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Gas Bubble Disease (GBD) is an environmental disease and it is therefore almost exclusively a problem that seahorses experience in small, closed-system aquariums rather than in the vastness of the ocean. In my experience, the three environmental triggers that cause most problems with GBD are gas supersaturation of the aquarium water, insufficient water depth, and low pH (and other factors that can alter the blood chemistry of the seahorses), and if you think about it, it will quickly become apparent that none of these environmental triggers are likely to occur in the ocean. For example, seahorses are typically found at depths where the hydrostatic pressure is sufficient to prevent GBD, and the ocean is such an incredibly fast body of water that it is normally very stable in terms of its water chemistry (pH, ammonia, nitrite, carbonate hardness, etc.). Likewise, gas supersaturation of such enormous volumes of water is unlikely to ever occur under normal circumstances, so that seahorses in the wild simply do not encounter the type of environmental conditions that tend to trigger problems with GBD.
Here is some more information regarding gas bubble disease (or gas bubble syndrome, as I like to call it since it is not the result of a pathogen or disease process per se) which will explain more about the causes of this condition and how the home aquarist can help prevent problems with gas bubble syndrome:
Gas bubble syndrome (GBS) is a mysterious, widely misunderstood affliction that can take on many different incarnations. As you know, gas bubble syndrome is believed to be caused by gas emboli forming within the tissue of heavily vascularized portions of the seahorse’s anatomy — the placenta-like brood pouch of males, the eye, the muscular prehensile tail — and it can take several different forms depending on where the bubbles or emboli occur. When it occurs in the brood pouch of the male, chronic pouch emphysema or bloated pouch results, leading to positive buoyancy, which is by far the most common form of GBS. When it occurs in the capillary network behind the eye (choroid rete), Exopthalmus or Popeye results, and the eye(s) can become enormously swollen. When it affects the capillary network of the gas bladder (the rete mirabile), hyperinflation of the swimbladder occurs, resulting in positive buoyancy. When it affects the tail or snout, external gas bubbles (i.e., subcutaneous emphysema) form just beneath the skin and look like raised blisters. When intravascular emboli occur deep within the tissue and occlude blood flow, generalized edema results in the affected area. Or extravascular emboli may cause gas to build up within the coelom, often resulting in positive buoyancy and swelling or bloating of the abdominal cavity (internal GBS).
Different parts of the body can thus be affected depending on how the
initial gas emboli or micronuclei form, grow and spread. During an
episode of GBS, bubbles may initially form in the blood
(intravascular) or outside the blood (extravascular). Either way,
once formed, a number of different critical insults are possible.
Intravascular bubbles may stop in closed circulatory vessels and
induce ischemia, blood sludging, edema, chemistry degradations, or
mechanical nerve deformation. Circulating gas emboli may occlude the
arterial flow or leave the circulation to lodge in tissue sites as
extravasular bubbles. Extravascular bubbles may remain locally in
tissue sites, assimilating gas by diffusion from adjacent
supersaturated tissue and growing until a nerve ending is deformed or
circulation in nearby capillaries and vessels is restricted. Or,
extravascular bubbles might enter the arterial or venous flows, at
which point they become intravascular bubbles. Extravascular bubbles
can thus become intravascular bubbles, and vice versa, via diffusion
and perfusion. This is important because it means that under certain
conditions extravascular seed bubbles or micronuclei can enter the
bloodstream and migrate from their birth site to other critical areas
as intravascular bubbles. If untreated, the gas bubbles worsen and
the condition is fatal.
The mechanisms by which the gas emboli can spread and grow, and the type of insults that can result are therefore fairly well known, but the etiology of GBS is otherwise still poorly understood, and there are many theories as to what causes the gas embolisms to form in the first place. Nitrogen gas supersaturation of the water, the unique physiology of the male’s brood pouch, malfunctions of the pseudobranch or the gas gland of the swim bladder, stress-related changes in blood chemistry that affect the oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin, infection with gas-producing bacteria — all these and more have been advanced as mechanisms that could trigger the formation of the gas embolisms at some point. Very likely GBS has multiple causes, but most experts now believe it is due to physical conditions in the seahorse tank rather than any sort of pathogen, and I would be happy to share my thoughts on the matter with you, for whatever it’s worth.
