I’m very sorry to hear about the feeding difficulties your seahorses have developed, sir. Judging from your description of their behavior, it sounds like your seahorses are suffering from a feeding disorder commonly known as "weak snick," which can be treated.
Weak snick in seahorses is often the result of protozoan parasite infections (Amyloodinium, Cryptocaryon, Brooklynella, Uronema, etc.). I tend to suspect that’s the cause when the weak snick is accompanied by rapid respiration and labored breathing, or when more that one seahorse develops the condition, or when the weak snick victim’s tankmates are bothered by odd ailments such as "trigger lock," appetite loss, lockjaw, heavy breathing, or the first signs of snout rot, which all early indications of masked protozoan parasite infections (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). These organisms typically attack the gills first, from which they spread to the throat and mouth (oral or buccal cavity). As their numbers build up in the gills and they spread from within, invading the esophagus and oral cavity, symptoms such as rapid breathing, loss of appetite, weak snick, trigger lock, and snout rot begin to appear (Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
Since you have three seahorses that have all developed this problem recently, Paul, I suspect that your difficulties are due to some sort of protozoan parasite, or a secondary infection that is affecting the muscles that operate their slurp-gun feeding apparatus and preventing them from generating sufficient suction when eating. I would recommend that you treat the seahorses with osmotic shock therapy (i.e., a freshwater dip followed by hyposalinity) to provide them with some quick relief for many protozoan parasites they may be carrying, as described below:
For best results, I suggest that you administer hyposalinity in a hospital tank to combat any protozoan parasites that may be involved, and then treat the seahorses with an antibiotic to help resolve any secondary infections that may be complicating the situation, along with methylene blue. I know another hobbyist with seahorses that have been bothered by episodes of weak snick on occasion, and they always responded well to triple sulfa plus methylene blue in conjunction with the hyposalinity, and that’s what I feel would produce the best results for you as well, sir.
You should be able to obtain the triple sulfa and methylene blue at any well-stocked local fish store so that you can begin treatment right away. Just follow the instructions on the package for the triple sulfa when you dose your hospital tank, and I will provide you with instructions for administering the hyposalinity and methylene blue later in this message.
But first let’s review the basic etiology that most often underlines feeding disorders such as weak snick.
Weak snick and related feeding disorders are usually due to either a mechanical injury or an infection affecting the seahorse’s hyoid bone trigger mechanism or the underlying musculature with which it generates the powerful suction that it uses when feeding. Such mechanical injuries can sometimes be caused by ingesting a foreign object while feeding, or the problem may be due to protozoan parasites and/or secondary infections that attack the gills and eventually affect the muscles that operate the buccal suction pump and/or the opercular suction pumps, as explained below.
FEEDING DIFFICULTIES: WEAK SNICK, TRIGGER LOCK, & LOCK JAW
Seahorses suck! That’s a fact. Our amazing aquatic equines are supremely well adapted for suctorial feeding, which just means that their tubular snouts are designed for generating a powerful suction and slurping up small prey whole (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). Basically, their tubular mouths operate like slurp guns, a method of feeding that is often adopted by fish accustomed to taking prey from the bottom or plucking small crustaceans and larvae from the leaves of underwater plants (Evans, 1998). The anatomy of the seahorse’s head has evolved to accommodate this method of feeding (Giwojna, Feb. 2004).
For example, a tubular mouth is an advantage for suctorial feeding because it acts like a pipette and the narrow opening accelerates the inrush of water via the Venturi effect, thus maximizing the suction generated by the powerful head muscles (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). The seahorse’s oral or buccal cavity and gill chambers (opercular cavities) act as dual suction pumps that draw the water inwards with considerable force (Evans, 1998). Expansion of the buccal and opercular cavities causes a sudden drop in pressure within the mouth (Evans, 1998). The suction thus created allows the seahorse to suck up food through its slurp-gun snout faster than the eye can follow. In essence, the seahorse inhales its food in the blink of an eye, and cavitation caused by the sudden inrush of water traveling at tremendous velocity through the narrow snout and characteristic movements of its head and skull bones produce the distinctly audible "snick!" which announces the demise of its prey (Giwojna, Feb. 2004).
Every seahorse keeper is familiar with the seahorse’s "trigger," located at the underside of its jaws at the base of its throat, which moves downward sharply when the seahorse strikes, thereby expanding its oral (buccal) cavity and generating the suction to draw its prey inwards. This trigger is actually the seahorse’s hyoid bone, and it is pulled downward by contraction of the powerful sternohyoideus muscle that runs from the hyoid bone to the cleithrum (one of the bones of the pectoral girdle), which forms part of the seahorse’s bony exoskeleton (the cleithral ring) just behind its head (Evans, 1998).
The suction generated by the sudden downward contraction of the hyoid bone when a feeding seahorse "pulls the trigger" on its intended prey is greatly enhanced by the nearly simultaneous expansion of its gill chambers or opercular cavities (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). The additional suction thus created by the seahorse’s opercular pump is produced by contractions of the hyohyoideus muscles and dilator operculi muscles (Evans, 1998). The water pulled into the gill chambers this way is then expelled from the opercular cavity through a small pore. (This narrow opening accelerates the stream of water passing through it in the same way as its narrow tubular snout does.) The seahorse’s bony coronet evolved atop its head in part to provide solid anchorage and attachment points for the large muscles that operate its buccal suction pump and twin opercular suction pumps, which enable it to feed so efficiently (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). This is the perfect feeding mechanism for an ambush predator, and the seahorse is perfectly adapted for its role as the sniper of the seagrass jungle (Giwojna, Feb. 2004).
