Dear David & Sheena:
Okay, guys, I have examined the new photographs you sent me off list and, aside from the change in her coloration, your female Sunburst looks just fine. She appears to be well fed, is alert, and has good eye movement. She seems to be acutely aware of her immediate surroundings, and, in fact, she appears to be in "hunting mode" in the pictures, carefully scrutinizing the bottom of the tank and the rockwork for pods or leftover Mysis.
In short, your female Sunburst seems to have a healthy appetite and does not appear to be stressed at first glance, since she is actively searching for food…
As long as she is breathing normally, swimming normally, and eating and behaving as usual, I would not be concerned about a change in coloration such as this, David and Sheena. It is normal for Sunburst to display different color phases from time to time, including white, pearly, silvery, gray and even brownish color phases on occasion.
She could be reacting to something in her immediate environment. For instance, if you have lots of gray live rock in your tank, your female Sunburst may be adopting grayish coloration to help her better blend into her background. In that case, she may change her coloration back to yellow or orange, or to white or tan or brown, when she is perching on different objects. Chances are that she will display a number of different color phases in the weeks and months ahead, brightening or darkening in coloration as dictated by her mood, hormonal levels, her surroundings, the lighting conditions, or a number of other factors.
The only thing I would suggest is to make sure that you maintain optimum water quality at all times, since the addition of the juvenile Hippocampus erectus in the breeder net is increasing the bioload and amount of organic wastes in the aquarium, which could degrade your water quality or result in transitory spikes in the ammonia level after a heavy feedings. Keep your water quality parameters in the proper range, and everything should be just fine.
This is what I usually advise home hobbyists regarding the coloration of Mustangs and Sunbursts, David and Sheena:
When it comes to their color pattern, seahorses are not like most other marine fish — rather, they are truly the chameleons of the sea with a propensity for changing color in response to a wide range of environmental factors, hormonal influences, and behavioral interactions.
It’s important to understand that although Ocean Rider (OR) seahorses have been endowed with a palette of pigments rich in bright hues, they are not like albinos or lutino or melanistic mutants that are "locked" into their white or yellow or black coloration respectively. Such mutants are a certain color because they are genetically unable to manufacture other pigments; ORs are not. Rather, ORs are genetically equipped to express a wide range of vivid colors, and each type has a built-in predisposition towards a wardrobe of certain shades. But they can and will change colors to reflect their mood, environment, and well-being, as well as to interact with other seahorses.
Seahorses accomplish color changes through the contraction or expansion of pigment cells known as chromatophores. Each chromatophore is a contractile cell or vesicle containing liquid pigment and capable of changing its form or size, thus causing changes of color in the skin of the animals that possess them. The chromatophores may be under nervous control and able to change very rapidly or under hormonal control and able to change only relatively slowly.
In seahorses, the chromatophores are branched (dendritic) cells, within which the color pigment can be moved. When a chromatophore contracts, all of its pigment is concentrated in one small spot in the center of the cell, resulting in the loss of color in the fish. When a chromatophore expands, the pigment spreads throughout the entire cell to all its branches, resulting in bright color.
Different types of chromatophores contain different pigments such as melanin (black), xanthin (yellow), lipochrome (orange), erythrin (red) and so on. The different types of chromatophores are named according to the type of pigment they contain (e.g., melanophores, erythrophores and xanthophores). These specialized pigment cells are usually stacked upon each other or clustered in groups. Hippocampus is typically endowed with 3 or 4 different types of chromatophores, and all other colors are derived from these 3 or 4 basic pigments. The exact color the seahorse displays at any given time therefore depends on the concentration of these pigment cells, how close the cells are to the surface of the skin, and which chromatophores are expanded or contracted at the moment.
For example, seahorses have no blue pigment cells, but the color blue can be approximated nonetheless. A low concentration of melanin (black pigment) deep in the dermal layer gives the skin of the fish a bluish cast. Achieving a blue tint in this way while simultaneously expanding xanthophores (yellow pigment cells) produces shades of green, and maintaining a bluish background color while opening erythrophores (red pigment cells) yields shades of purple and violet. Likewise, a seahorse that has no orange pigment cells can still assume a bright orange coloration by simultaneously expanding its xanthophores (yellow pigment cells) and erythrophores (red pigment cells) to the fullest. The exact shade of orange it becomes and its brightness is determined by the proportion of yellow to red cells it opens, how fully they are expanded, and how close to the skin’s surface they are. Obviously, a seahorse that is black has all its melanophores expanded and a seahorse that is white has ALL of its chromatophores contracted so that all the wavelengths of visible light are reflected back to the observer, and so on.
In seahorses, melanophores are the most common of these pigment cell types. They contain the pigment melanin, which gives most seahorses their typical black or dark brown coloration. Essentially melanin absorbs the entire visible light spectrum and looks black because no light is reflected back to the observer. When a melanophore is open and fully expanded, the melanin it contains is dispersed throughout the cell, and when all the melanophores are opened at once, melanin is distributed evenly across the surface of skin, rendering the seahorse black. Seahorses typically respond to stress by expanding their melanophores and darkening this way.
