Re:My new horses–some questions

#3585
Pete Giwojna
Guest

Dear Jan:

Welcome to the forum! It’s good to hear that your new arrivals have settled in nicely and are eating well. It sounds like you are doing a fine job with them so far.

A 29-gallon aquarium with live rock and lots of macroalgae is a good environment for your seahorses, and micro hermits, assorted snails, and a peppermint shrimp should do the job nicely as far as your sanitation engineers and cleanup crew go.

Your basic aquarium parameters are fine with the exception of the ammonia. We want the ammonia levels to remain at zero at all times. Your ammonia levels may be up a bit simply because of the increased bioload now that the seahorses have been added to the aquarium and are eating and producing wastes. That will probably correct itself as the biofilter adjusts to the heavier bioload and the population of Nitrosomonas bacteria increases accordingly, but keep a close eye on your ammonia levels for the next several days to make sure the tank doesn’t experience a harmful ammonia spike. Have some freshly mixed saltwater (Instant Ocean is my preferred brand) ready to go that has been preadjusted to the same temperature, pH, and specific gravity as the seahorse tank just in case you need to make a water change or two in order to keep the ammonia levels under control.

For best results, maintain a stable water temperature in the 72°F-75°F range, which is optimum for Mustangs and Sunbursts (Hippocampus erectus).

Yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to adjust the pH gradually; in fact, you always want to avoid abrupt shifts in pH , Jan. Go ahead and wait until tomorrow to determine the full effect the buffer you have added has on the pH before you consider adding any more. And be sure to check the pH at the same time each day, as discussed below.

The pH in a small, closed system aquarium is somewhat dynamic, changing predictably throughout the day. Normal daily fluctuations in pH are to be expected in the aquarium, and are generally gradual enough not to be stressful. These changes are related to variations in photosynthesis, calcium, dissolved oxygen, carbon dioxide, and redox levels that naturally occur in the aquarium. Daily variances in chemical, physical and biological phenomena are a fact of life in aquaria, linked to the light and dark cycles and the diurnal rhythms of captive aquatic systems.

For example, the pH of aquarium water typically peaks after the lights have been on all day at a maximum of perhaps 8.4, only to drop to low of below 8.0 overnight. This is related to photosynthesis and the fact that zooanthellae and green plants consume CO2 and produce O2 when there is adequate light, but reverse that process in the dark, consuming O2 and giving off CO2. Redox levels, available calcium and other water quality parameters are affected in similar ways.

In short, it’s important to check your pH readings at the same time every day (otherwise you may just be seeing normal daily variations in pH). Expect the pH to be highest in the evening after the aquarium lights have been on all day and photosynthesis has been consuming CO2 and releasing O2 throughout the day. Likewise, expect your pH to be lowest in the early morning, after the ligths have been off all night, and photosynthetic organism have been consuming O2 and giving off CO2 throughout the night.

I’m going to provide you with some additional information below on key aquarium water quality parameters that should make the relationship between pH, alkalinity, carbonate hardness and calcium a little more clear. I realize that you will already be quite familiar with much of this material, Jan, but please bear with me, since some of it will be new to a beginner and it never hurts to review the basics:

Basic Water Quality Parameters.

Ammonia (NH3/NH4+): Optimum level = 0 at all times

Ammonia is highly toxic to both fish and invertebrates in even small amounts (> 0.01 mg/L or ppm for sensitive corals and invertebrates). Causes of ammonia toxicity include: immature biofilter (new tank syndrome), impairment of the biological filtration due to antibiotics and other medications, overfeeding, overstocking and dead specimens that go undetected (Webber, 2004).

Nitrite (N02): Optimum level = 0 at all times

Nitrite is slightly less poisonous to fishes than ammonia, but deadly to many invertebrates at very small concentrations (0.01 mg/L or ppm). Even trace amounts of nitrate such as this can wreak havoc in a reef tank and cause serious distress to fish. High levels of nitrite result from the same causes as ammonia.

Nitrate (N03): Optimum level = below 10 ppm in fish-only tanks; 0 ppm in reef tanks.

Nitrate is the end product of the process of nitrification, formed during the Nitrogen Cycle by the oxidation of nitrite by aerobic bacteria. Nitrate is relatively nontoxic to fishes, but elevated levels (> 20 ppm) are stressful to seahorses over the long term and promote the growth of nuisance algae. Reef invertebrates can be much more sensitive to nitrate, and concentrations as low as 0.06 mg/L can cause problems for symbiotic stony corals. The nitrate level is therefore a good indicator of water quality. For best results, consider using live rock and/or a live sand bed (preferably situated in your sump) in conjunction with a good protein skimmer to help filter your seahorse setup. The skimmer will remove excess organic compounds before they enter the nitrogen cycle, and live rock and a deep sand bed will provide significant denitrification ability, all of which will help keep your nitrates down. Don’t overstock, don’t overfed, remove leftovers promptly (a good cleanup crew is useful here), grow and harvest macroalgae, practice good aquarium maintenance and maintain a sensible schedule for water changes.