For starters, let me stress that if it’s very unlikely that any sort of disease organisms or pathogen causes GBD. It is not at all contagious and does not appear to spread from seahorse to seahorse. To my knowledge, no one has ever been able to isolate a pathogen from the marsupium of the male with pouch emphysema or from the subcutaneous emphysema that characterize seahorses with tail bubbles. If bacteria play a role in GBD, I am confident it is only as a secondary infection.
In other words, gas bubble syndrome is not a disease that seahorses contract after being exposed to a pathogen of some sort, but they will often develop the condition when kept in a system that exposes them to gas supersaturation, insufficient water depth, stress, inadequate water circulation, a bacteria-laden substrate or other environmental factors conducive to the formation of gas emboli. In other words, it is an environmental disease, triggered by certain conditions within the aquarium itself. In my experience, the environmental triggers that are most often associated with GBS are as follows:
1) Insufficient depth (aquaria that are less than 20 inches deep are very susceptible to GBS, and the taller the aquarium is, the more resistant it will be to GBS).
2) Gas supersaturation of the aquarium water, which can lead directly to the formation of gas emboli within the blood and tissues of seahorses.
3) Changes in the seahorse’s blood chemistry (i.e., acidosis). Anything that tends to acidify the blood of the seahorses can result in GBS, including stress, low levels of dissolved oxygen and/or high levels of CO2, and low pH in the aquarium water, among other factors.
Lowering the specific gravity and water temperature are good ways to minimize future problems with GBS due to gas supersaturation of the aquarium, but there are a number of other things to keep in mind in that regard as well.
For example, tall aquariums minimize problems with GBS because the deeper the water and the greater the hydrostatic pressure, the more dissolved gases the water (and the seahorse’s blood) can hold in solution. By the same token, the shallower the aquarium and the less water pressure there is, the less dissolved gases the water can hold and the more likely gas is to come out of solution and form gas emboli (i.e., seed bubbles) in the blood and tissues.
The point is that the greater hydrostatic pressure at increased depth is known to protect seahorses against GBS, whereas the reduced hydrostatic pressure in shallow aquaria is known to be conducive to gas bubble syndrome. I have found that GBS is a very common problem for seahorses in home aquariums that are less than 24-inches tall, whereas there is considerable evidence that tanks 3 feet deep or more provide a measure of protection against GBS. This is because the gas emboli that cause GBS form more readily at reduced hydrostatic pressure, and will go back into solution again if the hydrostatic pressure is increased sufficiently, and obviously the deeper the aquarium the greater the hydrostatic pressure at the bottom of the tank. (In fact, seahorses with GBS can often be cured by submerging them at depths great enough to recompress them (> 10 feet) and cause the gas to go back into solution.)
Here is some information that reviews the most common aquarium stressors, among other causes of GBS, and discusses some simple methods for minimizing problems with GBS.
Preventing Gas Bubble Syndrome
Since GBS is caused by physical factors in the seahorse setup, when the affliction crops up, it’s a red flag that indicates that there’s something amiss with the conditions in your tank. With that in mind, I would like to quickly review some of the preventative measures aquarists can take to minimize problems with Gas Bubble Syndrome:
(1) Aquarium options (Giwojna, Jan. 2004):
Taller is better. When shopping for a seahorse setup, opt for the tall or high model of the largest aquarium you can reasonable afford and maintain. If the tank is too short, male seahorses may not be able to get enough pumping action in as they ascend and descend during courtship displays and mating (the copulatory rise) to flush out their pouches and cleanse them properly (Cozzi-Schmarr, 2003). This can contribute to bloated pouch, a type of pouch emphysema.
As a rule, your seahorses require a minimum of three times their height (total length) in vertical swimming space in order to mate comfortably and help avoid this sort of pouch gas problem.
Other forms of GBS are also believed to be depth related, but the aquarium must be greater than 30 inches deep to provide any significant protection against them, which is not feasible for most hobbyists (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). As an example, a water depth of at least 3 feet is known to protect the Hawaiian seahorse (Hippocampus fisheri) against GBD (Karen Brittain, pers. com.).
If you’ve had a problem with GBS in the past, look for a tank at least 20-30 inches tall, reduce your water temp to 68°F-72°F, reduce the specific gravity of the aquarium water, and avoid overly tall hitching posts that reach near the water’s surface (Cozzi-Schmarr, 2003). You want to encourage the seahorses to hang out near the bottom in order to take advantage of every inch of depth the aquarium can provide.
