Okay, it sounds like you are really making good progress!
If your local fish store has everything you need to set up a suitable seahorse tank, then pick out an aquarium you like that meets the specifications we discussed in Lesson 1. Of course, you’ll need to get your seahorse tank up and running, with the aquarium completely cycled and the biological filtration fully established, as explained in Lesson 2, before you bring home any seahorses from your LFS.
When you are ready to add the seahorses, there are two things you must be sure to do before you bring them home. The first is to give them a thorough visual inspection to make sure that the ponies are healthy, and the second thing is to make sure that the seahorses at your LFS are not the delicate Hippocampus kelloggi seahorses that have been widely imported during the last year or two.
Here are the warning signs and symptoms to check for when you’re giving a seahorse at your local fish store (LFS) a visual inspection, JLyn , as outlined in the "Sygnathid Husbandry Manual for Public Aquariums, 2005 Manual":
Physical Examination — Visual Assessment
When performing an initial physical exam, the posture and buoyancy of the seahorse should be closely scrutinized. A seahorse bobbing at the surface is abnormally and positively buoyant. Buoyant animals will often struggle to maneuver deeper into the water column. They should be evaluated for air entrapment problems such as air in the brood pouch (males) or hyperinflated swim bladders. If the tail is extended outward caudodorsally or ‘scorpion-style,’ examine the subcutis of the tail for gas bubbles (subcutaneous emphysema). Subcutaneous emphysema of tail segment also appears to be a condition restricted to males.
Just as abnormal is a seahorse that is lying horizontally at the tank bottom for extended time periods. This may be an indication of generalized weakness or it may indicate negative buoyancy associated with swim bladder disease or fluid accumulation in the brood pouch or the coelomic cavity.
Evaluate the seahorse’s feeding response. Seahorses normally forage almost constantly during daylight hours. An individual that consistently refuses appropriately sized live food is behaving very abnormally and should receive nutritional support to meet its caloric needs.
The rate and pattern of breathing should also be evaluated. Rapid breathing and ‘coughing’
(expulsion of water in a forceful manner through the opercular opening or the mouth) suggest gill disease [or gill parasites].
The entire body surface including the fins should be examined for hemorrhagic regions,
erosions, ulcerations, excessive body mucus, unusual spots, lumps or bumps as well as the presence of subcutaneous gas bubbles. Evaluate both eyes for evidence of periorbital edema, exophthalmia, and any testicular or corneal opacities. Since seahorses are visual predators, maintaining normal vision is absolutely essential to successful foraging. The tube snout is also very important to normal feeding activity. It is utilized like a pipette to literally suck prey out of the water column.
Evaluate the tube snout for evidence of edema, erosions, and successful protraction/retraction of the small, anterior, drawbridge-like segment of the lower jaw. Close evaluation of the tail tip for erosive/necrotic lesions should also be performed.
Finally, the anal region should be closely evaluated for redness, swelling, or tissue prolapse. For closer evaluation it may require getting the seahorse in hand. If this is the case, wear non-powdered latex gloves to prevent injury to the integument of the animal.
If the seahorse passes this visual examination, and is eating well and behaving normally, with none of the red flags or warning signs discussed above, only then should you consider taking him home. That’s a quick checklist you can use to determine if the seahorses at your LFS appear to be healthy or not before you make a purchase.
The next most important thing is to double check with the dealer to identify the seahorses you are interested in so that you can make sure they are not the delicate Hippocampus kelloggi seahorses, which are utterly unsuitable for beginners.
Unfortunately, the Hippocampus kelloggi that are available nowadays have proven to be very problematic. For more than two years now, I have been getting numerous e-mails from H. kelloggi owners urgently requesting help with treating various health problems, so it doesn’t appear to be a particularly hardy strain of seahorses at this stage in its development. I believe part of the problem is simply that H. kelloggi have not been cultured or selectively bred for aquarium life as other species that have been around much longer, and as a result, the kelloggi are just not as well adapted to aquarium conditions as of yet. Whatever the reason, hobbyists should beware that H. kelloggi seahorses seem to be very disease prone and appear to have very little resilience when they develop a health problem.
Many people suspect that the H. kelloggi are merely pen raised, and have therefore not benefited from the sort of intensive aquaculture and selective breeding that produces superior captive-bred livestock here in the US. Net pens are a low-tech, low-maintenance method of farming seahorses that basically involves raising them in large enclosures in coastal waters. It is a common practice in Indonesia, many Asian countries, and the Philippines. In some cases, entire lagoons may be fenced off for that purpose. In the simplest form of pen rearing, broodstock are released into these enclosures, and then they and their progeny are pretty much allowed to fend for themselves thereafter. Any offspring that survive to marketable size are periodically harvested from the holding pens or lagoons.