Of course the seahorse’s turreted, independently operating eyes are the perfect targeting system for this sophisticated feeding apparatus (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). Side-mounted, hemispherical eye turrets provide nearly 360 degrees of vision and allow the seahorse to look upwards and downwards (or forward and backwards) simultaneously in search of potential prey or possible predators (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). As soon as it detects a likely prey item, both eyes lock on it simultaneously and track it intently, thus providing excellent depth perception. This allows the seahorse to judge distances with remarkable accuracy as it draws a bead on its intended victim (Giwojna, Feb. 2004).
The hyoid bone is the trigger which fires the seahorse’s slurp-gun snout, and the moment its prey closes within striking distance, the powerful sternohyoideus muscle contracts and pull the trigger (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). The buccal cavity expands, followed the almost instantaneous contraction of the hyohyoideus muscles and dilator operculi muscles, which likewise expand the opercular cavities (Evans, 1998). The resulting drop in pressure creates a sharp inrush of water, which draws the prey irresistibly into the seahorse’s mouth (Evans, 1998). Once the prey has been sucked in, the mouth is closed. At this point, the buccal and opercular cavities are contracted and the excess water is forced out in a strong stream via the tiny opercular pores (Evans, 1998).
All this happens in an instant, faster than the eye can follow, and the powerful suction that is generated often macerates large prey (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). When the resulting debris is expelled from the gill chambers, it looks remarkably as if the seahorse is shooting smoke out of its ears, thus giving a feeding seahorse an uncanny resemblance to the legendary fire-breathing dragon (Giwojna, Feb. 2004).
However, when this remarkable feeding mechanism is injured or disrupted by parasites and/or secondary infections, a number of problems arise. Weak snick is an unusual affliction that results when a seahorse is unable to generate adequate suction to feed properly. Seahorses develop weak snick when their sophisticated feeding apparatus, or the muscles that operate it, are incapacitated as a result of injury or infection.
For example, I have often seen it in seahorses as a result of protozoan parasite infections (Amyloodinium, Cryptocaryon, Brooklynella, Uronema, etc.). I tend to suspect that’s the cause when the weak snick is accompanied by rapid respiration and labored breathing, or when more that one seahorse develops the condition, or when the weak snick victim’s tankmates are bothered by odd ailments such as "trigger lock," appetite loss, lockjaw, heavy breathing, or the first signs of snout rot, which all early indications of masked protozoan parasite infections (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). These organisms typically attack the gills first, from which they spread to the throat and mouth (oral or buccal cavity). As their numbers build up in the gills and they spread from within, invading the esophagus and oral cavity, symptoms such as rapid breathing, loss of appetite, weak snick, trigger lock, and snout rot begin to appear (Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
This is how I believe the disease progresses in such cases: the burrowing of the embedded parasites causes hyperplasia of the underlying tissue, and when sufficient numbers of them build up in the gills, we see the initial symptoms of respiratory distress, labored breathing, and huffing (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). During a heavy infestation, the parasites may attack the key muscles that expand the opercular cavity, or sheer numbers of the parasites can clog the gills to the extent that the opercular pump is impaired, resulting in weak snick due to a decrease in suction (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). In severe cases, this will eventually result in death by asphyxiation.
In less severe cases, the parasites will continue to spread from the gills into the throat, buccal cavity, and eventually the snout itself (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). When this happens, the irritation caused by the burrowing parasites and the hyperplasia of the infected tissue can cause loss of appetite or difficulty swallowing and the victim may go on a hunger strike (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). If the swelling and hyperplasia occlude the gills, throat and snout sufficiently to prevent the seahorse from generating adequate suction when attempting to feed, weak snick is the result (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). If the burrowing of the embedded parasites allows secondary fungal or bacterial infections to take hold, the seahorse can develop snout rot (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). When such secondary infection(s) affect the sternohyoideus muscle that controls the hyoid bone trigger mechanism, ailments such trigger lock, sticky trigger, or lockjaw result and again the seahorse is unable to feed (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). Weak snick can be caused in this way as well if the sternohyoideus muscle is affected to the extent that hyoid trigger still operates, but so feebly that the buccal pump can no longer generate sufficient suction to feed (Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
Another common cause of weak snick in many instances is a mechanical injury to the seahorse’s hyoid-bone "trigger" mechanism. This sometimes happens when a seahorse accidentally ingests a foreign object when feeding off the bottom. The offending particle is often a piece of gravel or crushed shell. When a hard, sizable foreign object such as this is ingested, it can lodge in the throat or snout, and the seahorse may have difficulty expelling it again. (The seahorse’s feeding mechanism is much better suited for sucking things in than spitting them out again.) When that happens, the seahorse is almost always able to clear the offending object eventually, but sometimes not before it causes considerable irritation or the repeated efforts to eject it cause a muscular strain to the hyoid trigger mechanism. The seahorse then acts as though it has a very bad sore throat. The suction it generates is weak and both the act of pulling the trigger and the act of swallowing appear to be painful. The seahorse feeds reluctantly or halfheartedly as a result, and may eventually stop feeding altogether. Such mechanical injuries can also open the door for snout rot.