pH: Optimum level = 8.1 – 8.4 (typically fluctuates between 7.9 at night and 8.4 during the day)

The pH is a measurement of the alkalinity or acidity of aquarium water. A pH of 7 is considered to be "neutral," neither acid or alkaline, while pH levels above 7 are considered to be alkaline or "base," and pH levels below 7 are considered to be acidic. Marine aquaria need to maintain alkaline conditions at all times, and low pH (< 7.6) is especially detrimental to seahorses because it is conducive to Gas Bubble Disease. Normal daily fluctuations in pH are to be expected in the aquarium, and are generally gradual enough not to be stressful (Webber, 2004). Maintaining a sump or refugium with a reverse photoperiod to the main tank can eliminate these natural pH cycles. Regular partial water changes are the key to maintaining stable pH. Buffers can also help but the hobbyist should beware that excessive use of pH buffers may increase KH values to dangerously high levels.

Specific Gravity: Optimum level = 1.022 – 1.025

The specific gravity measures the density of a your aquarium water relative to the density of distilled water, and aquarists use it to estimate the salinity of their aquarium water (Trevor-Jones, Dec. 2002). In effect, it’s one way to measure the saltiness of your tank, since the more salt that is dissolved in the water, the denser it becomes. This can also be done by measuring the total amount of dissolved solids in the water, which is expressed as the salinity in parts per thousand (ppt). Hobbyists must remember that constant evaporation of freshwater from the aquarium causes the salts to become more concentrated, which increases the specific gravity or salinity accordingly. Therefore, it is necessary to top off the tank with freshwater regularly in order to make up for evaporation and maintain the desired specific gravity. Seahorses tolerate a wide range of salinity very well and hyposalinity (specific gravity at 1.011-1.015) is often used to help rid them of ectoparasites.

Dissolved Oxygen (02): Optimum level = 6 – 7 ppm

High levels of dissolved oxygen are vital to the well being of both fish and invertebrates. The key to maintaining high O2 levels in the aquarium is good circulation combined with surface agitation (Webber, 2004). Wet/dry trickle filters and protein skimmers facilitate efficient gas exchange and oxygenation. It is important for the hobbyist to monitor the dissolved oxygen levels in the aquarium because a drop in O2 levels is often an early indicator of impending trouble — a precursor of problems ahead. A drop in O2 levels will tip off the alert aquarist and allow corrective measures to be taken, nipping the problem in the bud before it adversely affects his seahorses.

Alkalinity: Optimum level = 2.4 milliequivalents per litre (meq/L), which is the alkalinity of natural seawater, is best for fish tanks; > 3.0 meq/L is recommend for reef tanks.

The alkalinity is basically a measure of the capability of your aquarium water to resist changes in pH from the addition of acid (Trevor-Jones, Nov. 2002). Acid is continually entering the aquarium, primarily as the result of respiration (CO2) and metabolic wastes produced by the aquarium inhabitants (Trevor-Jones, Nov. 2002). The addition of these acids tends to lower the pH of the aquarium water. The higher the alkalinity of your aquarium water, the more resistant it is to such downward pH shifts (Trevor-Jones, Nov. 2002). The amount of buffers (primarily carbonate and bicarbonate) in saltwater determines the alkalinity, so the alkalinity in effect is the buffering capacity (Trevor-Jones, Nov. 2002). When the buffering capacity of the water is depleted, the pH becomes unstable. Alkalinity test kits can now warn of low buffering levels in time to prevent potential pH problems (Trevor-Jones, Nov. 2002).

Carbonate Hardness (KH): Optimum level = 7dKH (the hardness of natural seawater)

Carbonate hardness is another measurement of alkalinity. It is usually expressed in the German unit dKH (degrees of carbonate hardness) and is often considered to be the total alkalinity. (Dividing dKH by 2.8 will give you the alkalinity in meq/L.) KH actually a measurement of various carbonates and bicarbonates of calcium and magnesium within the aquarium water (Webber, 2004). Maintaining a stable KH is very desirable since it maintains the buffering capacity (i.e., alkalinity) of the system and prevents subsequent drops in pH. Aside from stabilizing the pH, reef keepers need to maintain KH and high alkalinity in order to assure that the calcifying organisms in the tank flourish. Corals and other calcifying organisms actively use bicarbonate, which is the main component of alkalinity, so the alkalinity of a tank with a lot of calcification can drop quite rapidly.

