With two exceptions, clownfish are generally not good tankmates for seahorses. Most species, such as Tomato Clowns (Amphiprion frenatus), Maroon Clowns (Premnas biaculeatus), and Skunk Clownfish are surprisingly aggressive and territorial, and should be shunned on that basis. Others do best when kept with anemones, which are a threat to seahorses. All clownfish are prone to Brooklynella and Marine Velvet (Amyloodinium), and should be considered Ich (Cryptocaryon irritans) magnets as well (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). The only species I would recommend as companions for seahorses are captive-bred-and-raised Percula Clowns (Amphiprion percula) and False Percula Clownfish (A. ocellaris).
The clownfish that Ocean Rider offers are Amphiprion occelaris that are born and raised at their High-Health aquaculture facility and they indeed make fine tankmates for seahorses. (Think "Saving Nemo" — those are the clowns that do well with seahorses, providing you are willing to target feed the seahorses, as discussed below:
When keeping seahorses in an appropriately elaborate environment, it is imperative that you feed them properly! Domesticated seahorses thrive on enriched frozen Mysis as their staple, everyday diet. But the worst thing you can do when feeding the seahorses in a intricate reef or live rock environment is to scatter a handful of frozen Mysis throughout the tank to be dispersed by the currents and hope that the hungry horses can track it all down. Inevitably some of the frozen food will be swept away and lodge in isolated nooks and crannies where the seahorses cannot get it (Giwojna, 2005). There it will begin to decompose and degrade the water quality, which is why ammonia spikes are common after a heavy feeding. Or it may be wafted out into the open again later on and eaten after it has begun to spoil. Either outcome can have dire consequences (Giwojna, 2005).
The best way to avoid such problems is to target feed your seahorses or set up a feeding station for them. See my online article in Conscientious Aquarist for a detailed discussion explaining exactly how to set up a feeding station and train your seahorses to use it:
Click here: Seahorse Feeders
Personally, I prefer to target feed my seahorses instead. 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 are 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 before they accept or reject it. Some eat like horses and some eat like birds. So how does the seahorse keeper make sure all his charges are getting enough to eat at mealtime? How does the hobbyist keep the aggressive eaters from gobbling up all the mouth-watering Mysis before the slower feeders get their fair share? And how can you keep active fishes and inverts with seahorses without the faster fishes gobbling up all the goodies before the slowpoke seahorses can grab a mouthful?
Target feeding is the answer. Target feeding just means offering a single piece of Mysis to one particular seahorse, and then watching to see whether or not the ‘horse you targeted actually eats the shrimp. Feeding each of your seahorses in turn that way makes it easy to keep track of exactly how much each of your specimens is eating.
There are many different ways to target feed seahorses. Most methods involve using a long utensil of some sort to wave the Mysis temptingly in front of the chosen seahorse; once you’re sure this has attracted his interest, the Mysis is released so it drifts down enticingly right before the seahorse’s snout. Most of the time, the seahorse will snatch it up as it drifts by or snap it up as soon as it hits the bottom.
A great number of utensils work well for target feeding. I’ve seen hobbyists use everything from chopsticks to extra long tweezers and hemostats or forceps to homemade pipettes fashioned from a length of rigid plastic tubing. As for myself, I prefer handfeeding when I target feed a particular seahorse.
But no doubt the all-time favorite implement for target feeding seahorses is the old-fashioned turkey baster. The old-fashioned ones with the glass barrels work best because the seahorses can see the Mysis inside the baster all the way as it moves down the barrel and out the tip. By exerting just the right amount of pressure on the bulb, great precision is possible when target feeding with a turkey baster. By squeezing and releasing the bulb ever so slightly, a skillful target feeder can keep a piece of Mysis dancing at the very tip of the baster indefinitely, and hold the tempting morsel right in front of the seahorse’s mouth as long as necessary. Or if the seahorse rejects the Mysis the first time it drifts by, a baster makes it easy to deftly suck up the shrimp from the bottom so it can be offered to the target again. In the same way, the baster makes it a simple matter to clean any remaining leftovers after a feeding session. (You’ll quickly discover the feeding tube is also indispensable for tapping away pesky fish and invertebrates that threaten to steal the tempting tidbit before an indecisive seahorse can snatch it up.)
In short, target feeding allows the hobbyist to assure that each of his seahorses gets enough to eat without overfeeding or underfeeding the tank. And it makes it possible to keep seahorses in a community tank with more active fishes that would ordinarily out-compete them for food, since the aquarist can personally deliver each mouthful to the seahorses while keeping more aggressive specimens at bay.