The benefit of this technique is that it allows seahorses to be raised cheaply, and therefore produces specimens for the aquarium trade that are relatively inexpensive. (It is the low-cost of the H. kelloggi that attracts most hobbyists.) The downside is that pen raising does not strengthen and improve the seahorses generation after generation, making them ever better adapted for aquarium conditions, as does Western-style aquaculture. So the pen raised ponies are not generally as hardy and adaptable as captive-bred-and-raised seahorses.
Such operations (net pens) are controversial with environmentalists for a number of reasons. Since the enclosures are open to the ocean, there is a real risk that adults or their fry may escape from the pens and establish colonies in the wild that may pose a threat to endemic seahorse populations. The pens are no barrier to disease organisms or parasites, so pathogens and parasites imported on foreign broodstock may spread to fishes in the wild (or vice versa). Wastes from the high density of penned animals are carried directly to ocean on prevailing tides and currents and may have a negative environmental impact on the surrounding area. There is no way to monitor the penned animals, hence no way to determine whether the seahorses they contain are actually born and raised in the enclosures or are merely wild-caught seahorses maintained in holding pens prior to being shipped off to unsuspecting consumers.
Pen-grown ponies can thus be risky for the hobbyist because of the circumstances under which they were raised. In essence, a mesh barrier is all that separates them from wild seahorses. There is no guarantee they will be disease free. Although many of them learn to accept frozen Mysis, there is no guarantee they will eat frozen foods since they are often accustomed to foraging for live prey. There is no guarantee they will be able to adjust to aquarium conditions since they are essentially raised in the sea. There is no guarantee that they are even captive bred, since the pens are not secure and livestock is introduced and removed from the pens and lagoons on a continuous basis. There is no guarantee they will be friendly and sociable rather than shying away from their keepers, since they are unaccustomed to the human presence. Pen-raised ponies are particularly misleading because they are almost never advertised as such — they are typically called captive raised or even captive bred seahorses, which can lead the unwary consumer to assume that they have been painstakingly raised using intensive mariculture techniques and rearing protocols. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In light of the health problems so many home hobbyists have been having with their H. kelloggi for some time now, I have been discussing the needs and requirements of this species with advanced aquarists and experts that have worked with H. kelloggi in the past. The consensus seems to be that the current crop of H. kelloggi are being shipped out to hobbyists while they are still too young (the two-inch long juveniles are no more than 3-4 months old) and that they are not well adapted to aquarium conditions because they are likely being pen raised. The tiny H. kelloggi juveniles would fare better if they allowed them to grow up for a few more months and shipped them at the age of around six months.
However, the primary problem folks have been having with their H. kelloggi may be due to their temperature requirements. The people I conferred with maintained that H. kelloggi is a deepwater seahorse and is therefore adapted for lower light levels than most seahorses and also requires cool water temperatures (Lisa Coit et al., pers. com.). They feel that this species should be maintained in temperate tanks rather than tropical aquaria, and that H. kelloggi will only thrive if they are maintained at a water temperature of 68°F or less (Lisa Coit et al., pers. com.). They report that if the H. kelloggi are maintained at standard aquarium temperatures for a tropical marine aquarium (i.e., 75°F-78°F) they will be plagued by various bacterial infections and suffer over the long term as a result.
In short, there are several problems with the H. kelloggi that are currently reaching the United States. They are likely being pen raised in Asia, they are being shipped to the consumer while they are way too young and small to thrive, and they are being kept in tropical aquariums rather than the cool water or temperate tanks that they need. This combination of unfavorable circumstances is quite deadly and is dooming most all of the H. kelloggi that come into this country to an early demise. Heat stress is making the H. kelloggi susceptible to a variety of health problems, but especially bacterial infections, most often Vibrio in one form or another.
It doesn’t seem to matter much where they were purchased here in the US, because they are all coming from the same breeders overseas, with the types of problems we have discussed, and are not being raised here in the USA. As a result, at this time, Hippocampus kelloggi is a seahorse that is best suited for expert aquarists and experienced seahorse keepers who can’t provide them with well-established aquarium equipped with chillers that can maintain a constant water temperature of 68°F or less.
Unfortunately, the juvenile H. kelloggi are being marketed here in the states as "captive raised" seahorses and many inexperienced seahorse keepers are giving them a try because they are offered at a bargain price. At first glance, they appear to be an economical way to get started with seahorses, and when they sicken and die after being maintained in a tropical tank, many beginners are discouraged as a result and are ready to abandon the hobby when the inevitable happens. Don’t make the same mistake! Leave the delicate H. kelloggi seahorses to the experts that can provide them with a large, well-established temperate aquarium and with the best possible care.
That’s the best advice I can give you at this point, JLyn. Make sure you have a suitable seahorse tank fully established before you go shopping for your ponies, give the seahorses you are interested in a very thorough visual examination and make sure they are eating before you consider making a purchase, and avoid H. kelloggi seahorses at all costs.
Best of luck with your first seahorses, JLyn!