(2) Filtration options (Giwojna, Jan. 2004):
Gas supersaturation of the water can occur whenever the dissolved gas pressure in the water is greater than the atmospheric pressure. When that happens, the dissolved gases in the seahorse’s tissues are no longer in equilibrium with the surrounding aquarium water, causing gas to move into the area with lower partial gas pressure — the tissues and blood of the seahorse – and come out of solution, forming gas emboli! Providing proper filtration, circulation, and aeration can help prevent this.
Trickle filter (acts as a de-embolizing tower or degassing column in a limited fashion).
External filter that returns water as a "water fall" or a canister filter with a spray bar return positioned so that it roils the water surface.
Sump with strong aeration.
Overflow drains, as opposed to siphon/suction tubes.
Surface agitation to facilitate efficient gas exchange.
Increased circulation and water movement.
Extra airstone(s) just below the surface of the water.
Having a trickle filter, water "falling" into the tank as it’s returned, or strong aeration and surface agitation in the tank or the sump will help off-gas any supersaturated dissolved gases (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). This will also help off-gas a build up of CO2 and the associated pH drop that some tanks experience when the lights go off and photosynthesis has no longer taking place (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). The off gassing or degassing takes place only at the very air/water interface, so you want to spread the water into very thin sheets and let it be in contact with the atmosphere for an extended period (Robin Weber, pers. com.). That is precisely what a degas column does by trickling water over solid media open to the atmosphere, and if properly maintained and operated, a wet/dry trickle filter or biowheel filter can often perform the same function to a limited extent (Jorge A. Gomezjurado, pers. com.). For best results, the outflow from a trickle filter should go into a baffled chamber that will allow bubbles to dissipate before they enter pumps or plumbing restrictions (J. Charles Delbeek, pers. com.).
Airstones, air lifts, bubble wands, etc., that are submerged deeper than 18 inches.
Subsurface entry of the inflowing or recirculating water.
Protein skimmers that generate a bubble column by injecting air under pressure at depth.
On small, closed-system aquariums, supersaturation is often due to the entraining of air on the intake side of a leaky pump, which then chops the air into fine microbubbles and injects it into the water (Cripe, Kowalski and Phipps, 1999). Water and air are thus mixed under high pressure and forced into the water column, which can result in gas supersaturation. An air leak in inflowing or recirculating water that enters the tank below the surface can cause the same thing (Cripe, Kowalski and Phipps, 1999). Allowing the water to splash before it enters the tank is a simple way to prevent this from happening. The splashing helps the water to expel excess gas and reach equilibrium with the ambient air pressure (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Likewise, airstones, air lifts, bubble wands and the like can cause problems if they are too deep because they will cause gas to dissolve in water to match the ambient pressure (the current atmospheric pressure) PLUS the pressure of the water column above the stone. If they are immersed at a depth greater than 18 inches, the pressure of the water column above them may be sufficient to cause low-level gas supersaturation of the water, especially when there is little atmosphere/water interface (Colt & Westers, 1982). For example, Robin Weber found that airstone submerged in reservoirs 3 feet deep produced gas supersaturation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The airstones produced supersaturation at a level of about 104%, and the only cases of GBS she has ever observed at the aquarium occurred in the most supersaturated exhibits. So keep your airstones shallow!
Protein skimmers that inject air under pressure at depth, or produce bubbles a foot or more below the surface, can be problematic for seahorses and other fish fry again because that can cause gas to dissolve in the aquarium water at ambient pressure (the current atmospheric pressure) PLUS the pressure of the water column above the bubbles. Under certain circumstances, this can cause low level gas supersaturation of the water and contribute to problems with gas bubble disease (Colt & Westers, 1982) in syngnathids (i.e., seahorses and pipefish). Other skimmers can also cause problems by releasing clouds of microbubbles into the aquarium, which is unsightly and can contribute to certain forms of gas bubble syndrome in seahorses and pipefish such as subcutaneous emphysema, chronic pouch emphysema, Exopthalmia, and hyperinflation of the gas bladder under certain circumstances. (Problems can result if the microbubbles are drawn into the filters or water pumps and pressurized in the process.) So if you have had problems with GBS in a home aquarium filtered by a protein skimmer, consider removing or disabling the protein skimmer to determine if that makes a difference for the better…
(3) Eliminate stress (Giwojna, Jan. 2004):
Avoid aggressive tankmates.
Avoid heat stress and temperature spikes.
Install a titanium grounding probe to eliminate stray voltage.