Suspect a mechanical injury when the weak snick or sticky trigger is not accompanied by respiratory distress, when only one of your seahorses is affected and exhibiting unusual symptoms, or when you witnessed the seahorse struggling to expel a foreign object. In such cases, most often the problem clears up on its own after two weeks to two months as the injury heals. No treatment is necessary and the key to a successful outcome is keeping the patient eating while the healing takes place. That’s what treatment should concentrate on.
When these feeding difficulties arise, it’s a good idea to try tempting the affected seahorse with live adult brine shrimp. Seahorses suffering from weak snick induced by an injury may have better luck slurping up smaller, lighter, soft-bodied prey like brine shrimp; if so, that will be enough to keep them going while they heal. You’ll want to enrich the brine shrimp to maximize its nutritional value, and gutloading the shrimp with an enrichment product high in HUFA such as Vibrance is a good way to fortify it beforehand. Brine shrimp are filter feeders that will ingest whatever is suspended in the water with them, so all you need to do is add a pinch or two (or drop or two) of the enrichment formula to a small container of saltwater swarming with brine shrimp at least 30 minutes before you offer the shrimp to your seahorse.
Some hobbyists dealing with weak snick have had good success in coaxing the affected seahorse to feed by transferring the seahorse to a critter keeper or breeder net or similar enclosure that can hang within the main tank itself, and then adding a generous amount of live adult brine shrimp to the container. Within the enclosure, the affected seahorse does not have to compete with its tankmates for the live food, and it is easy to maintain an adequate feeding density within the confined space so that there is always a big juicy brine shrimp passing within striking distance of the hungry seahorse. Since your big male is still interested in eating but is simply unable to slurp up the food, I think that releasing him in an in-tank enclosure like this where he will be surrounded by plenty of tempting live adult brine shrimp and can feed at his leisure on the softbodied brine shrimp may help him to keep his strength up and recover more quickly. Add one or two hitching posts within the critter keeper or breeder net so that your male can anchor in place and wait for a tasty brine shrimp to pass within easy reach, and give him an hour or two within the enclosure to eat his fill of the softbodied adult brine shrimp. You can monitor his progress from a nonthreatening distance away from the tank to see how he is doing. In most cases, the seahorse quickly becomes familiar with the routine of being transferred to the special enclosure at feeding time and associates it with tasty live foods and a full belly — positive reinforcements that make it a very nonthreatening, stress-free procedure for the affected seahorse — and, as a result, it may actually come to look forward to it after a few feedings. You can repeat this feeding process two or three times daily in order to fatten him up again, if your schedule allows. That’s something you can try right away if you have access to enriched adult brine shrimp from your local fish store.
In short, all, I suspect that in your case the weak snick that is plaguing your seahorses is most likely due to protozoan parasites and/or a secondary bacterial infection.
Be sure to observe the following precautions when handling the seahorse to transfer them to or from your hospital tank, Paul:
I do not like to use an aquarium net to transfer or manipulate 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.
Composed of solid muscle and endowed with extraordinary skeletal support, the prehensile tail is amazingly strong. Indeed, large specimens have a grip like an anaconda, and when a 12-inch ingens or abdominalis wraps its tail around your hand and tightens its hold, its vise-like grip is powerful enough to leave you counting your fingers afterwards!
In fact, it can be quite difficult to remove an attached seahorse from its holdfast without injuring it in the process. Never attempt to forcibly detach a seahorse from its hitching post! When it feels threatened, it’s instinct is to clamp down and hold on all the tighter. When you must dislodge a seahorse from its resting place for any reason, it’s best to use the tickle technique instead. Gently tickling the underside of the tail where it’s wrapped around the object will usually induce the seahorse to release its grip (Abbott, 2003). They don’t seem to like that at all, and will quickly let go to move away to another spot. Once they are swimming, they are easy to handle.
Here are the instructions for administering the methylene blue, Paul:
Commonly known as "meth blue" or simply "blue," this is a wonderful medication for reversing the toxic effects of ammonia and nitrite poisoning. Methylene blue transports oxygen and aids breathing. It facilitates oxygen transport, helping fish breathe more easily by converting methemoglobin to hemoglobin — the normal oxygen carrying component of fish blood, thus allowing more oxygen to be carried through the bloodstream. This makes it very useful for treating gill infections, low oxygen levels, or anytime your seahorses are breathing rapidly and experiencing respiratory distress. It is the drug of choice for treating hypoxic emergencies of any kind with your fish. However, methylene blue will destroy nitrifying bacteria so it should be used in a hospital tank or as a brief bath or dip only (if used in an established aquarium, it will impair the biological filtration and the tank may need to be cycled all over again).
In addition, methylene blue treats fungus and some bacteria and protozoans. Methylene blue is effective in preventing fungal infections, and it has antiprotozoal and antibacterial properties as well, by virtue of its ability to bind with cytoplasmic structures within the cell and interfere with oxidation-reduction processes.