Calcium (Ca): Optimum level = 350 – 400 ppm (up to 500 ppm in well-stocked reef tanks)

Calcium is a very important element in the water in any marine aquarium and is a vital element in reef tanks. Along with carbonates and bicarbonates, it is required by calcifying organisms such as stony corals, snails and other mollusks, coralline, Halimeda and other calcareous algae, and certain sponges (Trevor-Jones, Apr. 2003). Calcium reserves must therefore be replenished on a regular basis. Regular water changes may achieve this, but reef keepers may require the addition of biologically available calcium to maintain adequate levels (Trevor-Jones, Apr. 2003). Seahorse keepers should be aware that brooding males provide calcium to the developing fry in their pouches, which the embryos probably incorporate into their skeletons. Deficiencies in calcium could thus adversely affect your seahorses’ reproductive success and the health of the fry. In fact, seahorses that receive a diet deficient in calcium often suffer from decalcification of their exoskeleton, a debilitating condition commonly known as “soft plate” disease (Greco, 2004).

Phosphates (PO4): Optimum level = as low as possible in fish-only systems

High phosphate levels are detrimental to marine aquaria. In fish-only tanks, they promote excessive growth of nuisance algae, and in reef tanks they also directly inhibit calcification by corals and coralline algae (Holmes-Farley, 2002). Phosphates arrive in the aquarium in fish foods, through tap water, as an ingredient in low-quality carbon and marine salt mixes, and primarily through the waste products of the inhabitants (Webber, 2004). Phosphates can be removed by using commercial phosphate-binding agents, but growing and harvesting macroalgae and protein skimming are the best ways to reduce phosphate levels

Redox Potential or Oxidation Reduction Potential (ORP): Optimum level = 350 millivolts

The redox potential relates to the degree of water purity in the aquarium, and can be thought of as a measurement of the water’s ability to cleanse itself via oxidation. It is measured in millivolts of conductivity, a unit that provides information about the reduction and oxidation characteristics of the water. (“Redox” is merely a contraction of reduction-oxidation.) Oxidation-Reduction Potentials (ORP) are closely related to the stability of the marine aquarium and can therefore be used as a barometer of water quality. Highly efficient filtration, good aquarium maintenance and management, and the use of ozone in conjunction with a protein skimmer will help to boost redox values.

Seahorse keepers with fish-only systems need not be overly concerned about many of the parameters mentioned above, but I’ve summarized them anyway for the sake of thoroughness and the benefit of reefers who keep seahorses.

As you know, Jan, the basic test kits you’ll need in order to keep track of your key aquarium parameters are ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and pH, plus a hydrometer to check specific gravity or salinity.

Aside from these basic water quality tests, I also recommend that you use a test kit for measuring the dissolved oxygen in your seahorse setup. The reason for this is that a drop in the level of dissolved oxygen is a great early warning indicator that something is amiss in the aquarium, and can thus predict potential problems (and allow you to take corrective measures) BEFORE they become full-fledged disasters. For example, a drop in O2 levels could be an early indicator of overcrowding — a signal that your system has reached its carrying capacity. Or it may merely signal a rise in the water temperature due to a summertime heat wave or indicate that the tank is overdue for a water change and/or a thorough cleaning to remove excess organics and accumulated detritus. Or it could be telling you that your tank is under circulated and you need to increase the surface agitation and water movement. On the other hand, it can also alert you to a potential gas supersaturation event, which can sometimes happen if a faulty intake or leak allows air to be entrained in a pump.

The point is that checking the O2 levels in your aquarium can alert you to impending problems and allow you to do something about them before they have dire consequences. A drop in O2 levels is often the first sign of a water quality problem and it can tip off the alert aquarist that trouble is brewing before his seahorses are gasping for air in obvious respiratory distress. Checking the dissolved oxygen levels regularly is the next best thing to continuously monitoring the Oxidation-Reduction Potential (ORP) or redox of the water, which is a luxury few hobbyists can afford.

And if you’re having trouble with pH, you may also find it helpful to test the total alkalinity, carbonate hardness (KH) and calcium levels of the aquarium. Keeping the alkalinity and carbonate hardness at the right level will help you keep the pH in the desired range. A stable KH will prevent rapid declines in alkalinity and subsequent drops in pH. Calcium is a vital element in any marine aquarium, and your seahorses will benefit from adequate calcium levels when they get serious about courtship and breeding because the breeding males need it for the developing young in their brood pouches.

I know feeding your seahorses and enriching the frozen Mysis with Vibrance can seem complicated and confusing at first, but with a little practice, you’ll find it’s actually quite easy, Jan.

In general, it’s a good idea to offer one morning feeding and one mid-to-late afternoon feeding, if possible, but there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to easy-to-feed, farm-raised horses. Some hobbyist prefer to give their seahorses two feedings a day, while others prefer to give them their quota of frozen Mysis in one big meal. As long as they get their fill, there is really no right or wrong way to go about this — just do whatever works bests for your seahorses and your schedule.