The key to keeping active specimens like firefish and occelaris clownfish or cleaner shrimp successfully with seahorses is to feed the other fish and inverts with standard, off-the-shelf aquarium foods first, and once they’ve had their fill, then target feed the seahorses.
Now, as for your other questions, of course seahorses in the wild are endangered (indeed, the other Ocean Rider forum on this site is devoted to Seahorse Conservation for that very reason). Wild seahorse populations now facing growing pressure from habitat loss, over harvesting, and a number of other factors. Unfortunately, seahorses just so happen to dwell in the world’s most threatened marine habitats: estuaries, coral reefs, mangrove forests, salt marshes and coastal seagrass beds (Cuen, 8 Jun. 2000). Destructive fishing practices such as cyanide collecting, heavy bottom trawling and dynamite fishing take a heavy toll on these delicate, all-important ecosystems (Lourie, Vincent and Hall, 1999). The dismal reality is that as coastal populations continue to boom around the world, seahorse habitats are steadily disappearing and smothering from pollution.
Take mangrove forests, for example. They are the coastal equivalent of tropical forests on land, providing natural habitat for countless species of fish (including seahorses, of course) and crustaceans as well as acting as nurseries for their young. Mangroves provide food, fuel and medicine for the locals and are an important natural resource for both their animal residents and human populations (Quarto, 2004).
Not long ago, mangrove forests covered fully three-fourths of the coastlines of tropical and sub-tropical countries. As a result of the charcoal and timber industries, urban growth pressures, and mounting pollution problems, less than 50% remain today, and over half of the remaining mangrove forests are already in poor shape, on the decline (Quarto, 2004). Mangroves are now disappearing even faster than tropical rain forests.
Habitat destruction is further aggravated by over collecting. An estimated 25-30 million specimens are now collected from the wild annually, primarily to feed the insatiable demands of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for dried seahorses (Garrick-Maidment, May 2002, Aug. 2002). The global demand for seahorses for this medicinal market is virtually limitless. They have no place in modern western medicine, of course, but dried seahorses are used in countless numbers for TCM and its regional variations: hanyak in Korea, kanpo in Japan, and jamu in Indonesia (Lourie, Vincent and Hall, 1999). In vast areas of the world, seahorses are in widespread use to treat maladies such as asthma and other respiratory ailments, broken bones, impotence, arteriosclerosis, thyroid disorders, heart disease, skin problems, and incontinence (Cuen 2000, Gaski and Johnson 1994). They are especially popular in China and Taiwan as aphrodisiacs and treatments for sexual dysfunction (Garrick-Maidment, Aug. 2002).
Seahorses have been exploited for these purposes for centuries and will continue to be used in rapidly growing numbers for TCM throughout the foreseeable future. The handwriting is on the wall: TCM has been formally codified for 2000 years, is practiced by over one quarter of the world’s population, and is acknowledged to be a valid form of medicine by the World Health Organization (Lourie, Vincent and Hall, 1999). TCM and its variants are most popular in those very parts of the world whose population is growing the fastest, fueling the growing demand for seahorses in folk medicine.
Although Asian folk medicine is by far the biggest culprit, accounting for over 95% of the seahorses collected from the wild, seahorses are also taken in quantity for use as aquarium pets and for the curio trade. Several hundred thousand wild seahorses are exported annually for the pet market, primarily to the USA, and similar numbers are harvested and dried every year for use as souvenirs and trinkets (Lourie, Vincent and Hall, 1999). Thanks to their bony exoskeletons, seahorses retain their lifelike appearance indefinitely after drying, and they are thus incorporated into jewelry, key rings, paperweights, and craftwork featuring marine themes. It’s unconscionable that these remarkable creatures should be exploited as tasteless trinkets.
The double-pronged threat of habitat loss and overfishing has caused a dramatic decline in seahorse populations worldwide, and in some areas their numbers have dropped an alarming 50% over the past five to ten years (Cuen, 2000). Over 75 countries now actively trade in seahorses, and this traffic is growing by 8%-10% annually; as the world’s population of people soars, so does demand for these beleaguered fishes (Lourie, Vincent and Hall, 1999).
These figures are furthered aggravated by the fact that large numbers of seahorses are killed every year as an incidental by-catch of commercial trawlers fishing for shrimp (Vincent 1990). The seahorses are accidentally taken in the nets when the fishermen are targeting prawns because the horses are attracted to the shrimping grounds in order to feed on the larval crustaceans (Cozzi-Schmarr, pers. com.). Seahorses are especially vulnerable to trawling because they can’t escape the nets; their reaction to impending danger is to hunker down, tuck in their heads, and try to escape notice by remaining immobile. In most circumstances, this serves these slow-moving, cryptic creatures very well, but it is not a successful escape strategy when the heavy trawls are thundering down on you, closing in fast and scooping up everything in their paths.
