- This topic has 7 replies, 2 voices, and was last updated 17 years, 10 months ago by Pete Giwojna.
January 18, 2006 at 4:43 pm #728BGUTHMember
I am new to this site and to seahorses. I would like to start a seahorse tank, but before I even begin the process, could someone recommend some good books. I have read some information online about seahorses and only one book on marine life, and so far it has been conflicting so I\’m not real sure what I am looking for. I have a saltwater tank that I have setup for a variety of fish, but I need some advice on how to start a seahorse tank, what size, types of corals, etc. Any advice on this would be greatly appreciated. My main question for starting this type of tank is….Are seahorses difficult to care for?
I would also appreciate if someone could explain why I have two different pet stores giving two greatly differentiated prices on seahorses. Store #1 quotes $150.00, Store #2 quotes a $20.00 price tag. Any idea why there would be such a difference and what concerns I should have for using either one of these stores.
Thank-you for any advice and input you can offer,
BarbaraJanuary 20, 2006 at 1:24 pm #2250Pete GiwojnaGuest
The answer to your primary question (Are seahorses difficult to care for?) depends on whether you’re talking about wild-caught seahorses or captive-bred-and-raised seahorses. Delicate wild-caught seahorses are indeed challenging to keep and raise; they are best reserved for expert aquarists with the knowledge and resources to meet their demanding requirements. Hardy captive bred seahorses that are trained to eat frozen foods, on the other hand, are very much at home in the aquarium and are relatively easy to care for. More home hobbyists are able to breed and raise cultured seahorses such as Mustangs successfully than any other type of marine fishes.
Farm-praised seahorses have been born and bred for aquarium life for generation after generation. They are at home in the aquarium, accustomed to eating readily provided frozen foods as their staple diet, and used to living in close proximity to others of their kind. Wild-caught seahorses, on the other hand, are starting out with the deck stacked against them and find captive conditions very unnatural and highly stressful. They have been abruptly snatched from their natural environment, wrenched apart from their mates, starved while they make the rounds from collector to wholesaler to retailer to hobbyist, and exposed to all manner of pathogens and parasites at every stop along the way. They are accustomed to eating live foods and, with the patchy distribution typical of all Hippocampines, they rarely encounter seahorses other than their mates in the vastness of the sea. As a result, wild-caught seahorses typically have considerable difficulty adjusting to aquarium conditions, unnatural foods, and living in constant contact with other seahorses.
Consequently, when we eager hobbyists got our hands on the first farm-raised seahorses it quickly became evident that they were superior to their wild conspecifics as aquarium specimens in every respect. Vastly superior! In every way. In terms of their hardiness, ease of maintenance, disease resistance, longevity, adaptability, suitability for the captive environment, willingness to breed in the aquarium, genetic diversity, vigor, friendliness and sociability, coloration, and especially their feeding habits, they put wild seahorses to shame. No contest. Generations of selective breeding have transformed cultured seahorses into far different animals — a whole new breed — than wild seahorses. Compared to their wild-caught cousins, the captive-bred-and-raised seahorses are far more fun, much easier to keep and more convenient to care for, and generally more attractive specimens as well.
In short, the advantages of farm-raised, captive-bred seahorses over wild-caught specimens are many, obvious, and compelling. For starters, let’s examine their different feeding habits. Before captive-bred specimens were available, one of the seahorse keeper’s greatest challenges was providing wild-caught seahorses with a balanced, nutritious diet, stemming from their reliance on hard-to-provide live foods. Meeting their long-term needs was a difficult, expensive proposition. It required numerous live food cultures, rigorous field trips to collect live foods, and special training sessions to try to teach them to eat frozen foods, which often proved to be a prolonged, highly frustrating exercise in futility.
By comparison, feeding farm-raised seahorses is simplicity itself. Raised in captivity, all captive-bred seahorses are pre-trained to eat frozen Mysis shrimp as their staple diet. Frozen Mysis relicta have an extremely high protein content, and when fortified with special enrichment products rich in highly unsaturated fatty acids, carotenoids, Vitamins C and A and essential minerals, it provides a highly nutritious diet that contains all of the crucial components necessary for the long-term health of the seahorse. In my opinion, the best of these enrichment products is a dry powder formulation (i.e., Vibrance) especially developed in Hawaii to provide a balanced diet for seahorses when used in conjunction with the protein-rich frozen Mysis. A nutritious diet of enriched, frozen Mysis relicta thus ensures long-term survivability, high health, high mating frequency and beautiful, vibrant colors in our pampered pets.
In fact, this is such a superb diet that it is strongly suggested that the aquarist "fast" his seahorses one day per week, and feeding live foods is totally unnecessary except as a monthly treat. Contrast a trip to your refrigerator twice a day to thaw frozen Mysis, and no feeding at all once a week, with the collecting expeditions, live food cultures, and painstaking training procedures required to sustain wild-caught seahorses and wean them onto frozen fodder, and you can see there is really no comparison (Giwojna, May 2002).