In other words, Paul, the methylene blue will ease the seahorse’s breathing even as it is helping to eliminate protozoan parasites and secondary bacterial infections that may be contributing to their weak snick.
If you can obtain the Kordon brand of Methylene Blue (available at most well-stocked local fish stores), here are Kordon’s instructions for administering the methylene blue in a hospital tank if longer-term treatment seems appropriate to control parasites:
Prevention or treatment of fungus or external parasitic protozoans:
(a) Remove carbon filter and continue to operate with mechanical filter media throughout the treatment period.
(b) Add 1 teaspoon of 2.303% Methylene Blue per 10 gallons of water. This produces a concentration of 3 ppm. Continue the treatment for 3 to 5 days.
(c) Make a water change as noted and replace the filter carbon at the conclusion of the treatment.
See the following link for more information on treating with Kordon’s Methylene Blue:
Click here: KPD-28 Methylene Blue
Here are the instructions for administering hyposalinity safely in your hospital tank, Paul. The hyposalinity doesn’t require any sort of medication and is effective in controlling most protozoan parasites, as well as providing some additional benefits for the ailing seahorses. It will make it easier for your seahorses to osmoregulate and increase the dissolved oxygen in the water, which will help the seahorses to breathe and can be crucial for seahorses that may have gill parasites.
Hyposalinity or Osmotic Shock Therapy (OST)
Fortunately, when problems with protozoan parasites and ectoparasites crop up, we needn’t determine which particular parasite is plaguing our seahorses, since hyposalinity or Osmotic Shock Therapy (OST) is a very safe treatment that is effective against protozoans and ectoparasites in general, with the exception of Uronema. OST is totally noninvasive and harmless to seahorses and most other fishes, can be administered safely in the display tank rather than a hospital tank to eradicate the protozoan parasites from your system, and is completely compatible with UV, ozone, and any medications you may be using (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). OST is therefore the treatment I recommend for problems with external parasites other than Uronema.
Hyposalinity also helps parasite-ridden fish avoid dehydration and save their strength by reducing osmotic pressure and making it easier for them to osmoregulate. Allow me to explain.
Because the seawater they live in is far saltier than their blood and internal body fluids (Kollman, 1998), marine fish are constantly losing water by diffusion through their gills and the surface of their skin, as well as in their urine (Kollman, 1998). The mucus layer or slime coat of the fish helps waterproof the skin and reduces the amount of water that can diffuse through its surface (Kollman, 1998). However, when the skin is attacked by parasites such as Costia, Cryptocaryon, Cryptobia, Amyloodinium, Brooklynella, Epistylus and the like, this protective barrier is damaged and water is lost at an increasing rate (Kollman, 1998). The affected fish can easily become dehydrated as a result, further debilitating them.
Low salinity is an excellent way to treat most such skin infections, since reducing the salinity helps the fish recover in several different ways. It lessens the risk of dehydration by decreasing osmotic pressure (Kollman, 1998), and reduces the amount of energy the fish must expend on osmoregulation, helping the weakened fish to recover (Kollman, 1998).
And if the salinity is dropped far enough, it prevents reinfection and provides the fish with immediate relief by destroying the parasites in the water and on the surface of the skin (Kollman, 1998). At low salinity, water moves into the parasites’ bodies by passive diffusion until they literally burst (lyse). This method of treatment is known as hyposalinity or Osmotic Shock Therapy.
At the first sign of parasitic infection, I therefore suggest instituting a two-pronged treatment regimen immediately: (1) first, administer a freshwater dip to your seahorses to reduce the number of embedded parasites, clear the gills and snout as much as possible, and provide the seahorses with some quick relief, and (2) treat your main tank with osmotic shock therapy, dropping the salinity to 15 ppt (1.011-1.012) for several weeks to eliminate the parasites from your system entirely (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). If your seahorses seem too weak to handle the stress of a freshwater dip, then just get them into hyposalinity water ASAP — no acclimation!
Step 1: Freshwater Dip
A freshwater dip is simply immersing your seahorse in pure, detoxified freshwater that’s been preadjusted to the same temp and pH as the water the seahorse is accustomed to, for a period of at least 10 minutes (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). It doesn’t harm them — seahorses typically tolerate freshwater dips exceptionally well and a 10-minute dip should be perfectly safe. Freshwater dips are effective because marine fish tolerate the immersion in freshwater far better than the external parasites they play host to; the change in osmotic pressure kills or incapacitates such microorganisms within 7-8 minutes (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). A minimum dip, if the fish seems to be doing fine, is therefore 8 minutes. Include some sort of hitching post in the dipping container and shoot for the full 10 minutes with your seahorses (Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
If you will be using tap water for the freshwater dip, be sure to dechlorinate it beforehand. This can be accomplished usually one of the commercial dechlorinators, which typically include sodium thiosulfate and perhaps a chloramine remover as well, or by aerating the tap water for at least 24 hours to dissipate the chlorine (Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
If you dechlorinate the dip water with a sodium thiosulfate product, be sure to use an airstone to aerate it for at least one hour before administering the dip. This is because the sodium thiosulfate depletes the water of oxygen and the dip water must therefore be oxygenated before its suitable for your seahorse(s). Regardless of how you detoxify the freshwater for the dip, it’s important to aerate the water in the dipping container well beforehand to increase the level of dissolved oxygen in the water. Many hobbyists leave the airstone in the dipping container throughout the procedure.
