Re:Help — something wrong

Pete Giwojna

Dear Barbara:

You’re very welcome to all the help I can provide! Considering that another seahorse has now been affected, and it’s not just your Brazilian (Hippocampus reidi) male that’s behaving oddly, I think you may have a serious problem in your aquarium.

Male seahorses do occasionally engage in tail wrestling and sparring matches, especially when they are competing for mates, but these are highly ritualized contests that aren’t intended to inflict injury but rather to assert dominance. A rival male will sometimes wrap its tail around an opponent’s neck, and his adversary will violently protest and do his best to break free, but there is no danger of strangulation when this happens. The seahorse’s prehensile tail does have a powerful grip, but it’s not strong enough to cut off the circulation through an opponent’s armor-plated exoskeleton. Nor does it restrict the breathing when a seahorse wraps its tail around the neck of a rival, since the seahorse that’s being grasped can still take in water through its mouth and pass it over the gills at the side of its head freely all the while.

So I don’t think your Mustang was strangled in a tussle with one of your other males; I don’t think he is playing possum, I think he may be moribund. And I suspect the Mustang was affected by the same thing that triggered the alarming behavior in your Brazilian male.

I’m not familiar with Joe’s Juice, and without knowing what the active ingredient in that product is, I cannot say whether or not it’s safe to use with seahorses. But if the problems with your seahorses began shortly after using Joe’s Juice, there is certainly a possibility that it could be the culprit.

However, when seahorses suffer from accidental poisoning is most often due to heavy metals or household disinfectants and cleaning products, as described below:

Environmental Diseases Associated with Water Quality

Ammonia poisoning and nitrite toxicity are the most common of these problems (Indiviglio, 2002). Ammonia is highly toxic to fish and invertebrates in even small amounts (> 0.01 mg/L or ppm). Nitrite is slightly less poisonous to fishes, but deadly to many invertebrates at very small concentrations (0.01 mg/L or ppm). To be safe, ammonia and nitrite levels must be kept at zero at all times.

Dangerous levels of ammonia and nitrite can build up in the aquarium for many reasons. Failure to cycle the tank properly and establish the biofilter is a common beginner’s mistake, as is adding too many specimens too soon before the biofilter can adjust to the heavier bioload (i.e., new tank syndrome). Impairment of the biofiltration can also cause ammonia and nitrites to reach dangerous levels. This can result from medicating the main tank, a lack of oxygen for the beneficial aerobic bacteria due to a pump failure or power outage, disrupting the live sand bed too deeply when cleaning the substrate, and so on. The undetected death of tankmate such as a starfish or large snail can lead to harmful ammonia and/or nitrite spikes, as can overcrowding and overfeeding.

Seahorses suffering from ammonia and/or nitrite poisoning will struggle to breathe. They will be lethargic and exhibit rapid respiration. They may appear disoriented, periodically detaching from their hitching posts only to sink to the bottom (Indiviglio, 2002). Test kits will confirm your diagnosis by revealing unacceptable levels of ammonia and/or nitrite in the water.

The appropriate treatment is to immediately transfer the seahorses to clean saltwater in a hospital tank and add methylene blue, which aids oxygen transport in the blood. Methylene blue will help seahorses with ammonia poisoning to breathe, and can actually reverse the effects of nitrite toxicity. While the seahorses are undergoing treatment, partial water changes will reduce the levels of ammonia/nitrite in the main tank. The cause of the problem must then be determined or corrected. This can be as quick and easy as finding and removing a dead specimen or as difficult and time consuming as recycling the entire tank.

Heavy metal poisoning is another environmental disease hobbyists must sometimes contend with. Even tiny concentrations of heavy metals are deadly to marine fish and invertebrates. This used to be a common cause for concern among marine aquarists when steel-framed aquariums were commonplace, but the advent of all-glass tanks and acrylic aquaria have greatly reduced such problems.

The chief offender nowadays is copper, which usually becomes a problem when the hobbyist overdoses the tank with a copper-based medication (Indiviglio, 2002). Other times copper enters the aquarium in tap water used for water changes or topping off the tank. The copper is leached into the tap water from copper pipes and plumbing (Indiviglio, 2002).

Other heavy metals (iron, lead, and aluminum) sometimes also present a problem when they are accidentally introduced to the aquarium in rocks, gravel, ornaments or decorations. Some of rocks and gravel sold (e.g., red flint) for freshwater use are unsafe in marine tanks because of a high metal content. The same is true for many aquarium ornaments and decorations (Giwojna, 1990). Be especially wary when purchasing artificial plastic plants for the aquarium. Stick with calcareous rocks and gravel and make certain any ornaments or plastic plants you consider are designed for use in marine aquariums and certified to be safe.

Even the popular sponge or foam filters are often a hazard. Many of them contain metal weights as ballast to hold them on the bottom, which is fine in freshwater but can be deadly in a saltwater setup when the metal slugs corrode and leach heavy metal ions into the water.

Seahorses suffering from heavy metal poisoning will act as if they are falling-down drunk. They will be listless and loggy, and if they attempt to move, they will be disoriented, bump blindly into things, and have great difficulty maintaining their normal equilibrium and balance (Giwojna, 1990). And they will be breathing hard and fast.

Treatment is as for ammonia/nitrite poisoning — get them into clean saltwater ASAP, identify the source of contamination and eliminate it, and change out the water in the main tank. Polyfilter pads pull out copper and many heavy metals and may be especially useful in such a situation.