Breeding is another area where wild seahorses simply cannot compete with their captive-bred counterparts. In the olden days, greater seahorses removed from the wild rarely bred in captivity. There were a number of reasons for this ranging from traumatic capture techniques and mishandling by dealers to difficulty adjusting to a captive environment to the sort of feeding problems we’ve been discussing above. But one big factor was that in the aquarium they lacked the type of seasonal or cyclical environmental cues (falling water temperature, changes in day length, reduced salinity from monsoon rains, moon phases and high tides, etc.) they normally experience in the wild that regulate the breeding season. These environmental stimuli trigger the secretion of gonadotropin and other key hormones that prepare them for breeding and govern their reproductive activity. Without these environmental cues and the hormonally induced changes they trigger, many times they simply ceased to breed in captivity. Researchers dealt with such setbacks through wild procurement of gravid males. In other words, loaded or pregnant males removed from the wild provided the fry needed for rearing projects and laboratory study in those days.
Captive-bred seahorses normally experience no such difficulties in the boudoir. They are highly domesticated and very well adapted to the aquarium environment. They are not subject to the traumatic capture methods or mishandling and abuse en route to the hobbyist. Born and bred for captivity generation after generation, for them the aquarium is their natural habitat. As a result, for the most part, they have lost their dependence on seasonal cues and external stimuli when it comes to mating. Rather than external environmental cues, for farm-raised seahorses, which have been raised at far greater population densities than seahorses ever experience in the wild, it is the presence of other seahorses — potential mates — that appears to get their hormones flowing and triggers courtship. (Pheromones or sex hormones almost certainly play a role in this.) In other words, living amidst a group of potential partners at all times seems to be what turns on captive-bred seahorses, and breeding appears to be their number one mission in life. Compared to their wild conspecifics, farm-raised seahorses seem to court constantly, breed like bunnies, and change partners often.
But to me, the most striking difference between cultured seahorses and wild specimens has always been the increased hardiness of the former. Captive-bred seahorses simply enjoy a huge advantage over their wild-caught brethren in terms of their health, disease resistance, and conditioning, and that naturally translates to greater longevity in the aquarium. To understand why they are so much hardier and healthier, we must examine how cultured seahorses and seahorses captured from the wild are handled before they reach the hobbyist. It is largely a matter of stress. In a nutshell, captive-bred-and-raised seahorses are not stressed by aquarium life and are not abused en route to the aquarist, and that makes all the difference in the world in terms of their fitness and lifespan in captivity.
When you place an order for farm-raised seahorses, they are then delivered overnight directly to your door from Hawaii’s state-of-the art aquaculture facility, and thus reach the consumer well fed and in optimum condition. They arrive disease-free and relatively unstressed, at the peak of their health and coloration. This gives them a huge headstart over wild-caught seahorses, which are often beat up during capture (specimens taken in trawls, for example, often suffer considerable wear and tear during the collection process) and mishandled at various stops along the way to your local fish store (LFS). By the time they finally arrive at your local dealers, wild-caught seahorses may already have spent a long time in the collector’s holding tanks followed by an indefinite stay at a wholesaler and a high-risk respite at your local retailers, and have been exposed to all manner of pathogens and parasites at every stop along the way (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Due to their need for live foods, they are very likely to have gone unfed during this entire period, and they may have become malnourished by the time they reach your neighborhood fish store (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). And because they were taken from coastal waters, wild seahorses are frequently infested with a variety of pests and parasites ranging from sea lice (Argulus sp.) to nematodes, parasitic copepods and hydroids. Upon arrival, they will need to be quarantined for a period of several weeks, since they may also be carrying disease pathogens such as fungus, Vibrio, or deadly Glugea (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Captive-raised, high-health seahorses pose no such problems.
The greater adaptability of captive-bred and reared seahorses is another big plus. Cultured seahorses have now achieved a high level of domestication. They are pre-adapted to aquarium conditions and pre-trained to eat easily provided frozen foods. Because they are raised at much greater population densities than seahorses experience in nature, captive-bred specimens are accustomed to living in close quarters and withstand crowding much better than wild-caught ‘horses. Consequently, farm-raised seahorses have little difficulty adjusting to life in a captive environment. By contrast, field studies show that, in the wild, seahorses have a distribution pattern that can best be described as patchy, meaning they are few and far between, and that a female typically enjoys a home territory of up to 100 square meters (Vincent and Sadler, 1995). It stands to reason that wild-caught seahorses may have a more difficult time acclimating to life in captivity than farm-raised ponies that are literally born and bred for life in the aquarium. And that means that wild-caught seahorses will be under more stress in captivity, at least initially (Giwojna, May 2002).