Adjusting the pH of the water in the dipping container so that it matches the pH of the water in the aquarium is a crucial step. Ordinary baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) will suffice for raising the pH of the water. If there is too much of a difference in the pH, there is a possibility the seahorse could go into shock during the dipping procedure. Preadjusting the pH will prevent that from happening. If you will are unsure about your ability to accurately adjust the pH in the dipping container, avoid this procedure altogether or be prepared to monitor the seahorse very carefully or shorten the duration of the tip to no more than about 4 minutes.
Observe the horse closely during the dip. You may see some immediate signs of distress or shock. Sometimes the horse will immediately lie on its side on the bottom. That’s a fairly common reaction — normal and to be expected, rather than a cause for concern, so don’t be alarmed if this happens. Just nudge or tap the seahorse gently with your finger if it lies down on its side. Normally, the seahorse will respond to the slight nudge by righting itself again and calm down for the duration of the dip. However, if it does not respond, stop the treatment.
Most seahorses tolerate the treatment well and experience no problems, but if you see continued signs of distress — twitching, thrashing around etc. — stop the treatment.
After you have completed the dip and returned the seahorses to the aquarium, save the dip water and examine it closely for any sign of parasites. The change in osmotic pressure from saltwater to freshwater will cause ectoparasites to lyse (i.e., swell and burst) or drop off their host after 7-10 minutes, and they will be left behind in the dipping water. Protozoan parasites are microscopic and won’t be visible to the naked eye, but some of the other ectoparasites can be clearly seen. For example, monogenetic trematodes will appear as opaque sesame seeds drifting in the water (Giwojna, Aug. 2003) and nematodes may be visible as tiny hairlike worms 1/16-3/16 of an inch long. Other parasites may appear as tiny dots in the water. Freshwater dips can thus often provide affected seahorses with some immediate relief by ridding them of these irritating pests and can also aid their breathing by flushing out gill parasites.
It’s best not to dip all of the seahorses simultaneously. I would dip them individually so you can keep a close eye on each seahorse throughout the dip and make sure it is tolerating it well. That way, you can use the same dipping container and dipping water for all for seahorses as you dip them in sequence. I like at least a gallon of water in the dipping container, but that depends on what I’m using. If it’s a clean three or five-gallon bucket, I will fill it about half full with freshwater adjusted to the aquarium temperature.
Step 2: Hyposalinity (Osmotic Shock Therapy)
Osmotic Shock Therapy (OST) involves maintaining the saltwater in your system at a much lower specific gravity than normal: 1.017 is recommended for reef tanks with live coral and invertebrates, while 1.011 (15 ppt salinity) is appropriate for fish-only tanks (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). Essentially, OST simply places the infectious organisms in an environment in which they cannot hope to survive while the host (or infected fish) is unaffected (Hauter, 2004). It is therefore the parasites that are subjected to the shock, not the fishes, which are normally quite content at the prescribed salinities (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). This low salinity method can be thought of as a continuous freshwater dip, and provides basically the same benefits as a 5-10 minute freshwater dip does, only long term (Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
When the salinity in the system is lowered initially, it is done as if performing a normal water change, except that the replacement water is simply treated tap or RO water without the salt (Don Carner, pers. com.). (If the replacement water is RO/DI or other softened source, then a buffering agent should be employed to prevent pH and alkalinity drops; Thiel, 2003.) Make sure the freshwater you add is thoroughly mixed with the remaining saltwater in the tank as you proceed. This will assure that your salinity/specific gravity readings are accurate. Monitor the lowering closely so as to not reduce it too fast. Achieving the desired specific gravity (1.010-1.012) over a period of several hours is fine (Don Carner, pers. com.). The bacteria colony in the biofilter will survive, the fish will survive, but the parasites will not (Don Carner, pers. com.).
By lowering the salinity, we are also lowering the osmotic pressure of the water. The parasites NEED high osmotic pressure externally in order to maintain a normal water balance within their bodies (Don Carner, pers. com.). Reduce the salinity of the surrounding saltwater sufficiently, and water moves via osmosis into the parasites’ bodies until they literally explode (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). As a higher life form, the fish can withstand this treatment very well; invertebrates and parasites cannot (Don Carner, pers. com.).
For best results, I recommend removing your seahorses to a hospital tank or bucket filled with full strength saltwater (1.022-1.025) while dropping the salinity in the main tank. They can be given their freshwater dips while you are reducing the salinity in the main tank. Once the specific gravity in the display tank has been lowered to the desired level, the seahorses can then be released directly into the main tank without any acclimation whatsoever. They will make the transition from full strength saltwater to hyposalinity wonderful well, without missing a beat, whereas the ectoparasites they are carrying will be subjected to a lethal change in osmotic pressure.
Do not hesitate to maintain the hyposalinity for the entire treatment period. OST needs to maintained for at least 3 weeks in order to assure that all of the encysted parasites have reached the free-swimming stage of their life cycle and been killed. For best results, the hyposalinity should be maintained for 6-8 weeks to assure that all of the parasites have been destroyed.