Trawlers therefore take an excessive toll on them and can wipe out entire populations of seahorses when they are working an area for shrimp, causing localized extirpations. Worst still, trawling often destroys vital habitat in the process of scouring the seabed and harvesting the shrimp, making it especially difficult for seahorses to recolonize the area (Vincent 1990). Worst of all, the shrimpers regard the seahorses as trash fish so they are utterly wasted, unceremoniously discarded when culling the catch.
Unfortunately the seahorse’s lifestyle, biology, and ecology all conspire to make them extremely vulnerable to such overexploitation. They inhabit inshore waters where man’s impact on aquatic ecosystems is greatest (land reclamation, wetlands draining, dredging, deforestation, siltation, agricultural runoff, encroaching urban and industrial development, pollution, fishing pressure, etc.). The cannot replace losses quickly, if at all, because their limited mobility, patchy distribution, naturally low population densities, and inherent reproductive limitations all severely restrict their ability to repopulate an area (Cuen, 2000, Vincent 1990). They are specialized for lengthy parental care of the embryonic young and produce very small numbers of fry compared to most other fishes (Vincent 1990). Gravid males are often collected, removing an entire generation of unborn young and all their future progeny from the ocean along with their father. The monogamous lifestyle of many species in the wild works against them, since once a seahorse has been widowed (or its mate has been collected), it takes time for the survivor to locate a new mate, pair up, and begin breeding again (Cuen, 2000). As a result, seahorses cannot replenish their numbers nearly fast enough to sustain the rate at which they are being harvested.
The cultured seahorses Ocean Rider provides, which are all captive bred and raised, have the potential to help alleviate the pressure on wild seahorse populations by eliminating the need to harvest wild seahorses for the pet trade. That was the primary goal that inspired Carol and Craig Cozzi-Schmarr to establish the Ocean Rider aquaculture facility in 1998.
Whether or not seahorses are difficult to keep depends on whether you’re talking about fragile wild-caught seahorses or adaptable captive-bred-and-raised seahorses. Delicate wild-caught seahorses are indeed challenging to keep and raise; they are best reserved for expert aquarists with the knowledge and resources to meet their demanding requirements. Hardy captive bred seahorses that are trained to eat frozen foods, on the other hand, are very much at home in the aquarium and are relatively easy to care for. More home hobbyists are able to breed and raise cultured seahorses such as Mustangs successfully than any other type of marine fishes.
Ocean Rider seahorses have been born and bred for aquarium life for generation after generation. They are at home in the aquarium, accustomed to eating readily provided frozen foods as their staple diet, and used to living in close proximity to others of their kind. Wild-caught seahorses, on the other hand, are starting out with the deck stacked against them and find captive conditions very unnatural and highly stressful. They have been abruptly snatched from their natural environment, wrenched apart from their mates, starved while they make the rounds from collector to wholesaler to retailer to hobbyist, and exposed to all manner of pathogens and parasites at every stop along the way. They are accustomed to eating live foods and, with the patchy distribution typical of all Hippocampines, they rarely encounter seahorses other than their mates in the vastness of the sea. As a result, wild-caught seahorses typically have considerable difficulty adjusting to aquarium conditions, unnatural foods, and living in constant contact with other seahorses.
If you have never kept cultured seahorses before, spellingchimp, it will quickly become apparent that they are superior to their wild conspecifics as aquarium specimens in every respect. Vastly superior! In every way. In terms of their hardiness, ease of maintenance, disease resistance, longevity, adaptability, suitability for the captive environment, willingness to breed in the aquarium, genetic diversity, vigor, friendliness and sociability, coloration, and especially their feeding habits, they put wild seahorses to shame. No contest. Generations of selective breeding have transformed cultured seahorses into far different animals — a whole new breed — than wild seahorses. Compared to their wild-caught cousins, the captive-bred-and-raised seahorses are far more fun, much easier to keep and more convenient to care for, and generally more attractive specimens as well.