This was most evident when captive bred seahorses first became readily available around the turn of the century. In those days, it was customary for many hobbyists to maintain wild-caught and captive-bred specimens side-by-side in the same tank, since they already had wild seahorses and eagerly added farmed-raised ponies to their herds when they were first offered by breeders. Very often, when disease outbreaks occurred in such setups, the wild specimens were all lost while the captive-bred seahorses emerged unscathed, or if they developed symptoms, were able to fight off the affliction and recover none the worse for wear.
The bottom line is that captive bred and raised seahorses are simply hardier, more disease resistant, easier to maintain and longer lived in captivity than their wild-caught counterparts. They reach the hobbyist well fed, in peak condition, and already accustomed to aquarium life and frozen foods (Giwojna, May 2002). On the other hand, wild-caught seahorses typically arrive at your local fish store in poor shape, suffering from near starvation and the trauma of capture (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Mishandling combined with malnutrition stresses these animals and impairs their immune systems, making them prone to disease (Bull and Mitchell, 2002; Lidster 2003).
This means that wild seahorses often have a difficult time adjusting to aquarium conditions, don’t tolerate crowding as well, and will most certainly have problems adjusting to frozen fodder or any other easily provided foods. They will need live foods for an indefinite period while they struggle to make the transition to strange foods and the captive environment, and will be stressed out in the interim (Giwojna, May 2002).
In fact, the pet industry has coined a term for the plight of newly imported marine fishes like seahorses. They call it "Post Traumatic Shipping Disorder," and pet dealers consider PTSD to be the single greatest problem facing the ornamental fish industry. As they define it, PTSD refers to a broad range of complications suffered by marine fishes following traumatic capture, holding and/or transportation. The majority of cases are believed to be the result of digestive tract damage resulting from inadequate nourishment during a period of high (stress-induced) metabolic demand. And seahorses are right at the top of the dealers’ list of most often affected specimens because of their specialized feeding requirements (Lidster, 1999).
The point is that the hobbyist can spare himself a great deal of hardship and heartache, and eliminate many potential disease problems altogether right from the start, simply by opting for hardy captive-bred seahorses that thrive under aquarium conditions. Many of the afflictions that plagued seahorses in the Dark Ages of the hobby when wild specimens were the only choice are rarely if ever seen by hobbyists today who keep captive-bred seahorses. This includes nuisances like sea lice, parasitic copepods and many other ectoparasites, nematode infestations, the fungus infections that were once so common when wild seahorses collected late in the season and exposed to chilling, as well as deadly epidemics of Glugea that wiped out whole herds of wild horses in the past.
Therefore, the first rule of successful seahorse keeping is to avoid wild-caught seahorses like the plague. The hobbyist can prevent a number of disease problems simply by stocking his system with High Health captive-bred seahorses.
This brings us to the different prices your to local fish stores quoted you for seahorses, Barbara. The difference in cost is almost certainly due to the fact that the more expensive seahorses are captive bred and raised, whereas the relatively inexpensive seahorses are wild-caught animals recently removed from the ocean.
At first glance, the $20 fish may seem like too good of a deal to pass up, but I hope I’ve shown by now that there’s no such thing as a bargain when the seahorse involved is wild-caught. Believe me, Barbara, the added cost of captive bred specimens is well worth it in order to spare the unsuspecting hobbyist from the inevitable headaches (and heartaches) that come with acquiring a wild specimen that may not be in good condition to begin with and that is not conditioned for aquarium life. Certainly there are also conservation issues and ethical questions involved in purchasing a seahorse that was removed from the wild at a time when seahorses populations are in serious decline around the world, and starting out with superior farm-raised livestock is the best way to absolve oneself from that moral dilemma.
Fortunately, this is one of those happy situations when the best interests of seahorse conservation coincide nicely with the best interests of the seahorse keeper. No matter what you are looking for in a seahorse — ease of rearing, brilliant colors, exceptional size or an endearing lack of size — there are plenty of captive-bred specimens that meet your needs. There is no need to take a chance on wild-caught specimens.
Whether you prefer pint-sized Shetland Ponies or king-sized Clydesdales, whether you fancy a simple desktop tank, a sophisticated setup will all the latest equipment, or a full-fledged reef system, there are fantastic farm-raised seahorses that fit the bill. Whether you are looking for tropical treasures or running a coldwater tank for temperate species, whether you want to breed and raise these amazing animals or simply enjoy their exotic appearance and amusing antics, there is now a colorful, captive-bred creation that’s perfect for you.
In short, if you want to get your seahorses from the LFS and personally pick out your livestock, Barbara, avoid the store offering the wild $20 ponies and stick with the store that can provide you with the more expensive but vastly superior captive bred seahorses. Better yet, order your seahorses directly from the breeder in order to obtain the healthiest possible livestock. Seahorses from a High-Health aquaculture facility such as Ocean Rider are certified to be free of pathogens and parasites, and will thus reach you at the peak of health.
