Re:handeling seahorse

#4039
Pete Giwojna
Guest

Deer arcprolife:

Yes, cleanliness is important whenever you are working in an aquarium or handling seahorses, and it’s a good idea to observe a few simple precautions, as discussed below:

Handling Seahorses

I do not like to use an aquarium net to transfer or manipulate seahorses, since their delicate fins and snouts can become entangled in the netting all too easily. I much prefer to transfer the seahorses by hand. Simply wet your hand and fingers (to avoid removing any of the seahorse’s protective slime coat) and scoop the seahorses in your hand. Allow them to curl their tail around your fingers and carefully cup their bodies in your hand to support them while you lift them out of the water. When you gently immerse your hand in the destination tank, the seahorse will release its grip and swim away as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

Composed of solid muscle and endowed with extraordinary skeletal support, the prehensile tail is amazingly strong. Indeed, large specimens have a grip like an anaconda, and when a 12-inch ingens or abdominalis wraps its tail around your hand and tightens its hold, its vise-like grip is powerful enough to leave you counting your fingers afterwards!

In fact, it can be quite difficult to remove an attached seahorse from its holdfast without injuring it in the process. Never attempt to forcibly detach a seahorse from its hitching post! When it feels threatened, it’s instinct is to clamp down and hold on all the tighter. When you must dislodge a seahorse from its resting place for any reason, it’s best to use the tickle technique instead. Gently tickling the underside of the tail where it’s wrapped around the object will usually induce the seahorse to release its grip (Abbott, 2003). They don’t seem to like that at all, and will quickly let go to move away to another spot. Once they are swimming, they are easy to handle.

Before placing your hands in the aquarium to do any maintenance or to handle your seahorse for handfeeding or to administer treatments or transfer a pony from one tank to another, it’s a good idea to watch up first. I will generally give my hands a quick wash and then a very thorough rinsing. I like liquid soaps in general better than bar soaps for this (the liquid soaps usually rinse off better and eliminate the possibility that a residue of soap might be left beneath your fingernails). But if my hands are reasonably clean (not oily or greasy and I have not been handling pesticides or herbicides or other toxic chemicals) then I will often skip the soap altogether and simply rinse my hands well under hot water before placing them in the aquarium. The rinsing is the most important part, particularly if you soap. Rinse thoroughly, and then when you’re certain you’ve rinsed enough, rinse your hands once again to make doubly sure.

You’ll find that handfeeding seahorses is fun and easy, and is actually very safe providing you observe the above precautions. Once you have established a regular feeding routine for them and the seahorses come to recognize you as their feeder — the giver of gourmet delights — they will gather at their feeding station as soon as they see you approaching the aquarium. When that happens, you’ll know they’re ready for handfeeding if you want to give it a try.

To start with, you simply grasp an individual Mysis shrimp between your thumb and forefinger and offer it to your seahorse that way instead of using a baster or a feeding wand. The boldest of the seahorses will soon snick up the shrimp right from your fingers and the others will quickly follow suit.

As soon as the seahorses become accustomed to feeding from your fingers, you can offer them several frozen Mysis in the upturned palm of your hand instead. You just thaw and enrich the frozen Mysis as usual, place a normal portion of the shrimp in the palm of your hand, carefully close your hand and slowly immerse it in the aquarium until you reach the area where your seahorses are normally fed. Then you slowly open your cupped hand (upturned, of course), so that the frozen shrimp stays in place it doesn’t get wafted away, and the seahorses take it from there.

In essence, the palm of your hand serves as a feeding tray. The seahorses will perch on your hand or cling to your fingers and greedily slurp up the delicious shrimp from the palm of your hand just as it it were their usual feeding trough. (You’ll be surprised at how powerful their "snicks" can be, so be prepared for it and don’t jerk your hand away reflexively when they snick the shrimp up from your sensitive palm!)