Avoid exposing the seahorse tank to excessive noise or heavy foot traffic.
Use a cork or Styrofoam aquarium pad beneath the tank to deaden vibrations.
Stress has been linked to GBS in seahorses via the following mechanism: chronic or prolonged stress causes changes in the seahorse’s blood chemistry (acidosis), which in turn affects the oxygen-carrying capacity of certain types of hemoglobin, and the reduced oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin can then causes embolisms to form in the blood.
The excess of protons (H+) under acid conditions also causes carbonic anhydrase to shift to producing CO2 from carbonic acid in the bloodstream, and the CO2 that results can likewise lead to gas embolisms under certain circumstances (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Mic Payne is one of the professionals who feel GBS is most likely a stress-related affliction. He believes it is often a result of chronic stress due to antagonistic behavior by overaggressive males, particularly if they are overcrowded (Payne, pers. com.). Exposing our seahorses to any type of stress may leave them predisposed to GBS (and vulnerable to many other diseases as well). Reduce the stress levels on our seahorses and we reduce the incidence of GBS accordingly (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
(4) Maintain optimum water quality (Giwojna, Jan. 2004):
Don’t overfeed and remove leftovers promptly.
Employ an efficient cleanup crew.
Practice sound aquarium management and maintenance.
Monitor the aquarium parameters regularly.
Maintain total alkalinity and keep your pH between 8.1-8.4
Maintain a strict schedule for routine water changes.
Gradually reduce the water temperature to increase the amount of dissolved gases it can hold.
Reduce the salinity in the main tank to increase the amount of dissolved gases the water can hold.
When he was experimenting with possible treatments for GBS, Paul Groves (Head Aquarist at Underwater World in Perth, Australia, at the time) was able to produce all the different forms of GBS in a control group of Hippocampus breviceps simply by exposing them to a dirty, bacteria-laden substrate. His seahorse setup was far better than any hobbyist could hope for — an open system with 100% flow through from the ocean and a live sand base, yet all the seahorses in the tank eventually developed GBS (Groves, pers. com.). Males with chronic pouch gas were the first to appear, followed by specimens with internal GBS, and finally subcutaneous gas bubbles appeared on the tails and snouts of the others Groves, pers. com.). The weakness of Paul’s setup was poor circulation, and for experimental purposes, he deliberately allowed fecal matter and uneaten nauplii to build up on the bed of live sand. (Groves found that antibiotics were totally ineffective in treating GBS, but he eventually cured 10 of the 12 affected seahorses by pressurizing them at a depth of 4 meters.)
It is not clear whether stress from the dirty conditions or exposure to such a high density of bacteria triggered the problem in this case, but the lesson is loud and clear all the same — it pays to keep those aquariums clean (Giwojna, Jan. 2004)! If we keep our seahorses setups clean, we will keep our problems with GBS to a minimum (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Maintaining the proper pH is especially important for seahorses, since low pH in the aquarium can contribute to the acidosis under certain circumstances, leading to gas embolisms via the same mechanisms as stress-induced GBS (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Likewise, it’s important to remember that the warmer the water, the less dissolved oxygen it can hold. Elevated water temperatures increase the metabolism of your seahorses, and therefore their consumption of oxygen, at the same time that the rise in temperature is reducing the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. That creates a dangerous situation for seahorses and may well result in respiratory distress and rapid, labored breathing, as well as contributing to asphyxia and gas supersaturation under certain circumstances. Reducing the water temperature will increase the amount of dissolved oxygen and other gases the water can hold before it becomes saturated, reducing the chances of gas supersaturation (hence GBS) and hypoxia accordingly.
There is also an inverse relationship between salinity and dissolved oxygen. The higher the specific gravity or salinity, the less dissolved oxygen (and other dissolved gases) the water can hold. By the same token, the lower the salinity or specific gravity, the more dissolved gases the water can hold. Sometimes the specific gravity in a seahorse tank can creep up unbeknownst to the aquarist due to evaporation of the aquarium water, and the higher the specific gravity gets, the lower the dissolved gas levels in the aquarium will be and the greater the chances that the aquarium water could become supersaturated with dissolved gas. Lowering the specific gravity in the home aquarium as to at least 1.020 is a good way to eliminate such potential complications. Seahorses will be perfectly comfortable at a specific gravity of 1.015-1.017 and can tolerate a specific gravity as low as 1.010. Reducing the salinity will help prevent potential problems with gas supersaturation and therefore GBS.