CAUTION! When administering hyposalinity to seahorses, be very careful as you add the freshwater when you approach the target salinity. You do NOT want to overshoot the mark and drop the salinity too far! Seahorses tolerate low salinity very well up to a certain point, but they cannot withstand salinities below 13.3 ppt (specific gravity = 1.010) indefinitely. Salinities below 1.010 may be fatal to seahorses in a matter of days, if not hours.
In the olden days, many attempts were made to gradually convert seahorses from saltwater to freshwater. Hippocampus erectus tolerated these experiments splendidly all the way down to specific gravity of 1.010, but when the salinity was dropped any further, the seahorses all perished (Bellomy, 1969, p7). These experiments were repeated with several groups of seahorses representing different subspecies of erectus, and the results were always the same: fine as low as 1.010 — defunct at 1.009 (Bellomy, 1969, p7)!
Keeping that in mind, it is best to make your target salinity 1.011-1.012 to allow a margin for error, and to transfer your seahorses to a hospital tank while you drop the salinity in the main tank. That way no harm will be done if you accidentally take the salinity down too far in your main tank before readjusting it and hitting your target salinity. And when you return the seahorses from normal salinity in the hospital tank to the main tank at 1.011-1.012, the parasites will be subjected to the greatest possible osmotic shock, leaving them no chance at all to adjust to change in osmotic pressure.
To be safe and effective, administering hyposalinity requires the use of an accurate method for measuring salinity/specific gravity such as a refractometer. If you will be relying on a pet-store hydrometer for your readings, you may wish to consider alternate treatments rather than OST. If you do decide to try hyposalinity using a hydrometer, please observe the following precautions:
Be aware of the temperature at which your hydrometer was calibrated and make full use of conversion charts to adjust your readings based on the actual temperature of the water aquarium water.
Make your target salinity 20 ppt (specific gravity = 1.015) to allow for a greater margin for error.
In addition, when administering OST it is important to monitor your ammonia and nitrite levels closely at first. Hyposalinity may temporarily impact the nitrifying bacteria in your biofilter, so check your readings closely to see if there is a spike once you’ve reached your target salinity. If so, a simple water change will correct the problem and your biofiltration will be back to normal shortly.
The hobbyist should also bear in mind that hyposalinity can delay gonadal development in immature seahorses and may also prevent mature seahorses from breeding until the salinity is returned to normal. So don’t maintain low salinity for the long term — as soon as the 3-4 week treatment period is over, bring the specific gravity in the main tank back up 1.024-1.025.
When you are ready to return the system to normal salinity, simply reverse the process, remove some of the low salinity water in the aquarium and replace it with high salinity water. Take your time and raise the salinity slowly and gradually. Fish can become dehydrated if the salinity is increased too rapidly, so be methodical and raise the salinity over a period of several days. Don’t hesitate to take a full week to return the specific gravity to normal levels again in small increments.
If your tank contains corals or delicate invertebrates, or you just want to be extra cautious with your seahorses as they recuperate, adjust the salinity more slowly. This can be accomplished by making smaller water changes, which will require more steps to raise the salinity back to normal, or by reducing the specific gravity of the high-salinity replacement water somewhat. Make the adjustment back to normal salinity as gradually as necessary in order to be confident that you are not stressing the specimens. The hyposalinity should already have done its job so you can afford to be cautious when readjusting the salinity. Take all the time you want.
To be absolutely certain that things go smoothly, take advantage of the online Salinity Adjustment Calculator at the following web site: http://saltyzoo.com/SaltyCalcs/SalinityAdjust.php
This calculator takes the amount of water in your system, your current salinity, the salinity you’d like to achieve, and the maximum change in salinity that you are willing to risk per water change into consideration and performs the necessary calculations. It then returns the number of gallons and salinity of the water for each change (Taylor, 2001b).
The low salinity system was initially developed at the Instant Ocean Hatcheries in the 1980’s and has since been perfected by other large-scale operations (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). Thomas Frakes at Aquarium Systems recommends this system and Rand Kollman recently conducted a controlled study of the method, as described below (Kollman, 1998):
During the study, fourteen 40-gallon tanks connected to a common filtration system at Kollman’s dealership were run at 15 ppt salinity (specific gravity = 1.011), while sixteen other 30-gallon tanks, connected to their own separate filtration system, were maintained at normal salinities of 27-30 ppt (specific gravity = 1.020-1.022) and served as the control group for the experiment (Kollman, 1998; Giwojna, Dec. 2003). Both systems had identical filtration and were maintained at the same temperature (between 79-80 degrees F), Kollman, 1998.
