Re:Seahorse Breathing Question

#4251
Pete Giwojna
Guest

Dear Grant:

Well, yeah, you could always obtain a young Hippocampus erectus to keep your female company knowing that they would be unlikely to breed successfully, but the long-term health of the H. erectus would suffer in a 12-gallon Biocube, so I wouldn’t recommend that you experiment along those lines.

But a pair of pipefish would be an excellent option for your 12-gallon nano reef if you can obtain the right species. The ones I recommend are the small Gulf pipefish or dwarf pipefish that are available from Florida. They are very hardy and breed readily in the aquarium, and shouldn’t be bothered by the lack of water depth in your Biocube. They have a lot of interesting behaviors and make excellent tankmates for even the pipe-size dwarf seahorses.

For example, when they’re just trying to blend into their surroundings, the pipes orient themselves vertically, heads up and tails down, and sidle up alongside a fake gorgonian or a tall clump of sea cactus, imitating one of the branches. It’s not a bad bit of camouflage, and once in a while one of the dwarf seahorses will perch on a pipefish by mistake and get taken for a wild ride, like a bareback bronco rider at a rodeo.

But when they’re hunting, the pipes slip into the beds of macroalgae horizontally, and launch themselves like torpedoes at passing prey (Giwojna, 2005). Unlike the dwarf seahorses, which prefer to wait for their prey to come to them, the pipes dart out from hiding and snatch up brine shrimp right and left. It’s amazing how much faster and more agile they are than the pigmy ponies. At feeding time, the pipes go blasting around the tank like little guided missiles. The pipefish thrive on newly hatched brine shrimp but some hobbyists also have good luck teaching them to eat frozen Cyclop-eze instead.

Like the seahorses, these pipefish are livebearers and give birth to independent babies that are miniature replicas of themselves, except that the newborn pipes are totally transparent (Giwojna, 2005). They look like glass splinters or tiny transparent threads. Although I never made a serious attempt to raise them, a number of them survived for several weeks when left to their own resources in my dwarf tank. They were very good at concealing themselves amid the macroalgae, and especially liked to take refuge amongst the "bristles" of my Merman’s Shaving Brushes. The dwarf seahorses have no interest in them whatsoever, but I strongly suspect the parent pipes are cannibals. All in all, Gulf pipefish are inexpensive and entertaining additions to a nano tank.

The following vendors are a good source for these small pipefish, Grant:

Florida Pets
<http://www.floridapets.com/&gt;

Florida Pets is a good source for macroalgae and marine plants, and especially for the dwarf pipefish and micro brittle starfish that would make nice additions to your mini reef.

Aqualand
<http://www.seahorseworld.com/&gt;
[email protected]

Aqualand offers small Gulf pipefish as well as dwarf seahorses, so that’s another option you can consider.

Whether or not you could keep seahorses in your 75-gallon reef tank would depend on the type of corals in the aquarium, how strong the water flow and currents are, and whether the high intensity lighting tends to keep the aquarium unacceptably warm (most tropical seahorses prefer temperatures in the 72°F-75°F range and will experience heat stress at temperatures approaching 80°F). Here is some information that discusses how to make a reef tank safe for seahorses, Grant:

Seahorse-Proofing the Reef Tank

When designing a reef tank that will include seahorses, one must anticipate the different ways they might be injured in such a setup and then take precautions to prevent them from coming to harm. The process of rendering your reef system seahorse safe is much like the measures new parents take to childproof their house when they are expecting their first child. Intake tubes for the filters should be shielded, siphon tubes should be equipped with filter baskets or screens, and so on…

For instance, when powerful water movement is combined with overflows, there is a risk that seahorses could become pinned against an overflow or even go over it (Delbeek, Oct. 2001). Therefore, in the seahorse reef, overflows must be baffled and/or screened off, or the water flow should be adjusted sufficiently to prevent that from happening.

Likewise, although seahorses have no problem with strong currents in the wild, in the confines of aquarium, it is possible for them to come in contact with stinging corals if they are struck by a sudden powerful wave or surge, or are overwhelmed by a strong, unexpected current (Delbeek, Oct. 2001). The hobbyist needs to take this into consideration when placing water returns and corals in the seahorse reef (Delbeek, Oct. 2001). If possible, keep the water currents steady and unvarying so the seahorses can establish holding areas in the sheltered spots and low flow zones without getting blindsided by unpredictable currents.

One good way to accommodate both the needs of corals that prefer brisk currents and the seahorse’s need for slack-water retreats is to create tall rock formations a foot or two down current from the strongest water flows to intercept and deflect or divert that strong flow of water, creating eddies and slack-water zones where there is relatively little water movement down current. Seahorses will hold in these low flow areas when they want to move away from the current, so it’s a good idea to position convenient hitching posts in the lee or down-current side of such formations..