I wrote an article on handfeeding seahorses for FAMA magazine years ago that describes how to go about it in more detail. That article was written long before captive-bred seahorses were available, so it spends a lot of time describing how to train your seahorses to eat frozen foods. Nowadays, of course, captive-bred-and-raised seahorses come to you pre-trained to eat frozen Mysis as their staple diet, which makes the whole process a great deal easier. Also, frozen Mysis wasn’t readily available back when the article was written, so it describes feeding a number of different frozen foods instead; you can just disregard that part of the story, Joel — frozen Mysis is ideal for handfeeding and is more nutritious for your seahorses as well.

My article on handfeeding seahorses is available online at the following URL:

Click here: FAMA Dec 1996. Seahorse Nutrition – Part III: HAND-FEEDING ADULTS
<<http://www.breedersregistry.org/Reprints/FAMA/v19_dec96/giwojna_pt3.htm>&gt;

You’ll find that handfeeding does indeed help reduced wastage and spoilage from uneaten leftovers. It basically provides the same sort of benefits as target feeding and/or using a feeding station do, as explained below.

Handfeeding Seahorses

Personally, I prefer to hand feed my seahorses, both because I enjoy it and because I feel it provides a little behavioral enrichment for my ponies, which are intelligent enough that they can sometimes become bored with the same old daily routine. This is normally what I advise hobbyists when they ask me how I feed my seahorses:

<Open quote>
Seahorses are one fish that can become a true pet, and I’m convinced this is because they are more intelligent than most fishes. The highly domesticated Mustangs 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.

The first pair of captive-bred seahorses I ever owned were Mustangs, and my ‘stangs quickly learned to recognize me as their feeder, whereupon they would often interact with me at dinnertime by turning on their greeting colors. My original pair are still going strong several years later, and I 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 (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). 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 (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). They make a handsome couple, and I find my erectus to be very attractive specimens in all their guises.

I set up my pair of these spirited steeds in a brand-new 30 gallon (tall) aquarium all their own, and that tank has been my most entertaining, trouble-free exhibit ever since. With a simple setup like theirs, I prefer to target feed my seahorses. That allows me to observe them closely on a daily basis, monitor their health, keep track of exactly how much each specimen is eating, and remove any leftovers immediately.

Led by the female-by far the bolder and most outgoing of the two-the Mustangs were soon literally eating right out of my hands. (I know, I know-sensible aquarists should always strive to keep their mitts out the aquarium as much as possible, but handfeeding is a thrill I find difficult to resist, and hey — nobody ever said I was sensible!) Of course, I’m very well aware of the risks involved and extremely diligent about taking all the necessary precautions beforehand. And besides, there are major advantages to handfeeding that more than offset any minor risks.

For one thing, the seahorses seem to enjoy the experience every bit as much as I do. They 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.

Secondly, feeding your seahorses by hand permits the aquarist to conduct a close-up, daily inspection of every specimen in his tank, and I like to use the opportunity to give ’em a good once over. These detailed examinations make it difficult not to notice any subtle changes in my seahorse’s appearance or behavior that might signal impending problems with disease or the water chemistry. That’s a big advantage, since the sooner such potential problems are detected, the easier they are to cure or prevent, and I recommend other hobbyists do
the same.

Take a moment to enjoy the show when feeding your seahorses. Make sure they’re all eating well, and use this opportunity to look them over closely for wounds, injuries, or signs of disease. Seahorses are natural-born gluttons. Ordinarily, these galloping gourmets are ALWAYS hungry, so when a seahorse is off its feed, that’s often an excellent early indicator that something’s amiss in the aquarium.. Early detection of a potential problem can be the key to curing it, so it’s a good idea for the alert aquarist to observe his prize ponies while they put on the ol’ feed bag. Make sure they all show up for mess call, are acting normally, and have a well-rounded abdomen when they’re done eating. Handfeeding makes it hard to miss when one these chow hounds is off its feed, tipping off the alert aquarist to a potential problem.

