Re:Train SH to feed on frozen food

Pete Giwojna

Dear Chris:

I sympathize with the problems you’ve been having feeding your wild-caught H. kuda and H. comes. Such feeding problems with seahorses were very common before captive-bred-and-raised specimens became readily available, and I’ve been in your boat many times in the past. It can sometimes be quite a challenge to wean wild-caught seahorses away from their dependence on live foods and onto a diet of frozen foods instead.

For example, here’s how I described the difference in the feeding habits between wild seahorses and domesticated seahorses in an article in FAMA magazine (Giwojna, Pete. May 2002. "Ocean Rider: A ‘Horse of a Different Color, Part 1." Freshwater and Marine Aquarium):

<Open quote>
As you might expect, its many remarkable features and charming habits have long made the seahorse among the most desirable and highly prized of all aquarium specimens. Seahorses breed more readily in captivity than any other marine fish, and sooner or later, virtually every marine aquarist worth his or her salt aspires to keep and raise these exotic animals. Unfortunately, the dietary requirements of wild-caught seahorses are very difficult to meet. Consequently, maintaining them in captivity–let alone breeding and rearing them–is a daunting challenge best reserved for public institutions and the most experienced, advanced hobbyists.

Proper nutrition is the primary problem. In their natural habitat, seahorses feed more or less continuously throughout the daylight hours, consuming great numbers of small crustaceans and other larval organisms that are collectively termed zooplankton. Thus, in the wild, they are free to select prey items from a lipid-rich planktonic soup consisting of countless copepods, mysids, amphipods, ostracods, isopods, shrimps and the larval stages of myriad larger crustaceans. Attempting to duplicate the quality and quantity of the seahorse’s natural diet is a tremendous challenge for the aquarist.

Furnishing wild-caught seahorses with a healthy, balanced diet is thus a painstaking, time-consuming process. It requires collecting live foods in the field, maintaining live food cultures at home, patiently training them to eat nonliving prey and frozen foods, and even conditioning them to accept handfeeding at times. For those fortunate enough to have access to the seashore, field collecting means enduring endless hours of slogging through saltmarshes in search of mosquito larvae and wading knee-deep across tidal flats at low tide to reach tidal pools that might contain amphipods or small shrimps. It means hand-seining seagrass beds for grass shrimps, towing plankton nets, and diving after shoals of live mysids. And it involves long afternoons at the beach toiling tirelessly under the hot sun, shaking malodorous mats of Sargassum and countless clumps of clammy seaweed over your collecting bucket in search of scuds and beach-hoppers. For the inland hobbyist, it means spending your spare time straining stagnant pools for freshwater Gammarus and Daphnia. After a live-food collecting expedition, insect bites, sunburn, and stinging cuts and abrasions on hands and knees are badges of courage proudly displayed by dedicated seahorse keepers everywhere.

Once back home from a collecting trip, it’s time to look after your catch and tend to your live food cultures. For starters, there is the obligatory large grow out tank for brine shrimp as well as separate tanks for raising amphipods and various types of live shrimp (ghost shrimp, grass shrimp, mysids, caprellids). Serious seahorse fanciers have even been known to employ wading pools and outdoor goldfish ponds (minus the goldfish) as their Artemia grow-out tanks. At least one good-sized aquarium is normally devoted to a harem of live-bearing tropicals, usually guppies or–even better–mollies adapted to full-strength saltwater, so the newborn fry they produce so prolifically can be fed to your hungry seahorses. Breeding a single pair of wild-caught seahorses might easily require a half dozen live-food culture tanks plus several refugia, a whole battery of Artemia hatcheries, rows of "greenwater" infusoria bottles, and banks of rotifer cultures in addition to all the live food that can be collected. In short, with its forest of gleaming glassware and glittering apparatus filled with hissing valves, bubbling flasks, and stewing vats filled with mysterious organisms, the fish room of a dedicated seahorse keeper used to resemble nothing so much as an overworked mad scientist’s diabolical laboratory.

Fortunately for the average aquarist, all of that has now changed. A recent breakthrough in marine aquaculture has revolutionized the ornamental fish industry as far as the ever-popular seahorse is concerned. Carol Cozzi-Schmarr and her husband Craig Schmarr, a husband-and-wife team of marine biologists with over 35 years of hands-on professional experience as mariculturists, are doing something the so-called experts had long deemed impossible: successfully raising large numbers of captive-bred seahorses on a commercial basis at Ocean Rider Inc., their state-of-the-art aquaculture facility in Hawaii. Their success at farm-raising tropical seahorses that are pre-conditioned for the captive environment and pre-trained to eat frozen foods means that, for the first time, these fabulous fish are no more difficult to feed and maintain in the aquarium than the average angelfish, and are far easier to breed. For the first time, Carol and Craig have brought the Holy Grail of aquarium fish within easy reach of the average hobbyist. <End quote>

In short, Chris, it requires a lot of patience and persistence in order to train wild-caught seahorses to accept frozen foods. The best procedure is often to start out with their favorite live food, whether that is adult brine shrimp, ghost shrimp, post larval shrimp or whatever, and then trick them into eating freshly killed or frozen examples of those same food items by mixing them in with the live food and imparting movement to them so that they seem to be alive as well. Once they begin to accept some of the frozen or freshly killed prey items in this way, you can gradually increase the proportion of the frozen or nonliving food to the live prey until finally they are eating mostly dead or frozen food.