The different types of pigment cells seahorses possess varies from species to species. Hence, not all seahorses have the same palette of colors at their disposal. Some seahorses can never turn red because they lack erythrophores; red is simply not in their wardrobe. In general, tropical seahorses tend to have brighter colors in their repertoire than temperate species. And deep-water seahorses often have more red and orange pigment cells than other seahorses. In order words, different seahorse species have different coloration due to the differential proliferation of chromatophore cell types.
Colorful Ocean Riders, for example, are not homozygous recessives nor or they mutations that are unable to manufacture certain pigments altogether. But they do exhibit differential proliferation of chromatophores and this gives each type a predisposition to display certain colors. Mustangs have a preponderance of melanophores, for instance, and tend to be dark (earth tones) or cryptically colored most of the time. But ‘stangs also have bright pigment cells and they can brighten up when the occasion calls for it, such as during courtship or when competing for mates.
I own a pair of these spirited steeds myself, and have watched them go through a number of color phases from month to month. One has settled on gray-green as its base coloration for the moment, and the other ranges between rust, burnt umber, and orange, but always with contrasting beige bands. Last season, the male adopted a rich ochre yellow as his everyday attire (still with the same beige bands, though), while the female displayed a dark purplish ensemble with definite greenish highlights. When courting, they consistently brighten to a pearly white and a creamy yellow respectively. They make a handsome couple, and I find my Mustangs to be very attractive specimens in all their guises.
As for their coloration, Sunbursts are equipped with a full range of chromatophores (pigment cells) and can display a wide range of colors, but they are predisposed towards the sunset colors (yellow, gold, peach, amber, and orange) when conditions are to their liking. They have proportionally fewer melanophores (black pigment cells) than Mustangs, which are typically dark brown or black, so the background or base coloration of the Sunbursts tends to be lighter. Yellow and orange specimens predominate, but they also display whitish, silvery gray, tan, pearly and even brown color phases at times. You can expect your Sunbursts to go through a number of color phases and color changes over the months.
Sunbursts have fully functional melanophores, albeit somewhat fewer of them, in addition to their bright pigment cells and they will darken in response to stress or change their coloration to reflect changing circumstances and conditions. There are any number of environmental conditions that can also affect the coloration of seahorses, often by affecting the ability of chromatophores to contract and expand. These include the following factors:
Stress — seahorses often respond to stress by darkening.
Emotional state — when excited, seahorses typically brighten in coloration, reflecting a state of high arousal. On the other hand, fear, anxiety and distress are generally accompanied by dark, somber hues.
Social interactions — seahorses often brighten during their courtship displays; pair-bonded seahorses likewise brighten during their morning greeting rituals, and rivals go through characteristic color changes (see below) during their confrontations and competitions.
Competition for mates — dominant individuals brighten; subordinate seahorses darken in submission.
Hormonal influences — juvenile seahorses may change coloration when they hit sexual maturity in response to a change in their hormonal levels.
Poor water quality — high levels of nitrogenous wastes (e.g., ammonia, nitrite or nitrate) can cause chromatophores to contract and colors to fade.
O2/CO2 — low oxygen levels (or high CO2 levels) can cause colorful seahorses to fade and they will blanch when subjected to hypoxic conditions.
Background colors — seahorses will often change color in order to blend in with their immediate surroundings.
Medications — some antibiotics and malachite-green-based remedies negatively affect color.
Tankmates — seahorses may change their base coloration to blend in with the rest of the herd or to match their mate (or a potential partner). This can work both ways: a dark seahorse may brighten up and assume vivid hues when introduced to an aquarium with bright yellow or orange tankmates, just as a brightly colored seahorse may darken and adopt subdued coloration when placed amidst drab tankmates. Of course, seahorses are not respondsing to peer pressure when they conform in this manner; rather, this is probably instinctive behavior. In nature, it’s not healthy to be too conspicuous and stick out in a crowd since an individual that stands out from the rest of the herd draws the attention of potential predators to itself.
Temperature — chromatophores tend to contract at high temperatures (above the seahorse’s comfort zone), causing colors to fade; cooler temps within their optimal range can make pigment cells expand, keeping colors bright.
Disease — skin infections (bacterial, fungal, or parasitic) can cause localized loss of pigmentation or discoloration of the affected areas.
Diet — seahorses cannot synthesize the pigments used in their chromatophores. It is therefore important to enrich their food with pigments such as carotenoids in a form that’s easy for them to absorb. If color additives are not provided, the chromatophores will gradually lose their pigments and the seahorse’s color can fade. Vibrance, for example, is exceptionally rich in Vitamins A and C as well as natural carotenoids, which are not found in Mysis relicta. This is important because the carotenoids are a class of yellow to red pigments, which include the carotenes and the xanthophylls. Like all cells, individual pigment cells have a limited life expectancy in the body and must be regularly renewed. Marine organisms cannot synthesize carotenoids, so if they do receive adequate amounts in their diet, they will have difficulty replenishing their red and yellow pigments. This means that the colors of bright yellow, orange, and red seahorses will gradually fade over time if their daily diet is lacking in carotenoids. So don’t neglect the enrichment step in your daily feeding regimen! If seahorses are fed a strict diet of Mysis relicta without additional enrichment, they may begin to develop dietary deficiencies over time, and both their health and coloration will eventually suffer.