As you know, the feeding regimen that generally works best for most captive-bred seahorses is to provide each of them with 2-7 frozen Mysis relicta twice a day, enriched with Vibrance, and then to fast your seahorses entirely once a week. In other words, your seahorses should each be eating a total of around 4-14 frozen Mysis each day, depending on the size of the seahorse and the size of the Mysis. But those are just rough guidelines and there is a lot of variation in how much Mysis healthy seahorses eat each day.

A large seahorse naturally eats more than a smaller pony. And jumbo-sized Mysis will fill up a hungry seahorse faster than smaller shrimp. So a seahorse that’s scarfing up king-sized Piscine Energetics Mysis relicta needs to eat fewer shrimp than a pony that’s dining on the tiny Hikari Mysis.

Aside from size, some of the other factors that determine how much a seahorse eats are water temperature, the age of the seahorse, and whether or not it is actively breeding at the moment. The warmer the water temperature (within the seahorse’s comfort zone), the higher it’s metabolism, and the more calories it needs to eat as a result. Young seahorses that are still growing rapidly typically eat more than mature seahorses that have reached their full growth. As you might expect, breeding pairs that are producing brood after brood every few weeks need to eat a lot because so much of their bodily resources go towards producing clutches of eggs or nourishing a pouch full of developing young.

So don’t get hung up trying to count every morsel every seahorse in your tank scarfs down, Jan. Just make sure all your seahorses have full bellies at the end of the day, as indicated by their well-rounded abdomens. After a good feeding, the seahorses belly rings should be flush or even slightly convex in cross section when viewed from head on. (We never want to see sunken, severely pinched-in abdomens on our seahorses! Concave belly rings are a sure sign of an underfed seahorse, with the sole exception of a female that has just transferred her eggs.)

So if you want to check whether your seahorses are eating well or not, Jan, don’t look at their profile — examine them head-on and checked out there gut. Their abdomens or belly plates should bulge out slightly or at least be flush with their flanks, not pinched in or sunken. In other words, when viewed from the back or from head-on, the cross-section of their abdomens should appear concave "( )" or flush "l l" rather than concave ") (" or pinched in.

Here are our usual Club feeding tips, including suggestions on how to enrich the frozen Mysis with Vibrance, Jan:

(1) Tips for thawing and enriching frozen Mysis.

In order to prevent wastage and obtain the maximum benefit from this superb food, it must be thawed properly. This is especially important because once the Mysis are fully thawed, they are not refreezable (Adib, 2004). Most hobbyists tend to simply thaw their mysids in aquarium water, which has the virtue of thawing it quickly but is not the best approach. The faster the frozen shrimp is thawed, the more likely it is to be damaged in the process. We want the mysids to remain intact and lifelike; we don’t want the tissue of the Mysis to begin to breakdown in the process of freezing/thawing. The goal is to preserve the Mysis and retain all those precious shrimp juices when we thaw it, not to release their fluids into the aquarium water where it will only degrade the water quality and do your seahorses no good!

So don’t thaw frozen Mysis in 75-80 F aquarium water. Don’t nuke it in the microwave to defrost it! And don’t simply toss a chunk of frozen Mysis in your tank and let it float around until it thaws and releases individual mysids!

Nor should you thaw it in tap water, distilled water, or any other source of freshwater. You want to thaw the shrimp in water that is about as salty as their own bodily fluids so there is little or no difference in osmotic pressure. Freshwater will tend to move into the mysids as they thaw and can break down their integument and rupture cell walls as they swell; excessively salty water will tend to draw water out of the Mysis as they thaw, desiccating them in the process. Normal strength seawater is just right for thawing.

So the recommended method for thawing frozen Mysis is to use refrigerated saltwater from your aquarium. Keep a small jug of your artificial saltwater in your refrigerator and reserve this for thawing your mysids (Adib, 2004). Place a couple of ounces of the chilled saltwater in a small cup or similar receptacle and use that to thaw the shrimp. Break off a small chunk from the mass of frozen Mysis — just enough for one feeding or a day’s worth at most (with experience, you will soon learn exactly how much to use) — place it in the cup of saltwater and allow the Mysis to slowly thaw in the refrigerator for 30-45 minutes (Adib, 2004). Then take the cup out of the refrigerator and allow the thawed Mysis to warm up at room temperate for another 15 minutes (Adib, 2004). This method leaves the mysids perfectly intact and lifelike, and produces immaculate shrimp that need no further rinsing. (If you use another method for thawing the Mysis, it’s generally advisable to rinse the thawed shrimp in a brine shrimp net to prevent clouding of the water.) You are now ready to fortify the Mysis with the enrichment formula of your choice.

