Re:Ok, here we go… awaiting arrival

#2950
Pete Giwojna
Guest

Dear Christine:

It sounds like you are back on the right track. Yes, your calcium levels may be dropping faster than expected because the calcium levels have been deeply to for so long. That should stabilize over time as you continue to add the supplements according to directions. Once your calcium levels have stabilized, your pH will also be more resistant to abrupt changes as well, and vice versa.

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 and calcium 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.

So be sure to monitor your pH and calcium the same time of day when you perform your test, Christine. If you are merely detecting daily fluctuations due to the factors we have been discussing, that’s nothing to be overly concerned about.

Yes, indeed — RO/DI water is very soft and must therefore be buffered before adding it to your aquarium in order to prevent it from lowering the pH. However, your question was not foolish, since many pet stores will offer RO water that they have buffered to raise the pH back to normal as an option.

While you are waiting for your new seahorses to arrive, the best thing you could do to assure that everything goes well is to review the acclimation procedures in advance so there is no uncertainty when the big moment arrives. Just make sure you acclimate them carefully when they arrive, taking no more than 20-30 minutes to complete the procedure, as explained below:

Acclimating New Arrivals

Acclimating newly arrived seahorses properly after their transoceanic, cross-country journey is absolutely vital. It’s not like acclimating the new specimens you bring home after a quick trip back from your local fish store. The long distances and prolonged transit times involved make proper care of the new arrivals once they finally reach you a far more urgent matter. The reason for this is that all the while the seahorses are en route, they are excreting wastes and respiring in the dark shipping box — consuming oxygen (O2) and giving off carbon dioxide (CO2). That means two things: deadly ammonia is steadily building up in the shipping bag and the pH is steadily dropping, making the water more acidic.

This downward pH shift is actually helpful in that ammonia is less toxic at low pH and becomes much more toxic at higher pH. This is because ammonia exists in water in an equilibrium between two different forms — a nontoxic ionized form usually referred to as ammonium (NH4+) and an un-ionized form (NH3), which is highly toxic. Ammonium (NH4+) is completely harmless to fishes since the ionized ammonia molecule cannot cross the cell membrane and enter their cells. Note that only difference between harmless NH4+ and deadly NH3 is the addition of a hydrogen ion (H+), which converts toxic ammonia to nontoxic ammonium. At low pH, the extra hydrogen ions (H+) of acidic water are readily available to attach to the ammonia molecule, converting most of the ammonia to ammonium: NH3 + H+ —> NH4+. But at high pH, under alkaline conditions, exactly the opposite occurs. At high pH, the abundance of hydroxide ions (OH-) in alkaline water strips the extra hydrogen ion (H+) away from ammonium, rapidly converting most of it to deadly ammonia: OH- + NH4+ —> NH3 + H20. In other words, the higher (more alkaline) the pH, the more ammonia is present in the dangerous un-ionized form (NH3), which easily crosses cell membranes and enters the body.

This should make it easier to understand exactly what is happening in the shipping bag. As the seahorses breathe, consuming O2 and giving of CO2, the pH of the water drops and more of the ammonia (NH3) they produce is assimilated into harmless ammonium (NH4+). So the decrease in pH that occurs during long-distance shipping is actually protecting the new arrivals somewhat — until we open the shipping bag! Once the shipping bag is opened, CO2 begins offgassing from the bag water and fresh O2 begins entering the water, and as the pH begins to rise in response and return to normal, the ammonia in the water becomes increasingly poisonous. And when we begin to add alkaline water with a pH of 8.0-8.4 from the main tank to the shipping bag, we are accelerating the pH shift and converting ever more of the ammonium (NH4+) to deadly ammonia (NH3). The suddenly high concentration of ammonia in the water quickly diffuses into the seahorse’s cells, and acclimating the new arrivals becomes a race against ammonia poisoning just that quickly.

Acclimating farm-raised seahorses properly is therefore the art of achieving the proper balance between two conflicting needs: the need to get them out of the toxic shipping water as quickly as possible and the need to allow them to adjust to tank conditions as gradually as is practical. Here’s how to proceed:

1) Open the shipping box away from any bright lights. Remember that seahorses don’t have eyelids — removing them from total darkness and suddenly plunging them in bright light can be very stressful! Darken the room lights and turn off the aquarium lights before you remove the shipping bags from the box.

