Howdy, Andrew! Welcome aboard, sir! I’ll do my best to answer your questions one by one below.
1. Could I keep the now 4 inch tall seahorses in my 29 until I get my 30?
If the seahorses are captive bred and raised, then I would say you could consider housing them in your 29-gallon tank temporarily while you get the 30-gallon system up and running. But if these are wild caught seahorses, do yourself a favor and pass them by until you can locate affordable cultured seahorses instead. Seahorses generally get along well with various gobies and blennies, so I don’t think the current residents of your 29-gallon tank would cause a problem for the seahorses, and with lots of live rock and live sand, the aquarium should be able to safely support a pair of ponies for the short term. But, as you know, Andrew, the 29 gallon tank is simply not tall enough to make a good home for the seahorses indefinitely and they will eventually outgrow it, likely sooner rather than later.
2. Could I eventually keep enough pods continually feed my horses?
No, sir — that’s probably an unrealistic goal. A pair of hungry seahorses is probably going to deplete the pod population faster than the surviving pods can reproduce. The pods will be able to supplement the seahorses diet, but will not be sufficient to serve as their staple, everyday diet for more than a short time before the population of copepods and amphipods has been reduced to the point that it crashes.
Your best bet in that regard might be to cultivate a variety of copepods, amphipods, and shrimp in a refugium that is connected to your seahorse tank. As an example, Charles Delbeek likes to use glass shrimp and cleaner shrimp in the refugium for his seahorse tank, where the regular reproduction of these hermaphroditic crustaceans will provide a continuous supply of nutritious nauplii for his ponies: "There is a method that can be used to offer an occasional supply of live food for your sea horses. By setting up a separate system housing several species of shrimp such as the common cleaner shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis) or peppermint shrimp (lyse model wurdemanni), or Rhynchocinetes uritai or R. durbanensis, you can get a fairly regular supply of live shrimp larvae. These species are best to use since they can live in large groups and spawn on a regular basis. Such a system is commonly called a refugium. A refugium is a small (10-20 gallon) aquarium that contains live sand, live rock and/or macroalgae such as Caulerpa. It is plumbed such that water from your main system is pumped to the refugium and then returns via an overflow to the main tank. For this type of arrangement to work, the refugium must be slightly higher than the main tank. Shrimp are added to the refugium and within a few months they should start spawning and hatching eggs every few weeks. The larvae are then carried back to the main tank by the overflow, where they become a food source for your sea horses. Of course other life will also thrive in the refugium and it is not unusual for copepods, mysis and crab larvae to also be produced on a regular basis. The key to the refugium is to keep predators out of the system so that the smaller micro-crustacean population can thrive. You would need a fairly large and productive refugium to produce enough food to maintain even a pair of sea horses, so at best, a typical refugium can provide a nice source of supplemental live food; the basic daily diet still needs to be provided by you in the form of the frozen foods mentioned above." (Delbeek, November 2001, "Horse Forum," FAMA magazine)
3. What do yall recommend for the poor man’s seahorse set up??
If you want to start out with a low budget set up for keeping a single pair of seahorses, perhaps the most basic aquarium system I could suggest would be to obtain a 20 gallon Extra-High All-Glass Aquarium (20"L x 10"W x 24"H), equip it with a simple, standard, off-the-shelf glass cover and an off-the-shelf strip reflector with a florescent bulb, and then fit it with a full set of undergravel filters that completely cover the bottom of the aquarium, as described below.
The filtration system for the tank could thus be as basic as a set of well-maintained undergravels (preferably the new reerse flow designs) that covers the bottom of the tank completely. I know undergravel filters are considered old-fashioned technology nowadays, but they are inexpensive, utterly reliable and foolproof (no moving parts), easy to install, require no modification whatsoever, and work extremely well for seahorses within their limitations. An inexpensive diaphragm air pump will operate the filter and provide all the aeration you need, or you can upgrade to powerheads for greater efficiency and extra water movement.