Another excellent way to accomplish the same thing is to use small powerheads to create and direct current wherever needed. A properly positioned powerhead can thus bathe your prized Acropora formations in a brisk water stream precisely without generating too much water movement elsewhere in the aquarium. Just be aware that powerheads can become death traps for seahorses if their intakes are not properly shielded or screened off, and take the necessary precautions (Delbeek, Oct. 2001). Carefully conceal the intakes amidst the rockwork where they will be completely inaccessible to seahorses, otherwise shield them, or screen them off with a sponge prefilter.

In short, the hobbyist who wants to keep seahorses in a reef system must be willing to make some concessions and modifications to accommodate their special needs nonetheless. For example, the reef keeper must be willing to limit himself to corals and invertebrates that meet the following criteria:

1) Avoid any stinging animals with powerful nematocysts. This means fire corals (Millepora spp.) and anemones should be excluded from the seahorse reef, and any corals with polyps that feel sticky to the touch should be used with discretion and only after careful planning. When a seahorse brushes up against them or attempts to perch on them, the nematocysts or stinging cells of these animals can penetrate the seahorse’s skin and damage its integument. Needless to say, this causes pain and discomfort and can leave the seahorse vulnerable to secondary bacterial and fungal infections, which may take hold at the site of injury. Short polyped stony (SPS) corals are generally fine, but large polyped stony (LPS) corals should be regarded with caution, as discussed in more detail below.

2) Water movement and circulation must be managed as previously described. Corals that require powerful surge or overly strong water currents could overtax the limited swimming ability of Hippocampus unless slack water areas the seahorses can retreat to when needed are also provided.

3) The corals must be able to withstand being used as hitching posts by the seahorses from time to time; that is, they cannot be so delicate that having a seahorse’s grasping tail anchored around them could cause them any harm. For instance, soft corals may retract their polyps when a seahorse perches on them. This can be harmful to their health if it becomes a chronic problem, because many corals rely on their polyps to absorb light and convert it to energy via photosynthesis. Be sure to watch any soft corals and hermatypic corals to make sure they are not closed up for extended periods. Normally, they adjust to the seahorses’ presence and unwelcome attention after a while, and remain contracted only briefly after each contact. After repeated exposures to grasping tails, each such incident elicits a weaker response, so they tend to extend their polyps sooner and sooner after being disturbed (Delbeek, Oct. 2001).

4) Avoid Tridacna clams and similar bivalve mollusks. Sooner or later a seahorse will perch on them with its tail between the valves and the clam’s powerful adductor muscle will clamp down on it like a vise. At best this will be a very stressful experience for the unfortunate seahorse, since it can be the devil’s own business trying to persuade the stubborn mollusk to release its struggling victim! At worst, it can result in serious injury or permanent damage to the seahorses tail (Giwojna, unpublished text).

5) Beware of unwanted hitchhikers that may have come in on your live rock unbeknownst to you and which can harm seahorses, such as fireworms, mantis shrimp, or Aptasia rock anemones. When setting up a reef system for seahorses, it’s a wise precaution to pre-treat your live rock with a hypersaline bath to drive out such pests beforehand because they can be very difficult to remove or eradicate once they make themselves at home in your aquarium (Giwojna, unpublished text).

As long as the specimens you are considering for your seahorse reef satisfy these requirements, anything goes! Some of the good and bad candidates for such a reef system are discussed below:

Seahorse-Safe Corals

Soft corals have very little stinging ability and generally make good choices for a modified mini reef that will include seahorses (Delbeek, Oct. 2001). This includes most mushroom anemones (corallimorpharians). However, as Charles Delbeek cautions, "One notable exception is the elephant ear mushroom anemone (Amplexidiscus fenestrafer). This animal is an active feeder on small fish and will envelope them whole with its mantle then slowly digest them by extruding its digestive filaments into the space created. No small fish are safe with these animals in the tank (Delbeek, Oct. 2001).".

Hippocampus also does very well with zooanthids and colonial polyps in general. But the hobbyist must be sure to observe a couple of precautions when handling the zoanthids and placing them in your aquarium.