Best of all, handfeeding is pure, sure-fire, 100% unadulterated fish-keeping fun! Feeding time for my seahorses is always a high point in my day. Having your pet ponies literally eating out your hand is a very rewarding experience. These daily feedings tends to forge a close, personal relationship between the aquarist and his charges, and hand-fed seahorses often become special pets.

As much as feeding time brightens up my day, I have no doubt it livens things up for my seahorses even more. They genuinely appear to enjoy interacting with me, and I believe in enriching their captive environment as much as possible. No doubt it’s the food they’re looking forward to, not the food giver, but our daily encounters are always eagerly awaited and they 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.

The only thing I don’t like about handfeeding frozen Mysis to my seahorses is the obligatory fast day. The problem with fasting is that the Mustangs don’t seem to realize it’s good for them-that it’s absolutely in their own best interests, essential for their long-term health. Whenever I make an appearance on fast day, they insist on parading back and forth in front of the glass in their greeting colors, begging for a handout. Before my butt hits the upholstery, both of them will be dancing at the feeding station, impatiently awaiting their gourmet shrimp dinner. When it doesn’t materialize, they forlornly abandon their post at the lunch counter, and come up to stare at me through the front glass. When I still don’t take the hint, the female paces back and forth at the front, looking her brightest and most conspicuous, as though trying to attract my attention, while the male reverts to his drab everyday attire and dejectedly resumes his futile vigil at the feeding station. If not for their well-rounded cross-sections, one would think they were dying of hunger, making it difficult to resist their puppy-dog antics. Just sitting there ignoring them makes me feel like a first-class heel. Sheesh–talk about your guilt trips Dang! I hate fast days.

I feel Hippocampus is intelligent enough to become bored or jaded in captivity at times, and for this reason I try to provide a little behavioral enrichment for my seahorses whenever possible. The handfeeding sessions I’ve already described are an example of this, and I also try to provide my seahorses with live foods regularly so they have an opportunity to experience the thrill of the hunt and the chase once in a while as they do in the wild.

Since I despise the obligatory fast days so much, I’ve worked out a way around that which offers my seahorses an interesting change in their routine once a week rather than on empty belly. It’s a fun alternative to fast days that I feel is far easier on the hobbyist and his pampered pets alike. Nowadays, rather than fasting my seahorses, I offer them a meal with a nutritional value that’s virtually nil instead: unenriched, unfed adult brine shrimp. As you can imagine, brine shrimp in this condition have very little fat content and should be considered nutritionally barren for all intents and purposes.

So once a week, instead of depriving my seahorses, I now serve them up a generous portion of unenriched adult brine shrimp that I have disinfected by soaking them in freshwater for 10 minutes beforehand. They get the thrill of hunting and eating live food and I get the fun of watching them chase after it. Instead of going hungry, my seahorses get to fill up on empty calories, while I get to avoid a guilty conscience. It’s a win-win situation. Everybody’s happy.

It’s a neat way of "fasting with a full belly," which I feel is healthy for the seahorses in more ways than one. Not only does it help guard against hepatic lipidosis from a high-fat diet, it also provides a little extra excitement for the seahorses and helps improve their quality of life in captivity.
<Close quote>

One thing you’ll quickly notice when hand feeding is that the individual personalities of seahorses naturally extend to their feeding habits. Some are aggressive feeders that will boldly snatch food from your fingers, while some and shy and secretive, feeding only when they think they’re not being observed. Some like to slurp up Mysis while it’s swirling through the water column, and some will only take Mysis off the bottom of the tank. Some are voracious pigs that greedily scarf up everything in sight, and some are slow, deliberate feeders that painstakingly examine every morsel of Mysis and stare it down forever before they finally decide to accept or reject it. Some eat like horses and some eat like birds. The difference in their personalities is part of what makes seahorse-keeping so entertaining.

Best wishes with all your fishes!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna


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