For the substrate with your undergravel filters, use a coarse bed of good calcareous aquarium gravel such as dolomite, aragonite, or crushed oyster shell 2-3 inches deep, since the buffering ability of such substrates will help maintain good pH.
It is a good idea to supplement the undergravels with an inexpensive hang-on-back filter or canister to provide better circulation and accommodate chemical filtration media. This is a very simple, inexpensive aquarium that’s extremely easy and economical to set up and operate, yet it can be very successful if used within its limitations. For instance, undergravel filters are notorious nitrate factories and the hobbyist must take measures to compensate for this fact. This simple system relies totally on water changes to control nitrates. There is no live rock or live sand bed to provide denitrification, no algal filter or denitrator in a sump, and no protein skimmer to remove organics before they enter the nitrogen cycle. This limits the carrying capacity of the tank and makes an accelerated maintenance schedule and more frequent water changes an absolute necessity. For this reason, reverse flow undergravels often work best with seahorses; they help prevent detritus from accumulating in the gravel bed.
I recommend weekly water changes of a least 25% for such a system. Use a gravel washer to clean a different portion of the gravel bed (no more than 25%) each week and keep the tank under stocked. If you are diligent about aquarium maintenance, perform water changes religiously, and limit yourself to fewer seahorses that you feed carefully, you will find that a simple system featuring undergravel filters can be very successful. But if you are negligent with regard to maintenance, skimp on water changes, or tend to overcrowd or overfeed your tanks, this system will be very unforgiving.
In any case, it’s generally best to start out with the largest tank you can reasonably afford and maintain, the taller the better, in order to provide yourself with a comfortable margin for error if these will be our first seahorses, and you. The 20-gallon Extra-High All Glass Aquarium we have already discussed is the smallest tank I would consider using for it pair of hippocampus erectus, for example, but if you can afford to spend just a little more than I would suggest the 30 gallon Extra-High All-Glass Aquarium (24"L x 12"W x 24"H), which won’t cost much more but which will provide you with a bigger margin for error. Any local fish store can order one for you and it’s an economical tank with excellent height for seahorses at 24-inches tall. You can then equip it the same as the 20-gallon tank, using a simple, standard, off-the-shelf glass cover and an ordinary off-the-shelf strip reflector with a daylight florescent bulb, and that can form the basis of an inexpensive yet solid seahorse setup.
If you can afford to upgrade the filtration system a notch above undergravels, many seahorse keepers prefer well-cured, "debugged" live rock to provide all or most of the biofiltration for their aquariums. A simple external hang-on-the-back filter or an efficient canister filter instead that is rated for an aquarium of the size you have chosen could then be added on to provide water circulation, surface agitation for good oxygenation, and the means for providing mechanical and chemical filtration.
When it comes to aquascaping a seahorse tank, you want to provide a fairly complex environment with various microhabitats and plenty of sight barriers and suitable hitching posts, as discussed below:
When it comes to hitching posts and decorations, seahorses in general tend to prefer perches that are bigger in diameter over skinnier ones that are a bit more difficult to get a good grip on with their tails, but other than that, it’s very difficult to predict what they’ll go for. I have noticed that tree sponges and tube sponges — both the real thing (which are difficult to keep healthy) and the lifelike artificial versions — almost always seem to be particular favorites. Very often such sponges are bright red or yellow or brilliant orange in coloration, but I think it is the structure and texture of the sponges that attracts the seahorses more than the color.
Seahorses often tend to gravitate towards gorgonians, and the big purple gorgonians that are large in diameter are also usually very popular with seahorses. Otherwise, they seem to like genuine corals and synthetic corals about equally well, and the brightly colored formations (orange, red, or vivid yellow) usually produce better results than plain white corals.