Carefully remove the individual thawed mysids from the thawing container using a plastic fork or a toothpick and gently deposit them in the bowl of a plastic spoon. The idea is to handle the shrimp as little as possible during the thawing and enriching process, since rough handling can cause the mysids to break apart. If your enrichment product is in powder form (which I recommend), take a pinch of the formula, sprinkle it on the Mysis, and mix it in very gently (a plastic knife or similar instrument works well for this step). The orange power will adhere to the moist Mysis, and when you’re done, the head region (cephalothorax) of the mysids should be stained reddish. (If your preferred supplement is a liquid formula, just add a few drops to the Mysis and let it soak in.)

With a little practice, most hobbyists quickly work out their own technique for preparing enriched Mysis. The method outlined above works well for me and many other aquarists, but there are many other ways of defrosting and enriching the Mysis that work equally well. For instance, other hobbyists prefer to add a dusting of enrichment powder (or a few drops of a liquid supplement) to a chunk of frozen Mysis and gently mix it in (or allow it to soak in) as it thaws. One nifty way to do this is to break off my little chunk of frozen shrimp and place it on a square of wax paper, allow it a while to defrost, and then add a pinch of enrichment formula and roll the Mysis and power in the wax paper as though making a cigarette. This technique is trickier and takes a little experience before you can pull it off properly. The thawing and rolling/mixing process must be done very, very carefully or you may crush some of the Mysis and lose a lot of shrimp juice while preparing it. As always, if you’re doing it right, the heads of the individual Mysis shrimp should end up stained red, which is a feeding "trigger" captive-bred chowhounds find hard to resist. With a little practice, you will soon refine your own method for preparing frozen Mysis that works the best for your schedule and the needs of your herd.

But however you prepare it, it’s important to keep the enriched Mysis refrigerated until it’s used, and to use all the Mysis you thawed and enriched within 24 hours. For best results, the enriched Mysis should be used immediately after it’s prepared. Whether it’s been refrigerated or not, avoid using thawed and prepared Mysis that is 2 or 3 days old. We don’t want to offer our seahorses food that might have become laden with bacteria.

(2) When it comes to feeding, give new arrivals time to recover and settle into their new surroundings before you force the issue.

That’s a long haul from Hawaii, and it sometimes take new arrivals a good week or two to settle in, make themselves at home, and start feeding normally afterwards. For that reason, I suggest the hobbyist have a supply of live food on hand whenever acclimating new additions to his herd. The tiny red feeder shrimp from Hawaii (Halocaridina rubra) are ideal for this, but live Gammarus, ghost shrimp, or even adult brine shrimp will do. The live shrimp help them adjust during the initial acclimation period when you first introduce your seahorses to your tank. The live foods will give the new arrivals a head start, help them recover from shipping stress quickly, and get them through the difficult period of adjustment in tiptop condition.

Don’t worry about feeding your seahorses immediately after they arrive. Give them a good 24 hours to adjust and settle down first. After the adjustment period, go ahead and offer some carefully thawed Mysis to your seahorses each day. Many seahorses handle shipping and acclimation with ease and never miss a beat, gobbling up frozen Mysis from Day One. Others will need more time before they feel at home in their new surroundings, and may not feel comfortable enough to accept frozen Mysis from their keeper until a week or two has passed. So keep offering Mysis each day, but feed it sparingly at first and remove any uneaten Mysis after an hour or so. Once the seahorses that start eating the Mysis first have had their fill, add some live feeder shrimp for the others that are lagging behind.

Many times all the seahorses resume feeding on the frozen Mysis right away and the live red feeder shrimp aren’t needed; in that case, simply keep them on hand for use as occasional treats. They last indefinitely in a clean, aerated plastic bucket at room temperature with a pinch of flake food sprinkled in sparingly a few times a week.

Be patient with the ones that seem more reluctant to resume feeding on frozen Mysis. Don’t isolate them from the others, don’t pester them by persistently trying to target feed them at this point, and don’t keep dropping frozen shrimp on their heads! That can spook a high-strung seahorse and stress him out all the more, setting him back further. Just give them time and they will soon join the others, scarfing down frozen Mysis greedily again. This can sometimes take a couple of weeks. (Mature males often lag behind at first; for some reason, they seem to be more shy and retiring than females, which can be quite brazen at times. I suspect this is due to their parental duties — during the breeding season, pair-bonded males are ordinarily ALWAYS pregnant, and they can’t risk exposing their precious cargo to any more risk than absolutely necessary.) Make a note of the reluctant eaters; the ones that are slow to take frozen Mysis now may require target feeding later on.

(3) Be aware of secretive feeders and give them plenty of room at first.

It’s quite common for new arrivals to display shy, secretive behavior. I have found that some of my seahorses, especially newly acquired specimens, are reluctant to eat while they know they are being observed. That doesn’t mean they are starving themselves, however, just that they tend to feed in secret. Rather than feeding from your hand or gobbling up the Mysis when you first offer it, they will prey upon the natural fauna in the tank, slurping up copepods and amphipods from hiding, or snatch up leftover frozen Mysis when they think no one is looking. Some of the seahorses that don’t appear to be eating at first may actually be feeding on the sly.

