Re:Sunburst Color question

Pete Giwojna

Dear JoAnn:

Sunbursts are indeed predisposed to display the "sunset" colors when conditions are to their liking, JoAnn, which means that they are normally a vivid yellow to orange in coloration when they are looking their best and brightest. However, they may darken in response to stress and a number of other factors such as the aquarium lighting can also affect their coloration.

A Sunburst that is bright yellow at the Ocean Rider aquaculture facility will normally be bright yellow where it is delivered to your doorstep and introduced to your aquarium as well, JoAnn. It has been my experience that if you provide them with good water quality, a nutritious diet, the proper lighting system, and a stress-free environment with plenty of colorful hitching posts, Sunbursts typically keep their bright colors very well in a home aquarium.

But it’s important to note that the Sunbursts are not genetic mutations that are locked into specific colors. Colorful Ocean Riders are not homozygous recessives nor or they mutations that are unable to manufacture certain pigments altogether. In other words, they are not like albinos that are always white because they lack the ability to produce melanin (black pigment), nor are they like lutino mutations that are always yellow because they lack the ability to manufacture any pigments other than yellow. But they do exhibit differential proliferation of chromatophores and this gives each type a predisposition to display certain colors.

Although yellow and orange pigments tend to predominate in Sunbursts, they are equipped with a full range of chromatophores and can display a wide range of colors. This means they are predisposed towards the sunset colors (yellow, gold, peach and orange) when conditions are to their liking. However, they have a complement of melanophores in addition to their bright pigment cells and are able to change their coloration to reflect changing circumstances and conditions. So yellow and orange are the most commonly seen colors in Sunbursts, but you also find them in white, pearly, tan or even brown color phases from time to time.

For example, one reason brightly colored seahorses may darken in a new aquarium is if the lighting is too intense. In nature, bright light means exposure to harmful ultraviolet radiation, and the seahorses respond by producing excess melanin, just as people will develop a dark tan in the summertime if they spend a lot of time in the sun. For this reason, seahorses that are displayed under metal halide lighting or other high intensity lighting may darken in coloration due to the excessive production of melanin. As Jorge Gomezjurado (Head Curator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore) reports, "I have exposed yellow seahorses to strong metal halide and they have turned black in few hours."

On the other hand, the proper lighting can often greatly enhance the appearance of colorful seahorses. As one example of how this can work, Grolux fluorescent lighting stimulates dazzling coloration in bright red or orange seahorses (e.g., Mustangs or Sunbursts in their red or orange color phases, the bright red orange color morphs of H. reidi, or perhaps H. barbouri with vivid orange coloration). Osram Gro-lux fluorescent bulbs put out wavelengths of light that are concentrated toward the red and violet regions of the spectrum. They are intended to stimulate better plant growth, but have the added effect of greatly enhancing any red or orange or purple colors they illuminate. When bathed in Gro-lux light, bright red or orange seahorses literally glow!

In fact, when I first discovered this effect — with a Red Philippine Lobster (Enoplometapus sp.) in a specialty tank — I believed I was witnessing actual fluorescence. The seven-inch bulldozer of a crustacean was covered with sensory bristles that made it look almost fuzzy, and under the Gro-lux bulb, the extraordinary excavator was instantly suffused with a fiery radiance that dazzled the eye. At first I thought its exoskeleton was glowing, and I hypothesized that perhaps the chitin was infused with the type of calcite crystals that fluoresce under ultraviolet, and which perhaps could be similarly excited by the wavelengths emitted by the Gro-lux bulb.

I only realized the truth when I added the same type of bulb to an aquarium containing, among other choice specimens, a gorgeous purple-and-yellow Royal Gramma and a rare red-orange Hippocampus erectus. Now, that seahorse was very colorful under any kind of lighting, but as soon as that Gro-lux lamp switched on, the erectus was ablaze with a shade of brilliant Day-Glo orange ordinarily only seen from neon signs, nuclear meltdowns, and psychedelic posters displayed under UV. The stunning steed shone with a luminous aura, awash with glorious orange glow that made it look like it was swathed with liquid fire. Suddenly, it was the color of red-hot lava, aflame with a blinding orange incandescent, and the result was truly spectacular. Then my shy Royal Gramma emerged from it’s sleeping cave to keep the seahorse company, and it’s magenta end was immediately suffused with a dazzling hot-pinkish purple glow that ended abruptly where it’s yellow half began. That made it obvious that the new bulb was accenting colors at the red and violet regions of the spectrum, which are precisely the wavelengths of light chlorophyll absorbs best.

The reflected Gro-lux light was responsible for the breathtakingly beautiful effect, and it will produce the same scintillating display in your aquariums. It would certainly set red and orange Brazileros (Hippocampus reidi) aglow, as well as Mustangs or Sunbursts (H. erectus) in their red to orange color phases. Pink to purple seahorses should be similarly enhanced under Gro-lux lighting. Fire Reds that approach true scarlet or crimson would no doubt blaze brilliantly, but I’m less certain what effect it would have on specimens that tend more toward auburn or which display that rich mahogany luster instead. And it would have no effect whatsoever on black or brown or yellow or green seahorses, which would absorb the light rather than reflecting it. Suffice it to say if you will be including any red, orange, or purple seahorses in your exhibit, you should use Gro-lux bulbs in order to display them in all their glory!

Otherwise, Paul Groves, curator at Underwater World in Perth, recommends combining a triphosphor (6500k) fluorescent tube with a Phillips TL Blue fluorescent tube to produce the best overall lighting and colors for a seahorse exhibit. After much experimentation, he found the above combination of lights really encouraged the coloration of the seahorses as well as being aesthetically pleasing to the eye. He reports that the diversity in colors displayed by Hippocampus subelongatus was much less under any other lighting. So if you want to accent the colors of red, orange, or purple seahorses, Osram Gro-lux fluorescents are ideal; for other seahorses, try a 6500k triphosphor fluorescent in conjunction with a Phillips TL Blue fluorescent to keep them looking their best. And avoid metal halide lighting for your seahorse exhibit.

In short, JoAnn, when displaying brightly colored seahorses such as Ocean Rider Sunbursts (Hippocampus erectus), it’s best to avoid high-intensity lighting such as metal halides and stick with low intensity fluorescent lighting or LED lighting instead. Not only will this show off your seahorses to best effect, but it will help to prevent overheating and can therefore protect your ponies from heat stress as well. And the right combination of fluorescent lights can dramatically enhance the coloration of seahorses.

Other common factors that can cause seahorses to darken in a home aquarium are poor water quality, such as high levels of nitrogenous wastes (ammonia, nitrite, or nitrate) and the decor of the aquarium. For instance, if the aquarium is aquascaped using lots of live rock and the predominate background coloration is therefore brown or gray, seahorses are apt to adopt relatively drab coloration that will allow them to better blend into their background. That’s why it’s a good idea to include plenty of brightly colored hitching posts that will encourage your ponies to look their best and brightest at all times. Lifelike artificial tree sponges, branching corals, and gorgonians that are bright yellow, orange, pink, or red are especially helpful in that regard.

Best wishes with all your fishes, JoAnn!

Pete Giwojna, Ocean Rider Tech Support

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