Hitching posts for your seahorses can thus be either live or artificial marine sea grasses, algae and corals. If you decide to try an assortment of colorful artificial corals, seahorses often prefer red or orange pieces. Many hobbyists report good results using artificial finger sponges, staghorn coral, octopus coral and pillar coral in the appropriate colors to keep their seahorses looking their brightest (SigNature Coral Corporation). They look entirely natural and lifelike, with lots of branching projections that make great hitching posts for seahorses. Oh, and their cup coral makes a great ready-made feeding station!
Sea Garden synthetic aquarium plants also make good hitching posts for seahorses. The Sea Garden saltwater series of "Fancy Plants" are very realistic, completely safe for saltwater, and very easy to maintain. Just rinse them under warm running water before installation and periodically thereafter for cleaning. There’s a very nice selection of them available and seahorses can’t seem to tell the difference between them and the real thing.
Macroalgae — Living Hitching Posts
For live hitching posts, I prefer decorative marine plants or macroalgae in a variety of shapes and colors and color–reds, golds, and yellows in addition to green varieties, some tall and feather, some short and bushy–to provide them with natural hitching posts and shelter. I like to start with a mixture of red and gold Gracilaria (Ogo) and artfully arrange them around a lush bed of assorted bright green Caulerpa. Any of the plumed (feathery) or long-bladed Caulerpa would be ideal for this, such as Caulerpa sertularioides, C. mexicana, C. ashmedii, C. serrulata or C. prolifera.
Be sure to prune and trim back the fast-growing Caulerpa regularly; when you remove the clippings, 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.
If you’re concerned about your ability to maintain and control of Caulerpa properly, just use a different forms of macroalgae that grows less rapidly instead and you can get the same sort of benefits at relatively little risk. In that case, some of the other macroalge you may wish to consider are Gracilaria, Ulva, Chaetomorpha, and Chlorodesmis. Hawaiian Ogo (Gracilaria sp.) are bushy red-to-brown macros that do well under low light levels. Sea Lettuce (Ulva sp.) are deep green sheets of algae that do best under a little stronger lighting. Maiden’s Hair (Chlorodesmis sp.) are bright green tufts or clumps of very fine-bladed algal mats to grow attached to small rocks. All of these types of macroalgae are much less prolific and slower growing than Caulerpa. However, like all macroalgae, they should still be harvested periodically in order to export the excess nutrients they have consumed.
Aside from red and brown Gracilaria and the bright green Ulva and Maiden’s Hair, some seahorse keepers also like the Chaetomorpha turf algae or spaghetti algae, as it is also known. It can best be described as looking like the clumps of the colorful plastic grass we use to fill Easter baskets. It is popular because it is slow growing and doesn’t require the kind of pruning that Caulerpa needs, and because it it comes loaded with microfauna: miniature feather dusters, copepods and amphipods, tiny snails and micro stars. In short, Chaetomorpha is another interesting marine plant that can add some extra variety to a lush bed of macroalgae.
Pay special attention to the hitching posts you select when decorating your seahorse tank, Andrew. Strive for bright reds, oranges, and yellows in anything your seahorses may adopt as a holdfast. These aquatic equines — especially the stallions — will often choose one particular hitching post as their home base and spend much of there time perched right there (think of your Dad hunkered down in his favorite easy chair in the den). Once they adopt a favorite base of operations like this, they will often proceed to change coloration to match their preferred resting spot. So you want to encourage them to adopt one of the more vivid pieces as a favorite holdfast.
Seahorses also like live rock, particularly colorful pieces that are heavily overgrown with pinkish or purplish coralline algae. Aside from looking pretty, live rock also provides additional biological filtration (of nitrification and denitrification) for the aquarium and provides shelter and sight barriers that make the seahorses feel secure.
If you’re on a tight budget, Andrew, then you’ll probably be better off avoiding corals (real or artificial) and sticking with macroalgae in assorted colors (red, brown, green, gold, yellow) as your aquarium decor, which will be more economical and really make your seahorses feel right at home.