When that’s the case, it’s best to back off a bit and leave the tank alone as much as possible for the time being. It’s okay to observe the tank discretely but try to avoid flat-nose syndrome, and keep feeding your other specimens as usual, of course, but don’t try to force the issue with the shy ones. Just leave them be, give the seahorses plenty of peace and quiet, and let the secretive feeders adjust to their new environment and get used to the daily routine at their own speed. Before too long, they’ll begin sneaking leftover Mysis when they think you’re not watching and feel safe. Once they feel at home, the shy specimens will start exploring their tank freely and displaying themselves openly. Before you know it, they’ll come to recognize you as their feeder and begin interacting with you at dinnertime. And from there, it’s just one short step until you have them literally eating from your fingers.

(4) Morning feedings are best.

The recommended feeding regimen is to provide each of your seahorses with 4-14 frozen Mysis shrimp daily, enriched with a good food supplement, and then to fast your seahorses entirely once a week. Some hobbyist prefer to give their seahorses two feedings a day, while others prefer to give them their quota of frozen Mysis in one big meal. As long as they get their fill, there is really no right or wrong way to go about this — just do whatever works bests for your seahorses and your schedule.

However, many hobbyists find that their seahorses feed best during the morning, so if you can only feed your seahorses once a day, try to make it a morning meal. Whether it’s their biological clocks, something built into their natural circadian rhythm, or whether they’re simply hungriest shortly after waking up, seahorses do seem to feed more aggressively in the morning, and hobbyists should try to accommodate them, if possible. Breakfast, it seems, is the most important meal of the day for our aquatic equines as well as ourselves.

If you can only manage one feeding a day, DO NOT make it an evening meal. The worst thing you can do is to feed your seahorses late in the day when there will likely still be leftovers remaining at lights out. The uneaten Mysis will begin decaying overnight and put your water quality at risk. Worse still, the next morning, when they are hungriest, your seahorses may discover the bacteria-laden Mysis and snap them up off the bottom. This is an excellent way to spread disease and make your seahorses sick. Feeding your seahorses early in the day, so they have plenty of time to clean up leftovers, is a good way to prevent this. An efficient clean-up crew of scavengers also helps.

(5) Use a feeding station.

Seahorses respond very well when they are fed at the same time and place each day. They quickly learn the routine and will come to recognize their keeper as the one who feeds them — the giver of gourmet delights! Once that happens, they will often beat you to the spot, gathering around their feeding station as soon as they see you approach.

In fact, the aquarist can easily condition his seahorses to come a running at feeding time. Before you open the aquarium cover, make a point of lightly tapping it a few times or rapping on it gently. The seahorses will quickly learn to associate the tapping with the mouthwatering morsels that follow, and before you know it, they will respond by gathering at the feeding station as if you were ringing the dinner bell.

To facilitate this process and make feeding them easier, choose a feeding station that’s convenient for you in a relatively uncluttered part of the aquarium, and give your seahorses their meal right there every day. The feeding station should have some convenient hitching posts situated nearby as well. Avoid using an area where currents might whisk the food away from the seahorses before they can eat it.

I know one hobbyist who uses a toadstool leather coral as his feeding station. He places the Mysis on the bowl-shaped top of the toadstool, which contains them nicely while his seahorses perch around the edges and scarf up the shrimp as if dining at a lunch counter.

Not everyone has a toadstool coral to serve as a natural feeding station, of course, but it’s easy to make your own lunch counter that will work just as well. Get a small Pyrex bowl or a similar shallow container made of clear glass or plastic (a large petri dish works great for this) and fill it about halfway with your tank substrate (Mike Kelly, pers. com.). Then sink the bowl into your sand bed until the substrate you placed in the bowl is level with the substrate in the tank (Mike Kelly, pers. com.). Leave the rim sticking up above the sand bed about a 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch or so (Mike Kelly, pers. com.). The clear glass rim of the bowl is transparent and virtually unnoticeable, so don’t worry that it will detract from the appearance of your display tank. Artfully position a few natural hitching posts around the bowl to provide your seahorses with a handy perch from which to snick up their dinner.

At feeding time, place the frozen Mysis on the sand or gravel inside the bowl. A long tube of clear plastic 1/2′ to 1′ in diameter facilitates this. The bottom of the tube is placed in the middle of the bowl and the enriched Mysis are then placed in the top of the tube, which guides them exactly where you want them as they sink. The rim sticking above the sand bed will then keep the food in place while your seahorses dine at their leisure. Afterwards, any leftovers are neatly contained, making cleanup a breeze!