(5) Water changing precautions (Giwojna, Jan. 2004):
It’s an excellent idea to use Reverse Osmosis (RO) or Deionized (DI) or RO/DI water for your changes because it’s much more pure than tap water. However, water purified by such methods is very soft and must be buffered before it’s used so it won’t drop the pH in your aquarium when it’s added (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
When mixing saltwater for your marine aquarium, it’s important to fill your container with all the water you will need BEFORE adding the salt mix. In other words, if you are mixing up 5 gallons of new saltwater, fill the mixing container with 5 gallons of water and then add the salt. If you do it the other way around — dump the salt mix in the container and then start filling it with water, the water can become saturated with salt to the point that the calcium precipitates out. This calcium precipitation will turn the water milky and can also lower the pH to dangerous levels (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Water changes can also be a problem because of the supersaturation of gases in tap water. Tap water distribution systems are maintained under pressure at all times, both to insure adequate flow and to prevent polluted water from outside the pipes from entering in at leaks. Any additional gas introduced into these pipes (from a leaky manifold, for example) will be dissolved at these are higher partial pressures, and will often be supersaturated when it emerges from the tap (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). Also, as we have previously discussed, gases are more soluble in cold water than warm, so when gas-saturated cold water emerges from the tap and warms up in an aquarium, or is warmed up and preadjusted to aquarium temps prior to making a water change, the water can become supersaturated (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). This must be avoided at all costs because gas supersaturation is one of the factors that can contribute to Gas Bubble Syndrome in seahorses and other fish.
To prevent this, tap water should be allowed to sit for several days beforehand or gentle aeration can be used to remove gas supersaturation before a water change (just make sure your airstones are not be submerged greater than 18 inches while you’re aerating your freshly mixed water; (Giwojna, Jan. 2004)). Some brands of artificial sea salt also produce low levels of ammonia immediately after mixing with water, and aging or aerating the newly mixed water as described above will dissipate this residual ammonia.
Most of the above is mentioned for future reference for hobbyists that have well-established seahorse tanks — I realize there aren’t many modifications you can make after the fact, once your system is already up and running (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). But there are a few things you can try with your existing system that should help.
First of all, whenever you find yourself dealing with an environmental disease such as GBS, a water change is an excellent place to start. At the first sign of GBS, I suggest you combine a 25%-50% water change with a thorough aquarium clean up (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Secondly, consider adding an ordinary airstone to your tank, anchored just beneath the surface of the water. That will add surface agitation, extra aeration, and better gas exchange at the air/water interface (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). Unless you’re quite certain your system already has plenty of water movement, it is also advisable to add a small powerhead for extra circulation (Giwojna, Jan. 2004). Seahorses can handle more water movement than most folks realize, and you can always turn it off during feedings. Just screen off the intake for the powerhead as a precaution so it can’t accidentally suck up a curious seahorse (Giwojna, Jan. 2004).
Thirdly, I recommend that home hobbyists who have had a problem with GBS in the past reduce the salinity in their seahorse tanks to at least 1.020 in order to increase the amount of dissolved gases the water can hold before it become saturated. Reducing the specific gravity to 1.015-1.017 is even better in most cases, providing you aren’t keeping live corals or delicate invertebrates in your seahorse tank. Likewise, reduce the water temperature in tanks with a history of GBS to around 68°F-72°F in order to increase the amount of dissolved gases the water can hold before it become saturated. Both these simple measures will help prevent gas supersaturation and reduce future problems with GBS accordingly.
Finally, use shorter hitching posts and holdfasts that will confine your seahorses to the bottom half of the aquarium and reduce the water temperature. Shorter hitching posts will get the maximum benefit from whatever depth your tank can provide, and lowering the water temperature and specific gravity allows the water to hold more dissolved gases, which can help avoid any tendency toward supersaturation (Cozzi-Schmarr, 2003).
Those simple measures may make a big difference. Just maintain good water quality, provide your seahorses with the stress-free environment, add a shallow airstone and perhaps an extra power head to provide better water movement and gas exchange, remove your protein skimmer as a precaution, keep things cool and reduce the water temperature in your seahorse tank, and you can reduce your risk of GBS considerably.
That’s my thinking with regard to preventing GBS, IDOBONES. I suspect that very few of the factors mentioned above apply to your seahorse setup, but they are common problems for many home aquarists.