Of course, if you don’t have them already, you will also need some saltwater test kits to cycle your tank, monitor conditions in your aquarium, and keep track of the water quality. The basic test kits you’ll need to keep track of the aquarium parameters are ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, plus a hydrometer to check specific gravity and an aquarium thermometer (if you don’t have one already). You’ll need to get separate test kits for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, and I recommend fasTest or Salifert kits for saltwater, which are fairly economical. I also like the SeaTest hydrometers–convenient, easy to read, and reliable. Here’s a list of what you’ll need for starters:
fasTest Ammonia test kit for saltwater (by Aquarium Systems);
fasTest Nitrite test kit for saltwater (by Aquarium Systems);
fasTest Nitrate test kit for saltwater (by Aquarium Systems);
fasTesT pH test kit for saltwater (by Aquarium Systems);
or the Salifert Nitrogen Cycle Package of test kits (Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, & pH)
Click here: Salifert Test Kits:
Safe or Prime declorinators by Sea Chem for detoxifying tap water;
SeaTest Hydrometer (by Aquarium Systems) for checking salinity;
20- 30 gallon package of Instant Ocean artificial salt mix
Calcareous Aquarium Gravel suitable for marine aquarium
Package of Frozen Mysis to feed the seahorses (e.g., Piscine Energetics, Hikari and Gamma are all good brands to choose from)
Natural or Artificial Hitching Posts
The price for these items varies considerably from source to source, so I suggest you print out a list like this and then price it at different local fish stores in your area as well as different online outlets to give you a better idea of what these accessories will cost.
All things considered, seahorse keeping and the marine aquarium hobby in general are fairly expensive ventures, especially when you are just starting out and don’t already have been necessary equipment and accessories. There aren’t that many shortcuts you can take to keep costs down without also decreasing your chances for success.
For example, the basic 20-gallon Extra-High aquarium setup we have been discussing can work well if you’re willing to limit yourself to one pair of seahorses, practice diligent aquarium maintenance, and are able to maintain optimum water quality. But if you’re new to seahorse keeping and have never maintained the marine aquarium before, you would increase your chances of success considerably by starting out with a larger, more stable aquarium in the 30 to 50 gallon range that would provide you with a better margin for error and be more forgiving of any mistakes you may make while you are learning the ropes.
As you know, Andrew, no matter what size aquarium you decide on, you will first have to cycle the tank before it will be able to support seahorses or any other life. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when cycling your new setup:
Cycling the Aquarium
Once you’ve rounded up the aquarium, equipment, and accessories you need, your next task is to prepare the tank for cycling. Until it has cycled, your aquarium will be unable to support life. Cycling simply means to build up a healthy population of beneficial bacteria in your tank that can carry out the nitrogen cycle and breakdown your fishes’ waste products.
The amount of nitrates that accumulate in your aquarium are related to how much nitrification and denitrification your system provides. Nitrification is the process by which aerobic (oxygen loving) nitrifying bacteria break down toxic ammonia to relative harmless nitrate in a series of steps. Nitrification thus ultimately causes nitrate to build up in an aquarium. Denitrification is the process by which anaerobic (oxygen hating) denitrifying bacteria then convert nitrate into completely harmless nitrogen (N2), which eventually leaves the aquarium. Denitrification thus removes nitrate from your system. This entire process is known as the nitrogen cycle.
As I mentioned, cycling your aquarium simply means to build up a large enough population of beneficial bacteria in your tank that can carry out the nitrogen cycle and breakdown your fishes’ waste products. Ammonia (NH3), nitrite (NO2), and nitrate (NO3) are all nitrogenous (nitrogen containing) wastes. All living aquarium animals whether they be fish or invertebrates excrete these wastes, and they are also produced by the decay of protein-containing organic matter (uneaten food, detritus, dead fish or inverts, etc.). The nitrogen cycle breaks down these wastes in a series of steps into nitrogen gas (N2) which leaves the aquarium as bubbles.