That’s not the case when seahorses are obtained from your LFS. When seahorses are kept at a retail outlet, they are typically held in aquaria that share a common filtration system with all the rest of the tanks in the store. This means that the seahorses may have been exposed to pathogens and/or parasites carried on fishes from all the corners of the globe while they were in the holding tanks at your LFS or the wholesaler be obtained them from, making them potential disease vectors for a wide range of health problems.
Every Ocean Rider seahorse comes with a comprehensive care sheet explaining in detail how to acclimate it to the aquarium and care for it thereafter. But when you purchase a wild seahorse from your LFS, the store staff often knows little about their specific needs and requirements, and it can be very difficult to even identify the type of seahorse you have just purchased. With farm-raised seahorses, you know exactly what you are getting, including the seahorse’s exact requirements and all the tricks to keeping them healthy and happy. Help is always available through online seahorse boards as well as directly from the breeder in the form of free tech support. Whereas the seahorse farmers specialize in seahorses and nothing else, seahorses are little but an afterthought at most pet shops, and once you bring home a seahorse from your LFS, you’re strictly on your own if problems arise.
Now that I’ve done my best answer your main question, Barbara, let me know if you think you’d like to try your hand at keeping seahorses. If you’re ready to take the plunge, I will be very happy to help you find the ones that best suit your needs, tastes and interests and to explain in detail how to set up a tank that meets all of your seahorses’ requirements.
Best wishes with all of your fishes, Barbara!
Pete GiwojnaJanuary 20, 2006 at 2:34 pm #2251BGUTHGuest
The information you gave me was very helpful indeed. I would very much so like to set up a tank. I have about a million questions on this topic. I already have a saltwater tank and I have to wait several more months before I can stock it with fish, is this the same for seahorses? What size tank would be best to start out with? Once they are set up can they be moved? How many horses can be in one tank? Can there be more than one breed in a tank? When you say, "breed like bunnies", does that mean my tank would be overloaded? I don’t want to set one up unless I know for 100% that I can handle it. I read where they won’t eat their babies (that’s a relief after some stories i’ve heard on that subject) but how many do they have at a time and how do you maintain all of them in one tank? Do the babies have to be removed, put in a breeding net, etc.? If there are any good books out there I would love to know where to get some. What type of other fish can be kept with seahorses, or are they best kept in a seperate tank. The tank I have now I plan on stocking with tangs, angels, and clown fish. Is there somewhere I can find a good compatibility chart or should I just plan on having a home for just seahorses? (BTW, I think a seahorse tank only would be awesome). One more question, for today, what is the difference in a pixie horse and a dwarf horse? Thank you very much for your time on this. It is of great importance to me that I know what I’m doing and what to expect BEFORE I get started.
P.S. I definitely plan on buying farm raised horses.January 25, 2006 at 4:09 pm #2262Pete GiwojnaGuest
You’re very welcome and I’m glad I can be of service! It’s always a pleasure to help a hobbyist who is so keen on getting things right! Taking the time to do your homework, research the topic ahead of time, and ask a million questions before you take the plunge is always the best approach. That’s most commendable and I will be happy to answer all of your questions to the best of my ability, but in order to do them justice, I’m going to tackle them one or two at a time. That way I can provide you with more detailed responses that should be more useful and helpful for you, but it will take me a little longer to get around to all of your questions, so please bear with me in the meantime.
For starters, I’ll begin with your questions regarding what size of tank is best for seahorses and how long it needs to be established before you can begin stocking the old corral. Like all aquariums, moving a seahorse tank once it’s set up and established is a major operation that requires careful planning and a lot of hard work. Before it can be moved, you need to empty out almost all of the water, yet keep your substrate wet so that you don’t kill the beneficial bacteria in your biofilter volume while transporting the tank, and you must temporarily house the fish and invertebrates in buckets or other containers while the move is being made. An aquarium is not meant to be portable — they’re much too heavy and the danger of cracking the tank or creating leaks too great to attempt to move a tank with all the decorations and water in place, so take care when you select the location for your aquarium, as discussed below.
Setting Up the Aquarium for Greater Seahorses
Size and Location.
The size and the location of the tank are the first things you must consider when preparing an aquarium for seahorses. Unless you will be keeping one of the miniature breeds of farm-raised seahorses, such as Hippocampus zosterae, H. breviceps, or H. tuberculatus, it’s best to start with the largest aquarium you can reasonably afford and maintain (the taller, the better). In general, a tank of at least 40 gallons (150 L) is preferable since that’s the size when one begins to see significant benefits in terms of the greater stability a larger volume of water can provide. An aquarium of 40-gallons or more will be more resistant to overcrowding and to rapid fluctuations in temperature, pH, and salinity than smaller setups. The larger the aquarium the larger the margin for error it offers the aquarist and the greater the benefits it provides in terms of stability.