I wrote an article that explains how to go about training wild seahorses to eat frozen foods in greater detail, which may be helpful in your case. It is available online from the Breeder’s Registry at the following URL:

Click here: FAMA Nov 1996. Seahorse Nutrition – Part II: Frozen Foods for Adults

It should give you a pretty good idea of how to proceed, but bear in mind that in several years old; the article was written before the advent of captive bred seahorses and doesn’t apply to domesticated ponies. For instance, nowadays of course all cultured seahorses are trained to accept frozen Mysis as their staple, everyday diet and should not go on hunger strikes or require live foods at all except as an occasional treat.

As you know, Chris, enriched Mysis is the best frozen food for your seahorses. You might have your best luck if you stick with frozen Mysis relicta from Piscine Energetics, which contains natural order attractants and appetite stimulants to trigger a strong feeding response.

The superior PE Mysis relicta is available in smaller quantities online from Premium Aquatics (see link below). The Piscine Energetics frozen Mysis relicta is now available graded for size. You can get the usual jumbo Mysis relicta or smaller Mysis depending on the size of your seahorses.

Click here: Frozen Foods: Premium Aquatics

You can also contact Piscine Energetics and obtain a list of the retail outlets that carry their Mysis relicta. Depending on where you live, you may be able to obtain the PE Mysis relicta from a local fish store in your area:

Target feeding the carefully thawed frozen food to the seahorses using a turkey baster or a similar implement is often the best way to impart movement to it and convince a wild-caught seahorses that it is alive so that they will track it and eat it. Here is some a additional information on target feeding that may be useful in that regard, Chris:

Target Feeding

The individual personalities of seahorses naturally extend to their feeding habits. Some are aggressive feeders that will boldly snatch food from your fingers, while some are shy and secretive, feeding only when they think they’re not being observed. Some like to slurp up Mysis while it’s swirling through the water column, and some will only take Mysis off the bottom of the tank. Some are voracious pigs that greedily scarf up everything in sight, and some are slow, deliberate feeders that painstakingly examine every morsel of Mysis before they accept or reject it. Some eat like horses and some eat like birds. So how does the seahorse keeper make sure all his charges are getting enough to eat at mealtime? How does the hobbyist keep the aggressive eaters from gobbling up all the mouth-watering Mysis before the slower feeders get their fair share? And how can you keep active fishes and inverts with seahorses without the faster fishes gobbling up all the goodies before the slowpoke seahorses can grab a mouthful (Giwojna, unpublished)?

Target feeding is the answer. Target feeding just means offering a single piece of Mysis to one particular seahorse, and then watching to see whether or not the ‘horse you targeted actually eats the shrimp. Feeding each of your seahorses in turn that way makes it easy to keep track of exactly how much each of your specimens is eating (Giwojna, unpublished).

There are many different ways to target feed seahorses. Most methods involve using a long utensil of some sort to wave the Mysis temptingly in front of the chosen seahorse; once you’re sure this has attracted his interest, the Mysis is released so it drifts down enticingly right before the seahorse’s snout. Most of the time, the seahorse will snatch it up as it drifts by or snap it up as soon as it hits the bottom (Giwojna, unpublished).

A great number of utensils work well for target feeding. I’ve seen hobbyists use everything from chopsticks to extra long tweezers and hemostats or forceps to homemade pipettes fashioned from a length of rigid plastic tubing. As for myself, I prefer handfeeding when I target feed a particular seahorse (Giwojna, unpublished).

But no doubt the all-time favorite implement for target feeding seahorses is the old-fashioned turkey baster. The old-fashioned ones with the glass barrels work best because the seahorses can see the Mysis inside the baster all the way as it moves down the barrel and out the tip. By exerting just the right amount of pressure on the bulb, great precision is possible when target feeding with a turkey baster. By squeezing and releasing the bulb ever so slightly, a skillful target feeder can keep a piece of Mysis dancing at the very tip of the baster indefinitely, and hold the tempting morsel right in front of the seahorse’s mouth as long as necessary. Or if the seahorse rejects the Mysis the first time it drifts by, a baster makes it easy to deftly suck up the shrimp from the bottom so it can be offered to the target again. In the same way, the baster makes it a simple matter to clean any remaining leftovers after a feeding session (Giwojna, unpublished). (You’ll quickly discover the feeding tube is also indispensable for tapping away pesky fish and invertebrates that threaten to steal the tempting tidbit before an indecisive seahorse can snatch it up.)

In short, target feeding allows the hobbyist to assure that each of his seahorses gets enough to eat without overfeeding or underfeeding the tank. And it makes it possible to keep seahorses in a community tank with more active fishes that would ordinarily out-compete them for food, since the aquarist can personally deliver each mouthful to the seahorses while keeping more aggressive specimens at bay (Giwojna, unpublished).

The key to keeping active specimens like firefish and occelaris clownfish or cleaner shrimp successfully with seahorses is to feed the other fish and inverts with standard, off-the-shelf aquarium foods first, and once they’ve had their fill, then target feed the seahorses (Giwojna, unpublished).

So if you can master target feeding using a baster, Chris, that may be the best way to tempt your wild-caught seahorses into accepting frozen foods. Once you get good at this technique, you can fool them into thinking the frozen food is quite alive.

Bonus tip: adding one or two captive-bred-and-raised seahorses that are aggressively eating the frozen Mysis well to the to the tank with your H. kuda and H. comes will often do wonders for this sort of problem by encouraging wild-caught seahorses to follow suit.. Many hobbyists find that finicky eaters learn to take frozen mysids much faster and easier when they are provided with teachers to show them the way. The wild horses are often quick to copy their "mentors," learning from their example.

Best of luck training your pet-store ponies to eat frozen fare, Chris!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna

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