First and foremost, many of the commonly available Zooanthus (button polyps) and Palythoa (sea mats) species contain a very toxic substance in their mucous coat known as palytoxin, which is one of the most poisonous marine toxins ever discovered (Fatherree, 2004). Palytoxin can affect the heart, muscles, and nerves, resulting in paralysis or possibly even death, and many hobbyists have reported numbness, nausea and/or hallucinations after merely touching these corals (Fatherree, 2004). When you handle zoanthids and palythoans, you cannot help picking up some of their protective slime on your fingers, and so much as rubbing your eye, picking your nose, or a small cut on your finger can be enough to land you in the hospital. When handling Zooanthus are Palythoa species, it’s very important to wear disposable latex gloves, avoid touching your mouth or eyes, and carefully dispose of the gloves immediately afterwards (Fatherree, 2004).

Secondly, zoanthids and other soft corals such as mushrooms may wage border battles if you place them in close proximity to each other (and the zoanthids almost always lose out to the mushrooms in these skirmishes). So be sure to allow adequate space between the colonies. Some rapidly growing Zooanthus colonies can be aggressive to soft and stony corals alike as they rapidly spread over the rockwork, but in general they are quite peaceful, and you can always slow down their rate of growth by reducing the nutrient loading in the aquarium.

Other low light corals that should be suitable for a seahorse reef include genera such as Cynarina, Scolymia and Trachyphyllia, as well as non-photosynthetic gorgonians such as Subergorgia and Didogorgia, and perhaps wire corals such as Cirripathes spp. (Delbeek, Nov. 2001).. However, supplemental feedings of zooplankton may be required to maintain these corals in good health.

The hard or stony corals fall into two categories depending on the size of their polyps. The small polyped stony (SPS) corals have tiny polyps that extend out of minute openings in the stony skeleton, and generally have weak stings that should not pose a threat to seahorses. Depending on conditions in the tank, SPS corals such as Acropora, Montipora, Pocillipora, Porities, Seriatopora and Stylophora can be tried freely at your discretion (Delbeek, Oct. 2001).

The large polyped stony (LPS) corals, however, are generally best avoided altogether. These include genera such as Catalaphyllia, Cynarina, Euphyllia and Trachyphyllia that have large fleshy polyps which often have tentacles equipped with powerful stinging cells. The Euphyllia and Catalaphyllia have the most powerful nematocysts among the LPS corals, and can deliver stings that are stronger than most anemones (Delbeek, Oct. 2001).

Some of the soft corals and stony corals that generally do well with seahorses in a modified reef tank are listed below. (By no means is this intended to be a comprehensive list, but rather just a few examples of suitable corals to serve as general guidelines when stocking a reef tank that will house seahorses):

Finger Leather Coral (Lobophyton sp.)
Flower Tree Coral – Red / Orange, (Scleronephthya spp.)
aka: Scleronephthya Strawberry Coral, or Pink or Orange Cauliflower Coral
Christmas Tree Coral (Sphaerella spp.)
aka: the Medusa Coral, Snake Locks Coral, or French Tickler
Cauliflower Colt Coral (Cladiella sp.)
aka: Colt Coral, Soft Finger Leather Coral, Seaman’s Hands or Blushing Coral.
Toadstool Mushroom Leather Coral (Sarcophyton sp.)
aka: Sarcophyton Coral, Mushroom, Leather, or Trough Corals.
Bullseye Mushroom Coral (Rhodactis inchoata)
aka: Tonga Blue Mushroom, Small Elephant Ear Mushroom (rarely)
Clove Polyps (Clavularia sp.)
Stick Polyp (Parazoanthus swiftii)
Green Daisy Polyps (Clavularia sp.), Indonesia
Orange & Green Colony Button Polyps (Zooanthus sp.), Fiji
Pulsing Corals (Xenia spp.)
Red Ricordea (Ricordea sp.), Indonesia, occasionally Solomon Islands
Lavender Hairy Mushroom (Actinodiscus sp.), Tonga
Pimpled Mushroom (Discosoma sp.), Indonesia
Purple Gorgonians

For additional information regarding seahorse-safe corals and invertebrates, please see Will Wooten’s guide to tankmates for seahorses at the following URL:

http://www.seahorse.org/library/articles/tankmates.shtml

If there is too much current in your 75 gallon reef tank for seahorses, or if it contains LPS corals that might present a risk to the seahorses, then the refugium may be a possibility for the seahorse instead. What are the dimensions of your refugium, sir? If it is large enough and the water temperature is acceptable, it might make a wonderful place for a seahorse or two to set up housekeeping.

At any rate, there’s no reason to feel flustered by this situation or that you have run out of options, Grant. Judging from your photograph, the female seahorse is still pretty young, so you have some time before she starts to feel cramped in your 12-gallon Biocube. And when that time comes, you may be able to relocate her to your 75-gallon reef system or its refugium.

Best wishes with all your fishes (and invertebrates), sir!

Respectfully,
Pete Giwojna


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