It is equally desirable to select an aquarium at least 20-inches high when keeping the greater seahorses. They need the vertical swimming space to perform their complex mating ritual and successfully complete the egg transfer, which is accomplished while the pair is rising through the water column or drifting slowly downwards from the apex of their rise. If the aquarium is too shallow, eggs will be spilled during the transfer from the female to the male’s brood pouch, and mating becomes increasingly difficult or impossible below a certain minimum depth. A tall aquarium can also help protect the seahorses from depth-related health problems such as bloated pouch and certain forms of Gas Bubble Disease.
When setting up the aquarium, our goal is to create a stress-free environment for the seahorses, and some potential stressors can be eliminated in the planning stage simply by choosing the right location for the tank. For example, it should be located in a low-traffic area away from heat sources and cold spots. Avoid placing it adjacent to a radiator, fireplace, a door that opens to the outdoors, or heating and cooling vents. It’s great to have your aquarium in an air-conditioned room, but avoid positioning it too close to the cooling unit. Avoid placing the aquarium in front of a window for the obvious reasons but also because direct sunlight can make it very difficult to control nuisance algae. Siting the tank where it receives a little indirect sunlight, however, is not a bad idea at all since that will help establish a natural day/night cycle that changes with the seasons, and such environmental cues can play an important role in regulating breeding.
Choose a location that minimizes shock and vibration as well as excess noise and foot traffic. The medium of water transmits certain sounds wonderfully well — far better than air, in fact — and like all fishes, seahorses have organs specially designed to detect such vibrations, and are sensitive to external noises and outside sources of shock and vibration (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). Whether it’s a clunky air pump or compressor, the buzzing ballast from an aquarium reflector, the rattling impeller from a noisy power filter, or something totally unrelated to the aquarium, like a nearby clothes washer/dryer, dishwasher, stereo, television or some such appliance, any source of bad vibes can subject seahorses to chronic low-level stress (Giwojna, Jun. 2002).
To avoid this sort of stress, choose the location for your seahorse tank with care, dampen all potential sources of shock and vibration, and provide a pad (a sheet of Styrofoam insulation or cork is ideal) beneath the tank to deaden vibrations and soften any shocks that might otherwise be absorbed through the base of the aquarium (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). The aquarium should be situated in a relatively quiet room away from major traffic areas, blasting stereos, blaring TVs and noisy kids that can’t resist tapping on the glass to see how the fish react. If you have modified your laundry room, utility room, or workshop so it can do double duty as your fish room, you may want to find a less mechanically cluttered area for your seahorses (Giwojna, Jun. 2002).
Stray voltage is another common cause of chronic stress for seahorses and other aquarium inhabitants, as well as a much more prevalent problem than most hobbyists suspect (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). Installing a grounding probe in the tank easily prevents it, and every seahorse setup should be equipped with one. A titanium grounding probe is an inexpensive investment that can safeguard the health of your seahorses (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). Think of it as an extraordinarily cheap, yet effective life insurance policy that can save your fish — and your hide — in the event of an electrical accident while working on your tank. Even better, install a Ground Fault Interrupter on the electrical outlet(s) where you plug in your aquarium equipment.
When choosing the location for your tank, bear in mind that a large aquarium in excess of 40-gallons and at least 20 inches tall is a massive object (Indiviglio, 2002). When completely furnished with water, rockwork, and gravel, such an aquarium can easily weigh 500-1000 pounds, depending on its exact dimensions. Make sure the floorboards in the fish room and the aquarium stand you select are up to the task and can support a half-ton or more of dead weight.
Establishing the Aquarium.
Rather than discussing all of the different filtration options and systems that are commonly used to keep the greater seahorses, I am going to focus on one particular method that I have found produces the best results for me and describe how to set up such a system in detail. One reason I prefer this method is that it is very versatile and can easily be adapted to suit almost anyone’s needs and interests.
The setup for greater seahorses I prefer, and which most hobbyists favor at this time, is know as a “Sea-Horses-Only-With-Live-Rock” system, or a SHOWLR tank for short. It is simplicity itself, extremely effective for seahorses, and endlessly adaptable. It is suitable for tanks from 5 gallons to 500 gallons, and can be adapted successfully to suit the simplest setups or the most complex, high-tech systems. The primary components of the SHOWLR tank include:
(1) a thin layer of live sand (3/4" to 1" deep) for the substrate;
(2) 1-2 pounds of well-cured live rock per gallon of water;
(3) a quality protein skimmer;
(4) and an external power filter to provide water movement and supplemental filtration; power heads can be added as needed to increase circulation and eliminate dead spots.
