Re:Dwarf Seahorses for a beginner

Pete Giwojna

Dear hero:

Okay, now you’re talking! Overall, your new plan for keeping dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus zosterae) is vastly improved over your original concept and should be a workable design, and one that may produce very good results, at that.

I especially like your plans to vary the diet of the dwarf seahorses by offering a variety of copepods — that’s a very sound thinking that will pay off with improved vitality and increased breeding success. And it should also produce a better survival rate for the newborns.

The pre-cycled Macro Rocks are attractive and will provide your dwarf seahorse setup with all the benefits of live rock without the concomitant risk of introducing unwanted hitchhikers. Including lush beds of assorted macroalgae should do a nice job of simulating the natural seagrass habitat of H. zosterae, which the pint-size ponies are sure to appreciate.

However, I would suggest that you eliminate the Scarlet reef hermit crabs (Paguristes cadenati) from your dwarf seahorse tanks, just to be on the safe side — especially the smaller tank you will be using for the babies. If you’ll be using live Mysis in the dwarf seahorse tanks — which is an excellent idea and should be very successful — the adult mysids will do a fine job of scavenging in addition to producing larval Mysis for the seahorses to eat. They can take the place of the Scarlet reef hermits, which can just occasionally cause problems with the ponies when they are especially vulnerable, or with the snails in the cleanup crew.

The zoanthids you are considering have a number of good points which make them well-suited for more seahorse setups. For example, soft corals such as zoanthid polyps have very little stinging ability and generally make good choices for a modified reef tank that will include seahorses. Good choices include the zoanthid polyps (genus Zoanthus), which are tolerant of any light level and tolerate a wide range of water currents, meaning they will do well under the relatively low light and moderate water flow conditions that seahorses prefer. They grow very fast and are a great starter coral for beginners.

Equally desirable are the button polyps (genus Palythoa, etc.). They are extremely hardy and are an excellent starter coral. They prefer low to medium water flow, and will tolerate low light levels, making them another good choice for a seahorse setup. They come in a wide variety of colors and are readily available for a modest cost.

Clove Polyps Star Polyps or Daisy polyps (genus Clavularia) are another good choice. They are good starter corals that tolerate most any light level and do well under a variety of water currents. They are extremely hardy and relatively undemanding.

In short, zooanthids and polyps in general are seahorse-safe and your ponies won’t mind a tank housing several species of polyps. As far as their stings go, zoanthids and other polyps should be perfectly safe for your seahorses. But, as I am sure your already aware, you’ll want to observe a few precautions regarding the zoanthids before you consider adding them to a dwarf setup.

First of all, zoanthids and other soft corals such as mushrooms may wage border battles if you place them in close proximity to each other (and the zoanthids almost always lose out to the mushrooms in these skirmishes). So be sure to allow adequate space between the colonies.

Secondly, "Zooanthus and Palythoa both contain very toxic chemicals, that can be dangerous to both reef inhabitants and humans. The most well known is Palytoxin, which has been documented as one of the most poisonous marine toxins known (Mereish et al, 1991). Palytoxin can affect the heart, muscles, and nerves leaving its victim in paralysis, and possibly death. Because of the toxin, you should never handle Zoanthus or Palythoa with open wounds, nor should you touch your mouth or eyes after handling the species. (We recommend the use of disposable latex gloves) When propagating either of the species, it is critical to remember that the slightest rub of an itchy eye, or even a small cut from a hang nail, might be enough to land you in the hospital. In the aquarium, some rapid growing Zoanthus colonies can be aggressive to stony and soft corals, but in general, they are very peaceful, and you can slow the growth rate by the controlling the overall nutrient load of your tank."

In general, aquarists need to handle any polyps from the genus Zoanthus and Palythoa with care, hero. If you do a Web search and Google "Zooanthus" and "Palythoa," you’ll find lots of photographs to go by regarding different species. It’s very difficult to be much more specific than that because the specimens are sold and marketed under so many different common names. For example, they might be called sea mats, button polyps, or colonial polyps, among many others.

Here’s what James Fatherree advises in that regard, hero:

<Open quote>

There are several types of commonly available zoanthids, including all of the palythoans, that can produce a deadly toxin (appropriately called "palytoxin"). It is found is the mucous coat that they cover themselves with, and if you get enough of it in an open wound, or your eye, mouth, etc. – it just might kill you. Many hobbyists have reported cases of numbness, sickness, and/or hallucinations, but the stuff is actually strong enough to kill, as well.

Handling them when you have a wound is an obvious no-no, but when you touch a colony and get the slime on your fingers (which is unavoidable with these things), it is imperative that you don’t rub your eyes, suck your fingers, or even pick your nose until you have washed your hands thoroughly. Really, you should never handle these without wearing protective gloves. Some hobbyists (including me) have handled zoanthids without gloves many, many times in the past, but it is now well-known that things can go very wrong when this is done, even if you have no wounds you know of and plan on washing your hands immediately after touching a specimen.

Wear the gloves! (James W. Fatherree, M.Sc., 2005)
<close quote>

So this is one of those cases when it’s better to be safe than sorry and err on the side of caution. When in doubt, don’t take chances — wear gloves and handle all colonial and button polyps with all due care. I would also wear gloves in any aquarium with bristleworms as a precaution — those spicules can be extremely irritating and bristleworms larger than 2-3 inches are capable of delivering a nasty bite.

Finally, hero, you need to be aware that zoanthids and polyps in general are susceptible to fenbendazole (Panacur). I think it is a wonderful idea — very important, in fact — for you to pretreat your tank with Panacur to prevent hydroids and Aiptasia rock anemones, and to maintain a very low dose of the Panacur in your dwarf seahorse tank thereafter to discourage the hydrozoans. But, if you want to give zoanthids a try in your dwarf seahorse tank, be sure to wait until the initial Panacur treatment has dissipated. If the zoanthids are going to survive in an aquarium that has been treated with Panacur, it will only be after the initial dose has been diluted to a very low level over time.

Best of luck with your dwarf seahorse setup, hero!

Pete Giwojna

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