The test period ran continuously from 1994 to 1997, during which time marine fish from the Red Sea, Caribbean and throughout the Indo-Pacific were maintained in both systems (Kollman, 1998). Whenever fish arrived from wholesalers or transshipments, they were divided evenly between the low salinity and the normal salinity (control) system with no acclimation procedures whatsoever (Kollman, 1998; Giwojna, Dec. 2003). No differences in behavior were observed between the fishes in the two systems during the trial period (Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
The results of the three-year study were dramatic and conclusive (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). Outbreaks of Amyloodinium, Cryptocaryon, turbellarians, and monogenetic trematodes were simply not seen in the low salinity system, and periodic microscopic examinations of skin scrapings and gill clippings confirmed that none of the parasites were present (Kollman, 1998; Giwojna, Dec. 2003). On the other hand, the normal salinity control system continued to have periodic outbreaks of all the above parasites. Furthermore, infected fish from the control system were cleared of their parasites within a few days if transferred to the low salinity system (Kollman, 1998; Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
Kollman found the low salinity system reduced his previously high mortality rates and that his dealership was able to greatly reduce chemical treatments and subsequent overdoses (Kollman, 1998; Giwojna, Dec. 2003). He concluded that a salinity of 14 to 15 ppt (specific gravity = 1.010-1.011) was an effective treatment level to which fish can be immediately transferred with no special acclimation procedures (Kollman, 1998; Giwojna, Dec. 2003). Although the rapid turnover of specimens at his dealership prevented him from reaching any definitive conclusions about the long-term effects of low salinity on marine fishes, Kollman noted that several fish were maintained in the system for well over a year with no ill effects, and that a Red Sea angelfish (Pomacanthus maculosus) thrived in the low salinity system for three-and-a-half years (Kollman, 1998; Giwojna, Dec. 2003)!
Kollman’s study and the ongoing program at Instant Ocean hatcheries are not the only reports on utilizing low salinity water to quarantine specimens held under crowded conditions (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). As early as 1985, Colorni published a study in Diseases of Aquatic Organism on the effectiveness of hyposalinity in controlling Cryptocaryon irritans in cultured sea bream (Colorni, 1985). Randolph Goodlett and Lance Ichinotsubo have likewise reported their own low-salinity treatment techniques, recommending at least 3 weeks exposure at 14 ppt (specific gravity = 1.010) for a broad range of marine tropical fish species to control various parasites (Goodlett and Ichinotsubo, 1997). They too reported that fish handled immediate transfer into low salinity water "beautifully (Goodlett and Ichinotsubo, 1997)." Variations of low salinity or OST are also gaining popularity among reefkeepers for curing disease outbreaks in reef tanks where copper and other medications cannot be used (Frakes, 1994; Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
Low Salinity Pros (Giwojna, Dec. 2003):
1. Less stressful and longer lasting than freshwater dipping.
2. More effective than freshwater dipping outside the aquaria, since OST kills the free swimming parasites as they emerge from dormant cysts/spores within the aquaria/system as well as those attached to the fish (i.e., the fish are not reinfected once they are returned from the bath to the main tank).
3. No special acclimation procedures required for newcomers.
4. Suitable for all marine teleost (bony) fishes (Red Sea, Indo-Pacific, Florida & Caribbean).
5. Seahorses tolerate hyposalinity extremely well.
6. Eliminates outbreaks of Cryptocaryon irritans (White Spot Disease/Marine Ick).
7. Eliminates turbellarians (Black Spot/Clownfish Disease).
8. Eliminates most ectoparasites, including trematodes, flukes, leeches and Argulus;
9. Prevents the spread of protozoal parasites in general.
10. Reduces the risk of dehydration when the integrity of the fish’ slime coat is disrupted;
11. Helps weakened fish conserve energy and husband their strength by lowering osmotic pressure and making it easier for them to osmoregulate.
12. Reduces dependency on chemical treatments such as copper and formalin.
13. Eliminates the risk of overdoses.
14. Proven to improve the health of marine teleost fishes kept in crowded containment systems with a heavy biological load.
15. Can be used safely with protein, skimmers, ozone, UV, and other treatments.
16. Increases the levels of dissolved oxygen in the aquarium, making it easier to breathe.
17. Helps prevent gas supersaturation, minimizing problems with gas bubble syndrome.
Low Salinity Cons (Giwojna, Dec. 2003):
1. Sharks and rays are unable to adjust to low salinity systems or tolerate OST.
2. Cannot be used with corals and invertebrates at salinities recommended for fishes.
3. Can be harmful to seahorses at salinities below 13.3 ppt (specific gravity = 1.010).
4. May delay gonadal development in seahorses and prevent breeding until the salinity is returned to normal.
5. Requires an accurate method for measuring salinity/specific gravity such as a refractometer for best results.
6. May not be helpful in cases of Uronema — the most common protozoan parasite infection in seahorses.
7. May impact nitrifying bacteria in the biofilter temporarily.
8. Not recommended for long-term maintenance (this will not be a concern for any fishes that are in the system for 6-8 weeks or less).
9. Results vary — many hobbyists report great success with hyposalinity; others have no luck using this technique. Much depends on how OST was administered, how low the salinity was reduced and how quickly it was dropped, the accuracy of the salinity measurements, the particular parasite(s) involved and how early treatment was begun.
Invertebrates differ in their tolerance for hyposalinity. Kollman notes that he was able to keep several crustaceans at a fairly low salinity of 18-19 ppt (specific gravity = 1.013 to 1.014). These included arrow crabs, peppermint shrimp, and emerald crabs (Kollman, 1998). Hermit crabs are generally perfectly happy undergoing OST, echinoderms (starfish and urchins) typically don’t tolerate it at all, most shrimp are sensitive, snails vary (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). Nerites and periwinkles don’t mind it at all, others are okay at 1.017 but you can kiss them goodbye at 1.010. Most corals are vulnerable to full OST (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). Reefkeepers and hobbyists with sensitive animals usually do a modified version of OST where they lower the salinity to 1.017 rather than 1.010 (Giwojna, Dec. 2003). The delicate animals generally tolerate 1.017 well and although that’s not as effective in eradicating parasites, a specific gravity of 1.017 is still low enough to provide many of the benefits of hyposalinity (Giwojna, Dec. 2003).