The one indispensable part of a SHOWLR system is the foundation of live rock. The live rock is the living, breathing, heart and soul of the system, which provides the bulk of the biological filtration as well as some denitrification ability and shelter and habitat for countless critters and microfauna. The porous interior of the rock supports large populations of the beneficial oxygen-loving Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter bacteria that breakdown deadly ammonia and nitrite into less toxic substances (primarily nitrate). Deeper inside the live rock, where oxygen levels are nil, anaerobic denitrifying bacteria take hold and complete the nitrogen cycle, breaking down nitrate into harmless nitrogen. This helps keep the nitrate levels in the seahorse tank low. As a result, live rock is superior to most other forms of biofiltration, which lack this final anaerobic step and cannot carry out denitrification. This makes live rock doubly good at maintaining optimum water quality.
Equally important, the rockwork provides cover for the seahorses. By this, I mean the rock allows the seahorses to hide and conceal themselves completely whenever they feel the need. Seahorses are shy, secretive creatures that rely on camouflage as their primary means of protection, and if they feel too exposed and vulnerable, it can be stressful for them.
Despite its beauty, natural appearance and the many benefits it provides, some hobbyists avoid live rock like the plague for fear that they may introduce harmful pests to their aquarium along with the live rock. This is a valid concern since potentially harmful hitchhikers like mantis shrimp, fireworms, aggressive crabs, hydroids and Aiptasia rock anemones are very often unseen and unwanted tenants of live rock. They insinuate themselves throughout the live rock in nooks and crannies, and multitudes of these squatters may have taken up housekeeping in a good-sized piece of rock unbeknownst to the unsuspecting aquarist. They conceal themselves within the labyrinth of rock and often escape even the closest scrutiny undetected.
But with a little care this is one time when aquarists can have their cake and eat it too. There are a number of ways to take advantage of all the benefits live rock provides without risking unleashing an epidemic of tenacious rock anemones or turning Jack-the-Ripper loose in your tank reincarnated in the form of a thumb-splitting Stomatopod.
For instance, some seahorse keepers treat live rock with fenbendazole for a period of 3-4 days to eradicate such pest before placing it in the aquarium. Fenbendazole is an anthelmintic agent used for deworming large animals such as horses (Abbott, 2003), and 1/8 teaspoon of granular fenbendazole per every 10 gallons of water will indeed kill worms, including bristleworms, as well as hydroids, anemones and certain other Cnidarians (Liisa Coit, pers. com.). It will not harm your biofilter, most macroalgae, copepods or most types of shrimps and other crustaceans, or most kinds of snails (Liisa Coit, pers. com.), so it leaves most of the desirable life on the rock intact. Be sure to check the water for ammonia and nitrite if you use fenbendazole for pest control this way, since the sudden die off of worms and Aiptasia anemones is likely to cause ammonia and/or nitrite spikes that must be controlled with water changes.
By and large, bristleworms are beneficial scavengers and sand sifters unless their numbers get out of hand, so a better option for many seahorse keepers is to keep the Aiptasia and bristleworm population in check using some means of biological control. Peppermint Shrimp (Lysmata wurdemanni) love to dine on Aiptasia rock anemones and several of these attractive shrimp will do a fine job of eradicating them from the aquarium. Certain nudibranchs (Berghia sp.) also feed on Aiptasia. Likewise, small Arrow Crabs (Stenorhynchus sp.) will keep the bristleworm population at a manageable number. Any mantis shrimp or aggressive crabs that happen to slip by are generally fairly easy to trap and remove, and commercially made traps are available for that very purpose.
Treating the live rock with a hypersaline dip is another excellent technique for ridding it of unwanted pests. This method doesn’t kill the critters outright but merely drives them out of the rockwork so you can selectively cull through them. Another advantage of this method is that leaves all the desirable life on the rocks intact and unharmed.
To use this technique, simply place your newly arrived live rock in an inert container filled with saltwater at a specific gravity of 1.035 to 1.040 for one minute before you cure it. Invertebrates cannot tolerate rapid changes in salinity, so all the mobile inverts in the rock will immediately abandon there hidey-holes and bale out of the rock like rats deserting a sinking ship. After a full minute in this extra-salty bath, the evacuation will be complete, and you can remove the now pest-free live rock and sort your catch. Cull the invertebrates left behind in dipping container, discarding the pests you don’t want while retrieving any of the refugees you might like to add to your system. One full minute in the hypersalinity is enough to drive out all the active invertebrates such as mantis shrimp (Stomatopods), crabs, and assorted worms of every description, yet this brief period of immersion will not harm encrusting organisms or sessile life.
Cautious aquarists who want to make doubly sure that their live rock is free of unwanted hitchhikers can follow the hypersaline bath with a regimen of fenbendazole. The hypersalinity will drive out the mobile pests while the fenbendazole will eradicate any remaining sessile invertebrates that could be harmful, such as anemones, hydroids and other Cnidarians. The one-two punch of hyposalinity plus fenbendazole produces pest-free rock.