Lighting — seahorses may darken in response to UV radiation or intense lighting (e.g., metal halides) as a protective measure, whereas bulbs that emit wavelengths of light shifted towards the red end of the visual spectrum (i.e., Grolux fluorescent tubes) can greatly enhance the coloration of red, orange or purplish seahorses to the point that they almost literally glow.
In short, you can expect your seahorses to exhibit a number of different color phases over the coming months and years. Expect them to display brighter colors when they get serious about breeding and courtship, for instance. And if they happen to adopt a colorful hitching post as their favorite perch or hang out, they may gradually change coloration to match their favorite resting spot.
All of the different factors mentioned above need to be addressed in order to keep your seahorses looking their best and brightest, David and Sheena. There are a number of other things beside the lighting and colorful perches for your seahorses that you can explore to influence their coloration and encourage them to display bright colors. These are discussed in some detail in a two-part article on coloration in seahorses that I recently wrote for Conscientious Aquarist online magazine. The first article explains how seahorses use their amazing color changing ability, while the second article explains how they accomplish their color changes and is loaded with tips for keeping colorful seahorses such as Sunbursts looking their best and brightest. You can read the articles at the following URL’s and enjoy Leslie Leddo’s magnificent photographs. Just copy the following URL’s and paste them into your web browser, and it will take you directly to the articles:
One of the suggestions in part two is to choose colorful pieces when aquascaping the seahorse tank and furnishing them with hitching posts, and I have a couple of tips in that regard that may also be useful, David and Sheena:
When it comes to hitching posts and decorations, seahorses in general tend to prefer perches that are bigger in diameter over skinnier ones that are a bit more difficult to get a good grip on with their tails, but other than that, it’s very difficult to predict what they’ll go for. I have noticed that tree sponges and tube sponges — both the real thing (which are difficult to keep healthy) and the lifelike artificial versions — almost always seem to be particular favorites. Very often such sponges are bright red or yellow or brilliant orange in coloration, but I think it is the structure and texture of the sponges that attracts the seahorses more than the color.
Tree sponges in particular are veritable seahorse magnets and the ponies really do love them. They are usually brightly colored (red and orange shades are common) and their shape and texture seem to make them irresistible to seahorses as hitching posts. Very often, all the seahorses in the tank can be found clinging to the same tree sponge together, eschewing other nearby holdfasts that appear every bit as comfy and attractive to human eyes.
An artificial colorful tree sponge or two may be an excellent way to stimulate color changes in your seahorses. Collectors will often find bright red or vivid orange seahorses living in beds of colorful sponges in the wild. Leslie Leddo has some great photos of a bright orange H. barbouri and an orange Pinto perched on a red-orange tree sponge in her aquarium, and the seahorses blend in perfectly with their bright orange hitching post.
Seahorses often tend to gravitate towards gorgonians as well, and the big purple gorgonians that are large in diameter are also usually very popular with seahorses. Otherwise, they seem to like genuine corals and synthetic corals about equally well, and the brightly colored formations (orange, red, or vivid yellow) usually produce better results than plain white corals.
Hitching posts for your seahorses can thus be either live or artificial marine sea grasses, algae and corals. If you decide to try an assortment of colorful artificial corals, seahorses often prefer red or orange pieces. Many hobbyists report good results using artificial sponges, gorgonia, staghorn coral, octopus coral and pillar coral in the appropriate colors to keep their seahorses looking their brightest. They look entirely natural and lifelike, with lots of branching projections that make great hitching posts for seahorses.
I have found Living Color to be perhaps the best source for artificial gorgonians, David and Sheena, and their colorful Sea Rods and Sea Whips in particular are especially popular perches for seahorses:
All things considered, David and Sheena, I would not be concerned about this change in coloration. It is most likely simply a temporary color phase that your female Sunburst is going through, and not an indication of any sort of health problem. Just make sure that your water quality parameters are all where they should be and let me know if you notice any suspicious changes in your behavior, such as a lack of appetite, lethargy, or increased respirations or labored breathing. Make sure your tank has good surface agitation and aeration to promote better oxygenation and facilitate good gas exchange at the air/water interface. Maintaining high levels of dissolved oxygen will help keep your ponies looking their best and brightest.
How have you been feeding your Sunbursts, David and Sheena? Target feeding the ponies or training them to eat frozen Mysis from a feeding station can be very helpful in preventing wastage and spoilage, which in turn will safeguard your water quality, especially with the new juvenile Hippocampus erectus and the heavy feedings that they require.
Best wishes with all your fishes, guys!