The nitrogen cycle begins with ammonia, which is highly poisonous. In the first step of the cycle, Nitrosomonas bacteria reduce ammonia to nitrite, which is also very toxic. In the second step of the nitrogen cycle, Nitrobacter bacteria convert the nitrite to nitrate, which is relatively harmless but becomes harmful when it accumulates in high enough levels. In the third and final step of the cycle, denitrifying bacteria then convert the nitrate into completely harmless N2, which of course bubbles out of the tank as nitrogen gas. In this way, thanks to the nitrogen cycle, dangerous wastes are converted into progressively less harmful compounds and finally removed from the aquarium altogether.
When we set up a new aquarium, and wait for it to cycle, we are simply allowing a big enough population of these different types of bacteria to build up in the biofilter to break down all of the wastes that will be produced when the aquarium is stocked. If we don’t wait long enough for the cycle to complete itself and the biofiltration to become fully established, or hastily add too many specimens to a new aquarium too soon, they will die from ammonia poisoning or nitrite toxicity. This is such a common mistake among us impatient aquarists, that when fish get sick and/or die from ammonia/ntrite poisoning, it is commonly called the "new tank syndrome."
When your aquarium has completely cycled, the ammonia levels will stay at zero because, now that your biofilter is fully established, there is a large enough population of aerobic (oxygen loving) nitrifying Nitrosomonas bacteria to reduce all of the ammonia to nitrite as fast as the ammonia is being produced. The nitrite levels will likewise stay at zero because there is also a large enough population of aerobic (oxygen loving) nitrifying Nitrobacter bacteria to convert all of the nitrite to nitrate as fast as the nitrite is being produced.
The nitrate levels ordinarily continue to build up, however, because there are simply not enough anaerobic (oxygen hating) denitrifying bacteria to convert all of the nitrate that’s being produced into nitrogen gas (N2). Since nitrates are being produced faster than they can be transformed to nitrogen gas, the excess nitrates accumulate steadily in your aquarium. That’s perfectly normal, since the denitrifying bacteria that carry out that final step, the conversion of nitrate (NO3) to nitrogen (N2), are anaerobes that can only exist in the absence of oxygen. For our aquariums to support life, and for the fish and invertebrates to breathe and survive, our tanks must be well aerated and well circulated so that there’s plenty of dissolved oxygen in the water at all times. That means there are normally very few areas in our aquariums where anaerobic denitrifying bacteria can survive, limiting their population accordingly (which is generally good, since some anaerobes produce deadly hydrogen sulfide gas during the decay of organic matter and would poison our tanks if allowed to proliferate).
Consequently, most aquariums lack a sufficient population of anaerobic denitrifying bacteria to complete the nitrogen cycle and convert nitrate to nitrogen as fast as the nitrates are being produced. The only way to keep the nitrates from building up to harmful levels in such setups is with regular water changes and by harvesting Caulerpa or other macroalgae periodically after it has utilized nitrates for growth. Overcrowding, overfeeding, or under filtration exacerbate the problem by resulting in more nitrates being produced and more frequent water changes being required to control the nitrate levels.
Live rock helps because the oxygen-poor interior of the rock allows anaerobic denitrifying bacteria to grow and break down nitrates. A deep live sand bed (DLSB) also helps because anaerobic denitrifying bacteria can flourish and break down nitrates at a certain depth below the sand where oxygenated water no longer penetrates, but a DLSB can sometimes be difficult to set up and manage properly if you’re inexperienced with live sand. Both live rock and deep live sand beds give aquaria denitrification ability — the ability to complete the cycle and convert nitrate to harmless nitrogen. Ordinarily, about 1-2 pounds of live rock per gallon is recommended – that amount of LR will provide your aquarium with all of the biofiltration you need, as well as significant denitrification ability. You will keep nitrates at harmless levels by performing regular water changes, harvesting Caulerpa macroalgae periodically, and good aquarium management.