Get the biggest aquarium you’re comfortable with and fill it with up to 1-2 pounds of well-cured, debugged live rock per gallon, supplemented by a quality protein skimmer and an external power filter, to serve as the basic filtration system for your seahorse setup. For the protein skimmer.
An external power filter is a valuable addition to a SHOWLR setup for several reasons. It will provide added water movement and circulation for your aquarium, as well as accommodating any mechanical or chemical filtration you may desire. A bewildering array of filtration options are available today, including a myriad of canisters and hang-on-the-back models, most of which will do the job reasonably well. Even the trusty old standbys, undergravel filters and air-operated sponge/foam filters, are still acceptable choices for a standard seahorse setup.
But wet/dry trickle filters are probably the most desirable units for the seahorse keeper if the aquarium has adequate space (behind or beneath it) to accommodate such a unit and the hobbyist can afford one. They are top-of-the-line units that feature a thin film of water trickling over filter media with an ultra-large surface area, thereby allowing maximum air-water contact. This provides excellent oxygenation with efficient offgassing, which is very important for seahorses. It helps keep dissolved oxygen levels high, CO2 low, and effectively prevents gas supersaturation, which can sometimes contribute to serious problems for our aquatic equines. As a added benefit, wet/dry trickle filters can also provide remarkable biological filtration, which is not really needed for a SHOWLR system, but which can give you a real nice edge by further increasing your carrying capacity and boosting your margin for error accordingly. And they can provide all the biological filtration you need for those hobbyists who opt not to use live rock in their seahorse tanks.
The type or brand of supplemental filter you choose for your SHOWLR tank is not critical, but there are certain desirable features you want to look for in any filter that will be used for seahorses. For example, it should provide good surface agitation and water movement with adjustable flow. The intake tubes should reach all the way to the substrate (add extenders if they do not) and be screened off or otherwise shielded so they cannot “eat” a curious seahorse. The filter must provide efficient oxygenation and gas exchange and be able to accommodate mechanical and biological filtration media such as activated carbon and polyfilter pads. A prefilter is very desirable, as is a “waterfall” return.
A thin layer of live sand, preferably black, is the ideal substrate for a SHOWLR tank. It is bioactive, aesthetically pleasing, and is a fine-grained sand well suited for the various snails that form an essential part of the cleanup crew for a seahorse tank. I find the dark color shows off my seahorses and macroalgae to great effect and enhances the appearance of tank in general. (As long as it’s fine enough I’ve never had any problems with seahorses "snicking" up sand in the aquarium. They will do so on occasion when feeding off the bottom, but never have any difficulty at all expelling it again as long as it’s fine grained.)
The depth of a shallow sand bed like this is a crucial factor. Too deep, and you risk anaerobic dead spots where deadly hydrogen sulfide gas can form. Too shallow, and there will be less surface area to support beneficial nitrifying bacteria and Nassarius snails and other beneficial burrowers may feel vulnerable and exposed. A bed of live sand 3/4-inch to 1-inch deep is just right for the main tank. A properly layered Deep Live Sand Bed (DLSB) with a full complement of sand shifters also works well with seahorses, but is best confined to a sump rather than the display tank due to the seahorse’s heavy waste production.
As for the aquarium water, I have found Instant Ocean artificial sea salt works very well for seahorses. A good submersible aquarium heater such as a Visi-Therm is usually necessary to keep the aquarium temp from falling below 72-degrees F.
Hitching posts can be either live or artificial marine sea grasses, algae and corals. If you decide to try an assortment of colorful artificial corals, seahorses often prefer red or orange pieces. Many hobbyists report good results using artificial finger sponges, staghorn coral, octopus coral and pillar coral in the appropriate colors to keep their seahorses looking their brightest (SigNature Coral Corporation). They look entirely natural and lifelike, with lots of branching projections that make great hitching posts for seahorses. Oh, and their cup coral makes a great ready-made feeding station! They can be obtained from the following website:
Click here: SigNature artificial Coral Corporation
For live hitching posts, I prefer decorative marine plants or macroalgae in a variety of shapes and colors and color–reds, golds, and yellows in addition to green varieties, some tall and feather, some short and bushy–to provide them with natural hitching posts and shelter. I like to start with Hawaiian Ogo (Gracilaria sp.) and Bonzai Ogo (Gracilaria sp.) along with any of the plumed (feathery) or long-bladed Caulerpa, such as Caulerpa sertularioides, Caulerpa mexicana, Caulerpa ashmedii, Caulerpa serrulata or Caulerpa prolifera. They will do fine under normal aquarium lighting.
The aquarist should also be diligent at harvesting any fast-growing Caulerpa in the tank on a regular basis. Periodically removing a portion of the Caulerpa is a very effective way to export nitrates, phosphates, and other nutrients from the aquarium.