Or you can always purchase a seahorse feeding station off the shelf, ready to go, as is. Artificial cup coral makes an attractive elevated "lunch counter" that does the job nicely. Elevated on a pedestal, the seahorses can perch around the edge of the cup, which contains the frozen shrimp nicely until eaten. The coral cups are very lifelike and make nifty ready-made feeding stations if positioned at a convenient (for you and your galloping gourmets) spot in your tank where currents won’t whisk the Mysis away.

Another handy item that makes a great ready-made feeding station for seahorses are the conical worm feeders designed for offering bloodworms and tubifex worms to fish. They may require a little modifying since many of them are designed to float. Depending on the type of feeder, you may have to perforate air filled chambers around the collar, weigh it down to submerge it, or cut the conical worm trap free from the rest of the feeder. Worm feeders come with a suction cup, so once you’ve overcome the buoyancy problem, they can be secured anywhere in the aquarium you want, and they work just as well with frozen Mysis as with worms. If you position the conical feeder where a slight current hits it, gently jostling and agitating the frozen Mysis inside, it is even more effective. The flow of water imparts a bit of movement to the frozen Mysis, causing it to twitch or swirl about just a bit periodically inside the feeder. This makes the thawed Mysis look all the more lifelike and quickly attracts the interest of the seahorses. They will gather around the feeder and snick up Mysis through the open top. The conical shape of these feeders contains the frozen Mysis even better than most other feeding stations.

Some hobbyists prefer a more natural looking, aesthetically pleasing feeding station, which they fashion themselves to suit their own tastes. They start with a piece of well-cured live rock that’s approximately the right size and shape, and painstakingly hollow out the center to form a shallow concave depression. This shallow bowl is fashioned by grinding it out, using an electrical moto-tool (available at any craft store or hardware store) with a carbide burr or sometimes even a shop grinder. Once the bowl has been hollowed out, a series of holes are then drilled around the circumference of this depression. Red, brown or purple Gracilaria, green Caulerpa and/or gorgonian branches are planted in these holes to create natural hitching posts. As the macroalgae takes hold and fills out, this produces an attractive feeding station that looks completely natural. It’s a great do-it-yourself project for the handy hobbyist.

An upturned clamshell also makes a nifty natural feeding station that fits in perfectly in your seahorses’ setup. Choose a colorful natural seashell for this, such as one valve of a Tridacna clam or perhaps a Lion’s Paw Scallop shell, and you have an attractive feeding station that’s perfectly appropriate for your tank. The concave interior of the bivalve shell acts as a shallow bowl to contain the frozen Mysis until it’s eaten, and unlike some feeding stations that look out of place and detract from the appearance of your tank, a seashell looks as natural as can be in a marine aquarium. My favorite for this type of feeding station is a medium-sized Abalone shell. The iridescent, opalescent colors of the upturned interior, with its magnificent polished surface of mother-of-pearl, are spectacular! An upturned abalone shell requires no further modification whatsoever, making it the ideal feeding station for the unhandy hobbyist who’s all thumbs.

Other aquarists reserve a small, transparent glass bowl or clear plastic receptacle for feeding their seahorses. They merely place the bowl or plastic container on the bottom of the tank at feeding time, add the enriched Mysis, and let their seahorses gather round and dine at their leisure as though eating from a feeding trough. A few hours later, the feeding container is removed, along with any leftovers. Quick and easy!

For more information, see my article in Conscientious Aquarist which explains exactly how to set up a feeding station and train your seahorses to use a in greater detail.. It’s available online at the following URL: Click here: Seahorse Feeders

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(6) Target feed your seahorses and remove uneaten leftovers promptly.

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 scarfing 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. And it’s great for tapping on the cover to ringing the dinner bell and summon the diners for their gourmet feast!)

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 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.

(7) Stick with frozen Mysis relicta from Canada.

Although there are several types of frozen Mysis on the market, the deep, cold water habitat and the unique way its captured and prepared makes Mysis relicta far superior to the others for feeding seahorses due to a variety of reasons (nutritional value, each individual shrimp is frozen whole and intact, the most lifelike in appearance, natural odor attractants, etc.). The fatty acid profiles of Mysis relicta are higher than that of enriched brine shrimp and it has more than three times the fatty acid content of ocean krill (Piscine Energetics. 2003). These high levels of fatty acids not only provide seahorses with essential nutrition, but also stimulate a positive feeding response (Piscine Energetics. 2003). Mysis relicta are high in protein and high in animal fat, yet are sodium free. The lack of salt intake is desirable for marine fishes, which are constantly working to expel salt from their bodies (Piscine Energetics. 2003). Suffice it to say that almost all farm-raised seahorses are pretrained to eat frozen Mysis relicta, and that’s the species they will eat the best in the hobbyist’s home aquarium as well.

One big reason for this is Mysis relicta’s highly diversified eating habits. The food chain in the deep, cold waters that this species prefers gives it extremely high levels of EPA and DHA (fatty acids), which are not only important for the nutrition they provide, but also act as natural appetite stimulants, triggering a positive feeding response in seahorses (Piscine Energetics. 2003).