In short, the advantages of farm-raised, captive-bred seahorses over wild-caught specimens are many, obvious, and compelling. For starters, let’s examine their different feeding habits. Before captive-bred specimens were available, one of the seahorse keeper’s greatest challenges was providing wild-caught seahorses with a balanced, nutritious diet, stemming from their reliance on hard-to-provide live foods. Meeting their long-term needs was a difficult, expensive proposition. It required numerous live food cultures, rigorous field trips to collect live foods, and special training sessions to try to teach them to eat frozen foods, which often proved to be a prolonged, highly frustrating exercise in futility.
By comparison, feeding farm-raised seahorses is simplicity itself. Raised in captivity, all captive-bred seahorses are pre-trained to eat frozen Mysis shrimp as their staple diet. Frozen Mysis relicta have an extremely high protein content, and when fortified with special enrichment products rich in highly unsaturated fatty acids, carotenoids, Vitamins C and A and essential minerals, it provides a highly nutritious diet that contains all of the crucial components necessary for the long-term health of the seahorse. In my opinion, the best of these enrichment products is a dry powder formulation (i.e., Vibrance) especially developed in Hawaii to provide a balanced diet for seahorses when used in conjunction with the protein-rich frozen Mysis. A nutritious diet of enriched, frozen Mysis relicta thus ensures long-term survivability, high health, high mating frequency and beautiful, vibrant colors in our pampered pets.
In fact, this is such a superb diet that it is strongly suggested that the aquarist "fast" his seahorses one day per week, and feeding live foods is totally unnecessary except as an occasional treat. Contrast a trip to your refrigerator twice a day to thaw frozen Mysis, and no feeding at all once a week, with the collecting expeditions, live food cultures, and painstaking training procedures required to sustain wild-caught seahorses and wean them onto frozen fodder, and you can see there is really no comparison (Giwojna, May 2002).
Breeding is another area where wild seahorses simply cannot compete with their captive-bred counterparts. In the olden days, greater seahorses removed from the wild rarely bred in captivity. There were a number of reasons for this ranging from traumatic capture techniques and mishandling by dealers to difficulty adjusting to a captive environment to the sort of feeding problems we’ve been discussing above. But one big factor was that in the aquarium they lacked the type of seasonal or cyclical environmental cues (falling water temperature, changes in day length, reduced salinity from monsoon rains, moon phases and high tides, etc.) they normally experience in the wild that regulate the breeding season. These environmental stimuli trigger the secretion of gonadotropin and other key hormones that prepare them for breeding and govern their reproductive activity. Without these environmental cues and the hormonally induced changes they trigger, many times they simply ceased to breed in captivity. Researchers dealt with such setbacks through wild procurement of gravid males. In other words, loaded or pregnant males removed from the wild provided the fry needed for rearing projects and laboratory study in those days.
Captive-bred seahorses normally experience no such difficulties in the boudoir. They are highly domesticated and very well adapted to the aquarium environment. They are not subject to the traumatic capture methods or mishandling and abuse en route to the hobbyist. Born and bred for captivity generation after generation, for them the aquarium is their natural habitat. As a result, for the most part, they have lost their dependence on seasonal cues and external stimuli when it comes to mating. Rather than external environmental cues, for farm-raised seahorses, which have been raised at far greater population densities than seahorses ever experience in the wild, it is the presence of other seahorses — potential mates — that appears to get their hormones flowing and triggers courtship. (Pheromones or sex hormones almost certainly play a role in this.) In other words, living amidst a group of potential partners at all times seems to be what turns on captive-bred seahorses, and breeding appears to be their number one mission in life. Compared to their wild conspecifics, farm-raised seahorses seem to court constantly, breed like bunnies, and change partners often.
But to me, the most striking difference between cultured seahorses and wild specimens has always been the increased hardiness of the former. Captive-bred seahorses simply enjoy a huge advantage over their wild-caught brethren in terms of their health, disease resistance, and conditioning, and that naturally translates to greater longevity in the aquarium. To understand why they are so much hardier and healthier, we must examine how cultured seahorses and seahorses captured from the wild are handled before they reach the hobbyist. It is largely a matter of stress. In a nutshell, captive-bred-and-raised seahorses are not stressed by aquarium life and are not abused en route to the aquarist, and that makes all the difference in the world in terms of their fitness and lifespan in captivity.