Prepare your aquarium for cycling by setting your system up with just freshwater at first, attaching the equipment and apparatus (filter, aeration, circulation, heater, skimmer, lighting, accessories) and testing it all for a day or so to make sure you have everything in place, and that it works. Once assured that everything’s operating properly and there are no leaks, go ahead and add the substrate, salt mix, and aquarium décor, and leave everything running for a good week, allowing the various components and water to "settle in" before adding your microbes and "seeding" the tank with beneficial bacteria that will eventually establish your biofilter.
If you are using live rock, it contains all the bacteria needed to seed the tank, so all you have to do is position the live rock in attractive arrangements and wait for the population of nitrifying and denitrifying bacteria to build up and stabilize.
If you are not using live rock, there are a number of different ways to seed the tank with bacteria and feed it with ammonia so cycling can proceed. Two popular methods are the fishless cycle, which I recommend, and the use of hardy, inexpensive (i.e., expendable) fish to produce ammonia and cycle the aquarium.
Often used for this method are marine damselfish or mollies, which can easily be converted to saltwater. Both are very hardy and generally survive the cycling process, but I find this method to be needlessly hard on the fish and exposing them to the toxic ammonia and nitrite produced during cycling certainly causes them stress. Damselfish are far too aggressive and territorial to leave in the aquarium afterwards as tankmates for seahorses, and it can be devilishly difficult trying to capture them in a tank with lots of live rock so they can be removed once the tank has been cycling. Mollies are a possibility, but they really look out of place in a saltwater setup. Even if the fish survive the cycling process, the stress from the build up of ammonia and nitrite may well result in an outbreak of marine ich (Cryptocaryon irritans) or some other affliction, and you may find yourself attempting to eradicate a stubborn pathogen from your tank before it’s ready for the seahorses.
So all things considered, I suggest you try cycling your tank without fish. It’s really very easy. To use the fishless cycle, you need to add something else that will increase the ammonia level so the nitrifying bacteria can build up. I like to use a piece of cocktail shrimp (regular uncooked eating shrimp from the grocery store) and leave this in the tank to decay during the whole cycle. The decaying shrimp produces plenty of ammonia to kick-start the cycling process.
After about 3 days after you add the shrimp, you will notice a spike in ammonia levels until the Nitrosomonas bacteria build up enough to break down the ammonia. When that happens, you will notice the ammonia levels rapidly dropping. (If for some reason your ammonia does not hit the top of the charts initially, you may want to add another piece of shrimp.)
The byproduct of ammonia is nitrite, and during this stage of the cycling process, as the ammonia falls, you will have a corresponding increase in nitrites until the population of Nitrobacter bacteria builds up. Nitrite levels will then fall as the Nitrobacter convert the nitrite to nitrate.
It is important to use your test kits every day or two when cycling your tank to monitor the progress of the process. As described above, at first you will see a rapid rise in ammonia levels with no detectable nitrite or nitrate. Then, as Nitrosomonas bacteria begin converting ammonia to nitrite, the ammonia levels will fall and nitrite readings will steadily rise. Nitrite levels will peak as the ammonia drops to zero. Next, Nitrobacter will begin converting the nitrite to nitrate, and your nitrite readings will fall as the level of nitrate rises. Finally, after the nitrites also read zero, you are ready to stock your tank. At this point, your ammonia and nitrite levels should both be zero, nitrates will be building up, and algae will usually begin to grow. This will tell you that your biofilter is active and functioning properly, and that you can now safely begin stocking the tank. It generally takes about 3-6 weeks to cycle a tank this way from scratch.
If you do a search on this forum for "newbie questions" or "setting up a new tank for seahorses," you’ll find a lot more helpful information that you may be useful, sir.
Best of luck with your new seahorse setup, Andrew!