For a standard SHOWLR setup with a clean-up consisting of assorted snails, microhermits, and cleaner shrimp, I recommend relocating the snails and shrimp while treating your seahorse system with full OST at a specific 1.011-1.012 for several weeks. If that’s not practical because it would be too difficult to account for all the snails and/or shrimp and remove them, then I would suggest taking the salinity carefully down to about 1.017 in your main tank, which most of your janitors should tolerate just fine, after moving your seahorses to your hospital tank for treatment at full OST.
Just set up your hospital tank at a salinity of 15-16 ppt (a specific gravity of 1.011-1.012) and adjust the water to the same temp and pH as the main tank. Then administer a freshwater dip to your seahorses, and transfer them directly into the hyposalinity treatment tank afterwards without any acclimation whatsoever.
As I mentioned earlier, OST is completely compatible with most medications. (In fact, many medications are more effective at low salinity than they are in full strength saltwater.) Since secondary bacterial or fungal infections often accompany parasite problems, I would also recommend combining hyposalinity in the hospital tank with antibiotic therapy. In that case, simply medicating the hospital tank with the appropriate antibiotics will be easier than administering the antibiotics orally via gut-loaded shrimp. [CAUTION: if administering hyposalinity in your main tank, do not administer antibiotics, which may adversely impact the biofiltration in the aquarium.]
Nifurpirinol used in conjunction with neomycin will be very effective for medicating the hospital tank during OST, as will the powerful combination drugs that contain both antiprotozoal and wide-spectrum antibacterial agents. Look for a product that includes ingredients such as nitrofurazone and metronidazole, which are very effective against protozoan parasites, as well as antibiotics such as neomycin and kanamycin, which are powerful broad-spectrum medications.
Modified OST for Reef Tanks
Reefers generally run a modified version of OST in which they maintain a somewhat higher specific gravity, usually around 1.017 (Thiel, 2003), for a longer period of time in order to control protozoal parasites. Most corals are safe at even lower salinities, but 1.017 usually provides adequate protection and provides a margin for error. In any case, as a rule, reef keepers DO NOT take their systems lower than 1.015 for safety’s sake (Thiel, 2003). (This is also a good option for hobbyists who have only a typical pet-store hydrometer for measuring specific gravity, or anyone with many invertebrates in their seahorse setup.)
Corals typically close slightly immediately after the salinity is lowered, but are open fully again by the next day, and suffer no harmful long-term effects from hyposalinity at 1.017 whatsoever (Thiel, 2003). Reefers who practice OST report that it has no long-term detrimental effects on the growth rate of their corals.
According to Thiel, corals that are know to be sensitive to hyposalinity, and which are thus not well suited for OST, include Seriotopora hystrix, Montipora digitata, Pocillopora species and other similar hard corals with a fine, dense, polyp structure (Thiel, 2003). Acropora species, however, handle hyposalinity well and soft corals are also generally fine, including such sensitive softies as Xenia, Lemnalia, and the like (Thiel, 2003). As long as the pH and alkalinity are maintained at normal levels, most hard corals are not harmed at a specific gravity as low as 1.017.
Don’t return any sensitive invertebrates to the main tank until the entire regimen of hyposalinity has been completed and the aquarium has been returned to normal salinity again.
Okay, Paul, that’s the lowdown on hyposalinity. In your case, I would recommend adjusting the specific gravity in your hospital tank to 1.011-1.012 if you have a refractometer to accurately measure the salinity; if you’re using a swing-arm hydrometer or a floating hydrometer to measure the specific gravity, then reduce it to about 1.015 to allow a suitable margin for error. Once you have achieved the proper specific gravity in the hospital tank and adjusted the temperature and pH to match that of your main tank, you can transfer your seahorses directly to the hospital ward without any acclimation whatsoever.
Once in a hospital tank, you can then administer a regimen of triple sulfa according to the instructions on the package, and add methylene blue as instructed earlier in this post. Encourage the seahorses to keep eating by providing them with softbodied adult brine shrimp that are easy to snick up and swallow, as previously described.
If the seahorses that have been affected the longest are too far gone to eat even the soft adult brine shrimp on their own, you may need to resort to tube feeding in order to provide them with some nourishment and help keep their strength up. If that becomes necessary, let me know and I will be happy to provide you with instructions for tube feeding your seahorse to keep him going.
While the seahorses are being treated in your hospital tank, you can go ahead and administer hyposalinity to the main tank in order to eradicate any protozoan parasites it may be harboring. You would need to remove any sensitive invertebrates while the hyposalinity was being administered for 3-6 weeks. This would help prevent the seahorses from being reinfected once they are returned to your main tank.
Best of luck resolving your seahorses’ feeding difficulties and getting your seahorse tank back on track, Paul.