When you place an order for farm-raised seahorses, they are then delivered overnight directly to your door from Hawaii’s state-of-the art aquaculture facility, and thus reach the consumer well fed and in optimum condition. They arrive disease-free and relatively unstressed, at the peak of their health and coloration. This gives them a huge headstart over wild-caught seahorses, which are often beat up during capture (specimens taken in trawls, for example, often suffer considerable wear and tear during the collection process) and mishandled at various stops along the way to your local fish store (LFS). By the time they finally arrive at your local dealers, wild-caught seahorses may already have spent a long time in the collector’s holding tanks followed by an indefinite stay at a wholesaler and a high-risk respite at your local retailers, and have been exposed to all manner of pathogens and parasites at every stop along the way (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Due to their need for live foods, they are very likely to have gone unfed during this entire period, and they may have become malnourished by the time they reach your neighborhood fish store (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). And because they were taken from coastal waters, wild seahorses are frequently infested with a variety of pests and parasites ranging from sea lice (Argulus sp.) to nematodes, parasitic copepods and hydroids. Upon arrival, they will need to be quarantined for a period of several weeks, since they may also be carrying disease pathogens such as fungus, Vibrio, or deadly Glugea (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Captive-raised, high-health seahorses pose no such problems.
The greater adaptability of captive-bred and reared seahorses is another big plus. Cultured seahorses have now achieved a high level of domestication. They are pre-adapted to aquarium conditions and pre-trained to eat easily provided frozen foods. Because they are raised at much greater population densities than seahorses experience in nature, captive-bred specimens are accustomed to living in close quarters and withstand crowding much better than wild-caught ‘horses. Consequently, farm-raised seahorses have little difficulty adjusting to life in a captive environment. By contrast, field studies show that, in the wild, seahorses have a distribution pattern that can best be described as patchy, meaning they are few and far between, and that a female typically enjoys a home territory of up to 100 square meters (Vincent and Sadler, 1995). It stands to reason that wild-caught seahorses may have a more difficult time acclimating to life in captivity than farm-raised ponies that are literally born and bred for life in the aquarium. And that means that wild-caught seahorses will be under more stress in captivity, at least initially (Giwojna, May 2002).
The bottom line is that captive bred and raised seahorses are simply hardier, more disease resistant, easier to maintain and longer lived in captivity than their wild-caught counterparts. They reach the hobbyist well fed, in peak condition, and already accustomed to aquarium life and frozen foods (Giwojna, May 2002). On the other hand, wild-caught seahorses typically arrive at your local fish store in poor shape, suffering from near starvation and the trauma of capture (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Mishandling combined with malnutrition stresses these animals and impairs their immune systems, making them prone to disease (Bull and Mitchell, 2002; Lidster 2003).
This means that wild seahorses often have a difficult time adjusting to aquarium conditions, don’t tolerate crowding as well, and will most certainly have problems adjusting to frozen fodder or any other easily provided foods. They will need live foods for an indefinite period while they struggle to make the transition to strange foods and the captive environment, and will be stressed out in the interim (Giwojna, May 2002).
In fact, the pet industry has coined a term for the plight of newly imported marine fishes like seahorses. They call it "Post Traumatic Shipping Disorder," and pet dealers consider PTSD to be the single greatest problem facing the ornamental fish industry. As they define it, PTSD refers to a broad range of complications suffered by marine fishes following traumatic capture, holding and/or transportation. The majority of cases are believed to be the result of digestive tract damage resulting from inadequate nourishment during a period of high (stress-induced) metabolic demand. And seahorses are right at the top of the dealers’ list of most often affected specimens because of their specialized feeding requirements (Lidster, 1999).
The point is that the hobbyist can spare himself a great deal of hardship and heartache, and eliminate many potential disease problems altogether right from the start, simply by opting for hardy captive-bred seahorses that thrive under aquarium conditions. Many of the afflictions that plagued seahorses in the Dark Ages of the hobby when wild specimens were the only choice are rarely if ever seen by hobbyists today who keep captive-bred seahorses. This includes nuisances like sea lice, parasitic copepods and many other ectoparasites, nematode infestations, the fungus infections that were once so common when wild seahorses collected late in the season and exposed to chilling, as well as deadly epidemics of Glugea that wiped out whole herds of wild horses in the past.
Therefore, the first rule of successful seahorse keeping is to avoid wild-caught seahorses like the plague. The hobbyist can prevent a number of disease problems simply by stocking his system with High Health captive-bred seahorses.
In short, the literature that describes seahorses as almost impossible to keep and raise in the aquarium is outdated and refers to wild seahorses; it simply doesn’t apply to the hardy, highly domesticated Ocean Rider seahorses that are helping to end the exploitation of wild seahorses for the aquarium industry. That’s the deal with cultured seahorses, spellingchimp.
Best of luck with your plans to set up a seahorse tank! Please let us know if you have any more questions to help get you started off on the right foot.
Post edited by: Pete Giwojna, at: 2007/03/24 01:25