Contamination of the aquarium water with household chemicals is another common problem for the hobbyist (Indiviglio, 2002). Avoid using anything that gives off strong fumes anywhere near your aquarium! This includes bleach, paint, lacquer, varnish, paint thinner, turpentine, insect sprays, bug bombs, pesticides, hairy spray, cigarette smoke, and household cleaners of all kinds (Giwojna, 1990). Even if the aquarium is tightly covered or sealed with plastic, airborne contaminants from fumes and aerosols will still be pumped into the aquarium from the air pumps (Indiviglio, 2002). To prevent this from happening when you must use such products near an aquarium that cannot be moved, disconnect the air pumps first and work only in well-ventilated area. Use submersible powerheads to maintain circulation in the covered aquarium, work fast, and air out the room thoroughly before you reconnect the air supply.

Medicating the aquarium is the worst possible thing you can do when seahorses are suffering from diseases related to water quality or environmental problems such as the toxic conditions described above (Giwojna, 1990). Afflictions such as these are not caused by parasites or pathogens, so medicating the tank not only fails to address the problem, it actually makes matters worse (Giwojna, 1990). Chemotherapeutic agents can be harsh on the seahorses, especially when they are already weakened due to poor water quality or actual poisoning. Worse yet, they are often hard on the biofilter as well and apt to further degrade water quality by killing off beneficial Nitrobacter and Nitrosomonas bacteria.

Therefore, when accidental poisoning may have occurred, a series of water changes combined with activated carbon filtration and the use of Poly-Filter pads is the best treatment option. For best results, the seahorses should be transferred to another aquarium with fresh seawater while the water is completely replaced in the main tank.

A bare-bottomed, 10-gallon aquarium with plenty of hitching posts will suffice for a Quarantine Tank (QT). Ideally, the hospital tank should have one or more foam filters for biofiltration along with a small external filter, which can easily be removed from the tank during treatment but which can hold activated carbon or polyfilter pads when it’s time to pull the meds out. It’s important for the hospital ward to include enough hitching posts so that the seahorse wont feel vulnerable or exposed during treatment. Aquarium safe, inert plastic plants or homemade hitching posts fashioned from polypropylene rope or twine that has been unraveled and anchored at one end are excellent for a hospital tank. No aquarium reflector is necessary. Ambient room light will suffice. (Bright lights can breakdown and inactivate certain medications and seahorses are more comfortable and feel more secure under relatively dim lighting.)

So just a bare 10-gallon tank with hitching posts is all you need for your hospital ward, Barbara. No heater. No reflector. No lights. No substrate. You can even do without the sponge filters or external filter in your case, just adding a couple of airstones to provide surface agitation and oxygenation. That’s it.

In a pinch, a clean 5-gallon plastic bucket (new and unused, NOT an old scrub bucket!) can serve as a makeshift hospital tank. It should be aerated and equipped with hitching posts and perhaps a heater, but nothing else. This makes a useful substitute when the Quarantine Tank is occupied or in use and a seahorse needs treatment.

Stay on top of water quality in the hospital tank/bucket with water changes as often as needed during treatment, and redose with the medication according to directions after each water change.

Often the hospital tank is filled with water from the main tank, eliminating the need to match aquarium parameters. But that’s not advisable in the case of suspected poisoning, where the water itself may be bad. In that case, you fill the hospital tank with freshly mixed seawater and use your hydrometer to adjust it to the proper salinity or specific gravity by adding more salt mix or more freshwater as the case may be. A pH test kit can verify that the pH is the same as in your main tank. If not, the pH can be adjusted upwards or downward in the hospital tank using commercially made products that are available at any LFS. Or if you want to raise the pH, you can use ordinary baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to gradually increase the pH.

For future reference, I prefer to eliminate Aiptasia rock anemones from a seahorse tank using biological control rather than any type of chemicals. Peppermint Shrimp (Lysmata wurdemanni) will do a fine job of controlling Aiptasia rock anemones and they do great with seahorses. They are popular additions to a seahorse tank because hobbyists like to use them to augment their cleanup crews and add a splash of color and activity to their tanks. Aside from their utility as attractive scavengers, they often perform a useful service by grooming the seahorses, which is fascinating to watch, and regularly reproduce, releasing swarms of nauplii many seahorses love to eat. Peppermint Shrimp are especially popular because they are natural predators of Aiptasia rock anemones and do a wonderful job of eradicating these pests from the aquarium.

One rule to keep in mind when buying your Peppermints is to select the largest possible cleaner shrimp for your seahorse tank(s). Seahorses will actively hunt small cleaner shrimp and they are quite capable of killing shrimp that are far too big to swallow whole, so the cleaners need to be large enough that they are not regarded as potential prey. Just add a few good-sized Peppermint Shrimp to your tank, Deia, and your worries about rock anemones will be a thing of the past.

If your Mustang has indeed expired, you’ll want to keep a very close eye on things to determine if the tank may have been accidentally poisoned or if there could be a disease problem of some sort of work. In the meantime, I would recommend performing a major water change ASAP while using activated carbon filtration and/or a Poly-Filter pad to remove any possible contaminants from the water.

A56-gallon tall aquarium should make a splendid set up for seahorses! What are your current aquarium parameters?

Best of luck with your seahorses, Barbara!

Pete Giwojna

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