Re:frozen mysis

Pete Giwojna

Dear Lawrence:

It sounds like you have done a wonderful job with your pet shop refugee reidi thus far, sir! She is very fortunate to have wound up in the care of such a diligent aquarist. As you know, it can be very challenging to keep up with the feeding requirements of a wild seahorse that is dependent on live foods.

But that’s not all bad because it certainly is entertaining watching them chase down live food, and like you, I find it flat out fascinating to watch my seahorses hunting live prey. Whenever I see a hungry seahorse patiently stalking its prey, I am always reminded of a Japanese sniper in a WWII John Wayne movie. With a lush growth of leaves and foliage draped over his helmet and extra shrubbery strapped to his back, the cunning jungle fighter literally melts into the shadowy undergrowth. From his strategically selected vantage point, the sharp-eyed sentry waits for his unsuspecting victims to come to him, picking off hapless GIs one by one as they pass his secret hideout.

That’s a pretty fair description of a hungry Hippocampine on the lookout for its supper. Masters of camouflage, seahorses are the snipers of the grassblade jungle into which they blend so well, and their preferred hunting technique is the ambush. Concealed absolutely motionless amidst a clump of Caulerpa or a patch of gorgonians, only a flicker of its busy, watchful eyes ever betrays its presence. Patiently lying in wait for its next meal, one of its independent eyes scans upward while the other scrolls downward so as not to miss any potential prey passing nearby.

When some unwary victim does blunder within range of one of these seagrass snipers, the seahorse tracks it intently, stalking its prey in ultra-slow motion. With its tail securely anchored in place, it stretches its body in the direction of its chosen quarry ever so s-l-o-w-l-y, making itself seem like a harmless frond of algae or a natural extension of the coral. But when this painstaking pursuit finally brings it within striking distance, it’s all over in a hurry! Drawing a bead on its ”dinner” exactly as if its snout were the barrel of a high-powered rifle, the seahorse gives a sudden jerk of its head, accompanied by a distinctly audible ”click,” and its hapless victim disappears as if by magic, sucked up faster than the eye can follow.

Anyone who has ever collected fishes with a slurp gun knows exactly how a feeding seahorse accomplishes this vanishing act. The toothless jaws at the end of its snout operate with a rapid springlike action, and the spasmodic jerk of the seahorse’s head as it snatches its prey represents the cocking and firing of this muscular "spring-loaded" mechanism. Thus, when a seahorses points the barrel of its snout at its intended victim, lining up the target in its sights, and pulls the trigger, well-developed muscles depress the hyoid bone, enlarging its mouth (buccal) cavity and expanding its gills (opercular cavities) sharply, creating a strong inrush like an expanding bellows, and the powerful suction pulls in its prey irresistibly along with a little water. The seahorse’s mousetrap jaws spring open and snap shut again, and it literally inhales its victim in the blink of the eye. One moment the prey is there, and the next it’s gone.

Feeding seahorses are entertaining to watch, and the attentive aquarist can learn a lot about his pets from watching them eat. For instance, if they’re really hungry, seahorses will take off in hot pursuit when some mouth-watering morsel wanders by just beyond reach. No longer content to wait for their supper to come to them, they’ll launch themselves on a ”high-speed” chase at a blistering pace that’s just about capable of overtaking a lumbering brine shrimp or weary water flea. Once they’ve closed to within about one-quarter inch of their target — often prodded along by their tails to gain a final burst of added propulsion — that distinctive ”snick!” will announce the sudden demise of their quarry.

And when no prey is evident, seahorses will sometimes set off on hunting expeditions in a effort to scare up a meal on their own. A seahorse on safari will patrol the perimeter of its aquarium, carefully searching every nook and cranny as it skims along just above the bottom. (This behavior is often displayed when seahorses are hunting Gammarus, since the side-swimmers hug the bottom and seek shelter under every scrap of cover they can find. These amphipods are a favorite food of seahorses, which will often resort to amazing acrobatics in an attempt to winnow them out of their hiding places.) Suffice it to say, when you see your seahorses conducting these search-and-destroy missions, it’s time to feed them!

Yes, sir, one thing I’ve found very true of my seahorses over the years is that they all have their own distinct personalities. And that’s part of their irresistible charm, one of the many reasons why they are so popular among aquarists. A lot of seahorse lovers find it especially satisfying to keep a fish that can become a true pet. Seahorses are real personality fish and many of them actually enjoy being handled. Unlike most other fish that back off when you approach the aquarium and flee in terror if you place your hand in the tank, seahorses soon learn to recognize their keeper and will come out to meet you. They quickly learn to take food from your fingers, and as you will discover, having your pet ponies literally eating out your hand is a very rewarding experience. When one of these shy, enchanting creatures — whose very survival in the wild depends on concealing itself from predators at all times — comes trustingly up to the surface to eat right out of your palm, it’s a thrill you won’t soon forget. The training sessions and daily feedings required for this tend to forge a close, personal relationship between the aquarist and his charges, and hand-fed seahorses often become special pets. Many times they will even include you in their daily greeting, flashing their recognition colors and parading back and forth and at the front of the tank, performing their dancelike displays for your benefit.

My mated pair of erectus head for the feeding station as soon as I approach the tank, a series of color changes betraying their excitement, and queue up at the dinner table looking their best and brightest. Of course, they both try to snap up the first morsel — even pair-bonded ponies are not big on sharing or waiting turns — so I no longer offer them one mysid at a time. I offer them a handful of individually thawed Mysis in my upturned palm instead. They know the drill and happily perch on my fingers while snicking up the shrimp as fast as they can. They genuinely appear to enjoy interacting with me and like to linger on my hand long after all the food is gone. They would allow me to lift them out of the water when I withdraw my hand if I didn’t gently shoo them away first. There’s a lot of puppy dog in your average seahorse and no doubt that’s a big part of their appeal, too. One almost expects to see them wagging their tails as they beg for handouts.

Best of luck converting your finicky reidi to frozen foods, Ruben! In the meantime, if you contact me off list, I would be happy to send you a lot of additional information regarding culturing and collecting a variety of live foods, which could help you fatten her up a bit. You can reach me at the following e-mail address: [email protected]

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna

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