Another reason Mysis relicta is eaten so greedily by seahorses is that it is virtually identical in appearance to the mysids that are a favorite food of all Syngnathids in the wild. Equally important, the Mysis relicta are flash-frozen after harvesting while they are still alive and kicking (Piscine Energetics. 2003). Their lifelike appearance is thus perfectly preserved, and they reach the consumer as whole intact shrimp. This is very important because seahorses accept frozen shrimp much more readily when the eyes and head are intact. I have observed on many occasions that when frozen Mysis are broken and fragmented, as is common with some brands, the seahorses will often eat the anterior portion with the eyes and antennae still present, and totally ignore the rest of the parts. Needless to say, that’s not only wasteful but also bad for your water quality. Mysis relicta thaws as whole, intact, individual shrimp, preventing such problems.

(8) Observe fast days and don’t overfeed.

One of the most common mistakes hobbyists make is to overfeed their seahorses. Any excess Mysis that’s not eaten within an hour or two of a feeding can become a threat to your seahorses. Either it will find its way into some inaccessible nook of the aquarium and begin to decay, degrading your water quality, or it may be noticed by a hungry seahorses hours later or perhaps even the next day, and eaten after bacteria have gone to work on it. The best way to avoid such problems is to target feed and remove leftovers promptly, as soon as you’re sure all the seahorses have had their fill. If you can only feed once a day, make it a morning meal before you leave for work, so the seahorses have the rest of the day to glean their leftovers. A good cleanup crew can also help by taking care of any uneaten morsels that slip past the aquarist.

It’s equally important to observe the once-a-week fast day. Fasting helps prevent any potential problems with hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease) and keeps your seahorses feeding aggressively rather than losing interest in frozen foods. The problem is that although fasting is very healthy for seahorses on a staple diet of enriched Mysis, it can be very hard on the hobbyist. Here’s how I described this dilemma in a recent aquarium magazine article (Giwojna, Jun. 2002):

"The only thing I don’t like about this extremely nutritious diet is the obligatory fast day. The problem with fasting is that my 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." (Giwojna, Jun. 2002)

There you have it, Jan — everything you need to know about feeding your Ocean Rider seahorses. If you follow these feeding tips, it should help keep your seahorses eating their best and you will soon find that keeping them well fed is fun and easy. Feeding time for my seahorses is always a high point in my day. They do appear amazingly like fire-breathing Dragons when they eat frozen Mysis — it looks for all the world like smoke is shooting out of their "ears" when they eat enriched Mysis, due to the pulverized particles they expel from their gills after slurping it up (Gilchrist, 2002).

So 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 wrong. 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.

Before we move on, I would also like to emphasize one more point regarding feeding frozen foods. Whether it is a SHOWLR tank with lots of live rock, a modified minireef, a seagrass system or a mangrove biotype, a well-designed seahorse setup is an elaborate environment. A certain level of complexity is necessary in order to assure that our seahorses behave naturally (Topps, 1999) and to provide our ponies with plenty of hitching posts and shelter, and enough sight barriers to assure them a little privacy when they feel the need to be alone. Their homemade habitat may thus take the form of a labyrinth of live rock, an intricate arrangement of corals and gorgonians, a well-planted bed of seagrass or macroalgae, or a full-fledged reef face. When feeding seahorses in such intricate surroundings, the worst thing you can do 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. There it will begin to decompose and impair your 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 gone bad. Either outcome can lead to dire problems.

So I would encourage you to train your new seahorses to eat from a feeding station or to target feed them, Jan. That will help you to avoid wastage and make it easier to avoid ammonia spikes after a heavy feeding.

Another thing that will help to maintain good water quality and keep your nitrogenous wastes low is to harvest some of the Caulerpa on a regular basis and remove it from the aquarium. If you carefully prune and trim back the fast-growing Caulerpa regularly; when you remove the excess fronds, you’re exporting phosphates, nitrates and other nutrients from the tank, thereby helping to maintain good water quality, and pruning the runners helps keep it from going sexual.

When pruning or trimming back macroalgae, take care not to actually cut it. Remember, you’re not pruning hedges or trimming trees — the idea is to carefully pull up and remove continuous, unbroken fronds. Simply thin out the colony of excess strands, gently plucking up convenient fronds that can be readily removed intact. A little breakage is fine, but cutting or breaking too many strands will result in leaching undesirable substances into the aquarium water as the Caulerpa’s lifeblood drains away. Too much cutting or breaking can thus sap the colony’s strength and cause die offs or trigger the dreaded vegetative events that judicious pruning otherwise prevents.

Best of luck with your new seahorses, Jan! Here’s hoping you can soon work out a feeding regimen that works great for both you and your seahorses and get your ammonia levels back down to zero and your pH back up into the normal range before you know it.

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna


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