Re:Hello – Looking seriously into Seahorses!

Pete Giwojna

Dear RJ:

Mustangs and Sunbursts are different color morphs of the same species (Hippocampus erectus). As such, they have identical aquarium requirements, interbreed freely, and are equally hardy. Sunbursts are a bit smaller than Mustangs on average, topping out at around 5-6 inches, whereas the ‘stangs can reach well in excess of 6 inches in length.

But they differ primarily in their coloration: Mustangs tend to be darker colored, displaying the dominant dark brown to black coloration that is so typical of wild erectus, whereas the Sunbursts tend to be more brightly colored, and typically display the much less common yellow to orange color pattern.

But it’s important to note that the Sunbursts are not genetic mutations that are locked into specific colors. Colorful Ocean Riders are not homozygous recessives nor or they mutations that are unable to manufacture certain pigments altogether. In other words, they are not like albinos that are always white because they lack the ability to produce melanin (black pigment), nor are they like lutino mutations that are always yellow because they lack the ability to manufacture any pigments other than yellow. But they do exhibit differential proliferation of chromatophores and this gives each type a predisposition to display certain colors.

Mustangs, for example, have a preponderance of melanophores (black pigment cells) 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.

Although yellow and orange pigments tend to predominate in Sunbursts, they are equipped with a full range of chromatophores and can display a wide range of colors. This means they are predisposed towards the sunset colors (yellow, gold, peach and orange) when conditions are to their liking. However, they have a complement of melanophores in addition to their bright pigment cells and are able to change their coloration to reflect changing circumstances and conditions. So yellow and orange are the most commonly seen colors in Sunbursts, but you also find them in white, pearly, tan or even brown color phases from time to time.

In short, Mustangs exhibit the normal coloration for wild H. erectus and tend to be darker colored as a rule, but will show brighter color phases from time to time. Likewise, Sunbursts tend to exhibit the sunset colors when conditions are favorable, but they also display darker color phases on occasion.

You can expect both Mustangs and Sunbursts to go through quite a range of color phases from month to month. For example, I have watched my pair of Mustangs go through a number of color changes over the years. One has settled on a dark grayish -green as its base coloration for the moment, and the other ranges between rust, chocolate brown and russet-brown, but always with contrasting beige bands. Last season, the male adopted a deep burnt umber as his everyday attire (still with the same beige saddles, 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.

Sunbursts exhibit equally variable coloration from month to month and are just as hardy as the Mustangs. Of course, the two types make great tankmates for one another. Go down paragraph

For a complete discussion of how and why seahorses change color, please check out the a two-part article on coloration in seahorses that I recently wrote for Conscientious Aquarist online magazine. You can read the articles at the following URL’s and enjoy Leslie Leddo’s magnificent photographs:

part one:

part two:


Once pair bonded seahorses begin reproducing in the aquarium, they will generally produce a new brood of young roughly every month as long as conditions remain favorable (good water quality, good nutrition, sufficient height to mate comfortably, and a stress-free environment.) Many species will breed year-round in the aquarium.

When you order a mated pair of seahorses, you are guaranteed to receive a compatible male and female that have shown indications of courtship and pair bonding. They will have typically been together for one or more breeding cycles. However, this does not necessarily assure reproductive success and mated pairs are not guaranteed to breed in any given setup. Too many other factors can have an adverse affect on courtship and mating in the aquarium, including diet, water quality, the height of the aquarium, compatible/incompatible tankmates, competition for mates, photoperiod, environmental cues, various aquarium stressors, and so on. Since most of these factors are totally beyond the control of Ocean Rider once their livestock leaves the aquaculture facility, they cannot guarantee that their seahorses will reproduce successfully in the hobbyist’s aquarium upon arrival.

If you want to jumpstart your breeding program, RJ, you can always pay a little extra to obtain a pregnant male when you order your seahorses. That way, you will receive a gravid male and you can be confident that he will deliver a brood of healthy young within weeks of his arrival.

There are a number of excellent online articles on this site and others with in-depth information on the care and keeping of seahorses. For example, I wrote an article in Conscientious Aquarist called "Feeding Stations : A Better Way to Feed Seahorses" that you may find useful for feeding your seahorses more efficiently. It discusses all the different kinds of feeding stations, including natural feeding stations. It’s available online at the following URL:

Click here: Seahorse Feeders


You might also find my series of articles on seahorse nutrition to be helpful in that regard, RJ. Part IV of that series is devoted to feeding and rearing seahorse fry and should be especially useful when you are ready to try your hand at raising the babies. All five articles in series are available online at at the following URL:

Click here: – Seahorse, Sea Life, Marine Life, Aquafarm Sales, Feeds and Accessories – Nutrition <;

As a new seahorse keeper, you should also find the Horse Forum columns in Freshwater and Marine Aquarium (FAMA) to be very interesting and helpful, Lenny. I co-authored many of those columns about seahorses and they are all available online at the following web site. Just go to the particular year you are interested in and you’ll find links or you can read each of the Horse Forum columns from that year:


Also, you will find loads of useful information in the FAQs on the site, RJ.

In addition, don’t forget the following excellent new book about the diseases of seahorses. It will prove to be be very helpful for new seahorse keepers. Dr. Martin Belli, Marc Lamont, Keith Gentry, and Clare Driscoll have done a terrific job putting together "Working Notes: A Guide to the Diseases of Seahorses." Hobbyists will find the detailed information it contains on seahorse anatomy, the latest disease diagnosis and treatment protocols, and quarantine procedures to be extremely useful and helpful. It has some excellent dissection and necropsy photos as well as a number of photos of seahorses with various health problems. This is one book every seahorse keeper should have in his or her fish-room medicine cabinet, and I highly recommend it! In time of need, it can be a real life saver for your seahorses. It’s available online at the following web site:

Click here: Working notes: a guide to seahorse diseases > books > The Shoppe at | CafePress

All of the above would be good sources of information for someone who’s new to seahorses, RJ. If you contact me off list ([email protected]), it can provide you with detailed information on breeding and raising Hippocampus erectus (Mustangs and Sunbursts).

Best of luck setting up a seahorse tank that is perfect for your needs and interests!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna

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