobbyist well fed, in peak condition, and already accustomed to aquarium life and frozen foods (Giwojna, May 2002). On the other hand, wild-caught seahorses typically arrive at your local fish store in poor shape, suffering from near starvation and the trauma of capture (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Mishandling combined with malnutrition stresses these animals and impairs their immune systems, making them prone to disease (Bull and Mitchell, 2002; Lidster 2003). In fact, the aquarium industry refers to this phenomenon as Post-Traumatic Shipping Disorder, and considers it to be the biggest problem facing the hobby today (Lidster, 2003). It is responsible for alarmingly high losses in new arrivals, and seahorses are particularly susceptible to PTSD due to their nutritional requirements and specialized feeding habits (Lidster, 2003). Wild seahorses may have a difficult time adjusting to aquarium conditions, don’t tolerate crowding as well, and will most certainly have problems adjusting to frozen fodder or any other easily provided foods. They will need live foods for an indefinite period while they struggle to make the transition to strange foods and the captive environment, and will be stressed out in the interim (Giwojna, May 2002).
Indeed, the difference in disease resistance and hardiness is so pronounced between captive-bred and wild specimens that hobbyists often report that their tanks have suffered serious disease outbreaks during which all their wild-caught seahorses sickened or died, yet all of their captive-bred seahorses remained completely unaffected (Donna Malter, India Sandek, Leslie Leddo, et al; pers. com.).
In fact, all too often, seahorses are purchased from the local fish store (LFS) not because they’re the picture of health but rather because they appear to be at death’s door, and some kind-hearted hobbyist brings them home on a mercy mission, hoping that with plenty of TLC and plenty of tempting live foods, he can resurrect the half-starved ‘horses and give them a second chance at survival. I know because I am that sentimental slob. Being a soft-hearted seahorse lover myself, I’ve returned from local pet shops in rescue-mission mode many times over the years, rushing to get my latest reclamation project home to the Intensive Care Unit (my reef tank, which is specially set up just for seahorses) where they could benefit from the natural surroundings, optimum water quality, and all of their favorite live foods they could eat (Giwojna, May 2002).
Sadly, more often than not, my attempts to rehab these poor ponies were a dismal failure. It appears that at some stage these pitiful patients are simply too far-gone to save; once they reach the point of no return, irreversible damage has been done to their digestive system, and there’s no bringing them back. I call that tragic condition starvation syndrome, and after years of bitter experience, I’ve learned the hard way to tell at a glance which emaciated seahorses still have a chance and which ones will never make it. The terminal cases develop what I can perhaps best describe as the “far look,” a sort of vacant stare as if their eyes were focused far away on some distant object. They are unresponsive, with little or no eye movement. Whether you call it starvation syndrome or PTSD, the situation is so bad that industry statistics indicate that only 1 in 1000 seahorses collected from the wild for the pet trade lives longer than 3 months (Garrick-Maidment, Sep. 2002).
In short, Joe, wild-caught seahorses are no bargain, and I think you would be better off starting out with captive-bred-and-raised thoroughbreds from Ocean Rider rather than try your luck with wild-caught seahorses, especially if you are a beginner.
Pete Giwojna, Ocean Rider Tech Support