2) Float the shipping bag in your tank, or better yet in a clean container filled 2/3 of the way with water from the aquarium, for about 10 minutes to equalize temperatures. (Those shipping bags can be dirty and germ laden!)

3) Once the temperature has been equalized, partially open the shipping bag and check the parameters of the shipping water (temperature, salinity or specific gravity, and especially the pH). Compare those readings to the conditions in the destination tank. That will tell how you quickly you can proceed with the acclimation process. The specific gravity is not that critical. Seahorses tolerate a wide range of salinities and are very adaptable in that regard. If the water in the shipping bag and the water in the destination tank are equal in temperature, fairly close in specific gravity, and within 0.1 of each other in pH, you may introduce the seahorses to the tank right away without the need for any further acclimation. If the temp or pH are slightly off, you can acclimate the seahorses to tank conditions in one or two steps. And if the temp, pH, or specific gravity is off considerably, you will need to adjust the seahorses to tank conditions carefully in three or more steps.

4) The first of these steps is to add 1 cup of tank water to the shipping bag. Wait 10 minutes to allow the seahorses to adjust to any differences in tank water you just added.

5) Do NOT aerate the shipping bag while you are waiting. I know it seems a helpful thing to do, and your first inclination will be to add an airstone or airline to the shipping bag, but that can have disastrous consequences! Aerating the shipping water will accelerate the upward shift in pH and hasten the conversion of harmless ammonium (NH4+) to toxic ammonia (NH3). Aerating the shipping bag during acclimation will thus put the new arrivals at grave risk from ammonia poisoning! Don’t do it.

6) After 10 minutes have elapsed, remove 1 cup of water from the shipping bag and add another cup of water from the tank. Wait 10 minutes to allow the seahorses to adjust, and if they remain undistressed, repeat this procedure again. Judging from how great the initial discrepancy was in water quality parameters, this procedure can be repeated as often as necessary to adjust the seahorses to the tank conditions gradually, but try to complete the acclimation process within 30 minutes after the shipping bag was opened, if at all possible.

7) Observe the new arrivals closely for any signs of ammonia poisoning throughout the acclimation process. The symptoms to look are a loss of equilibrium, hyperexcitability, increased respiration and oxygen uptake, and increased heart rate. At extreme ammonia levels, fish may experience convulsions, coma, and death. Seahorses exposed to less extreme ammonia levels will struggle to breathe. They will be lethargic and exhibit rapid respiration. They may appear disoriented, periodically detaching from their hitching posts only to sink to the bottom. Don’t panic at the first sign of rapid breathing, but if you detect any of the more serious symptoms of ammonia toxicity, stop acclimating and get the seahorses into the destination tank immediately! Don’t hesitate! Your seahorses will tolerate an emergency transfer far better than they can withstand prolonged exposure to high levels of deadly ammonia in the shipping bag.

8) If all goes well, you can release the seahorses into the destination tank at your leisure following a 2- or 3-step acclimation process. I do not like to use an aquarium net to transfer seahorses, since their delicate fins and snouts can become entangled in the netting all too easily. I much prefer to transfer the seahorses by hand. Simply wet your hand and fingers (to avoid removing any of the seahorse’s protective slime coat) and scoop the seahorses in your hand. Allow them to curl their tail around your fingers and carefully cup their bodies in your hand to support them while you lift them out of the water. When you gently immerse your hand in the destination tank, the seahorse will release its grip and swim away as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Take care to get as little of the noxious water from the shipping bags as possible into the aquarium when you transfer the seahorses. Discard the impure shipping water when you are finished.

9) Leave the aquarium light off and let the seahorses settle down and adjust to their strange new surroundings at their own speed. Don’t attempt to feed them for the first day. Just give them plenty of room and allow them to settle in and investigate their new home in peace and quiet. Admire them from afar. The next morning you can turn on the aquarium light at the usual time and offer them their first meal.

Don’t let the discussion of ammonia poisoning and shipping stress above worry you, Christine. It’s not meant to alarm you in the least, only to explain why it’s important to complete the acclimation procedure quickly (which is why drip acclimating the seahorses is counterproductive and could even be harmful) and what to do in the extremely unlikely event an emergency should arise during acclimation. In all probability, your seahorses will arrive in excellent condition and not stressed out in the least, and even when shipping stress is a factor, the seahorses typically recover quickly and are back to normal by the following day.

In short, if you follow these instructions when you acclimate your new arrivals, your seahorses should thrive.

Best of luck with your new arrivals, Christine!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna


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