When pruning back or harvesting the Caulerpa, take care not to cut or sever the plants. Cutting it or breaking off too many fronds causes the Caulerpa to leach undesirable substances from the cut or broken ends into the water. Not only is this bad for the water quality, it can sap the colony and perhaps trigger one of the dreaded "vegetative events," during which the main colony dies off. The best way to harvest the Caulerpa is to carefully extract unbroken continuous fronds. The idea is to thin out convenient strands of Caulerpa from the colony, gently pulling up entire fronds, intact and unbroken. This is a wonderful way to remove nitrogenous wastes (which the plants utilize for growth like fertilizer) from the aquarium, and if done consistently, it will prevent the colony from going sexual.
If you don’t have them already, you will also need some saltwater test kits to cycle your tank, monitor conditions in your aquarium, and keep track of the water quality. The basic test kits you’ll need to keep track of the aquarium parameters are ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, plus a hydrometer to check specific gravity and an aquarium thermometer (if you don’t have one already). You’ll need to get separate test kits for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, and I recommend fasTest or Salifert kits for saltwater. I also like the SeaTest hydrometers–convenient, easy to read, and reliable.
A test kit to measure the levels of dissolved oxygen is also useful for seahorse keepers. The Tetra Oxygen Test Kit (TetraTest 02) is a good liquid reagent test kit for fresh or saltwater with simple color scales for comparing readings that tests for 02 in the range of 2-14 ppm (the optimum dissolved O2 level is 6-7 ppm). It will cost you between $8.50 to $14 depending on where you shop and should be available at any well-stocked LFS. Salifert also makes a nice 02 Test Kit (their 02 Profi-Test) that will run you about $20.
Back to the Basics: A Simple Setup for Seahorses.
If you’ve never kept an aquarium with live rock (LR) or live sand (LS) before, you may be uncomfortable with the idea of setting up and maintaining a SHOWLR tank, which relies on LR and LS as the primary means of biofiltration. Or your hobby budget may not permit expensive items such as a protein skimmer or wet/dry trickle filter, let alone a multi-chambered sump/refugium or loads of live rock.
If so, don’t despair! Seahorses can certainly be kept very successfully in far simpler setups, as long as you are aware of the limitations of such systems. For example, the filtration system can be as basic as a set of well-maintained reverse-flow undergravels that covers the bottom of the tank completely. I know undergravel filters are considered old-fashioned technology nowadays, but they are inexpensive, utterly reliable and foolproof (no moving parts), easy to install, require no modification whatsoever, and work extremely well for seahorses. An inexpensive diaphragm air pump will operate the filter and provide all the aeration you need, or you can upgrade to powerheads for greater efficiency and extra water movement.
For the substrate with your rfeverse-flow undergravel filters, use a coarse bed of good calcareous aquarium gravel such as dolomite, aragonite, or crushed oyster shell 2-3 inches deep, since the buffering ability of such substrates will help maintain good pH.
It is a good idea to supplement the undergravels with an inexpensive hang-on-back filter or canister to provide better circulation and accommodate chemical filtration media.
This is a very simple, inexpensive aquarium that’s extremely easy and economical to set up and operate, yet it can be very successful if used within its limitations. For instance, undergravel filters are notorious nitrate factories and the hobbyist must take measures to compensate for this fact. This simple system relies totally on water changes to control nitrates. There is no live rock or live sand bed to provide denitrification, no algal filter or denitrator in a sump, and no protein skimmer to remove organics before they enter the nitrogen cycle. This limits the carrying capacity of the tank and makes an accelerated maintenance schedule and more frequent water changes an absolute necessity.
I recommend weekly water changes of a least 25% for such a system. Use a gravel washer to clean a different portion of the gravel bed (no more than 25%) each week and keep the tank under stocked. If you are diligent about aquarium maintenance, perform water changes religiously, and limit yourself to fewer seahorses that you feed carefully, you will find that a simple system featuring undergravel filters can be very successful. But if you are negligent with regard to maintenance, skimp on water changes, or tend to overcrowd or overfeed your tanks, this system will be very unforgiving.
Whichever systems is best for you — a basic SHOWLR tank, a modified reef tank complete with a dual-purpose sump/refugium, or the simplicity of a set of reverse-flow undergravels — it’s best to get your aquarium accessories and filtration equipment from the same fish dealer who sold you the aquarium. He’ll make sure that the equipment will fit properly and install easily in that type of tank.
Once you’ve rounded up the aquarium, equipment, and accessories you need, your next task is to prepare the tank for cycling. Until it has cycled, your aquarium will be unable to support life. Cycling simply means to build up a healthy population of beneficial bacteria in your tank that can carry out the nitrogen cycle and breakdown your fishes’ waste products.
Ammonia (NH3), nitrite (NO2), and nitrate (NO3) are all nitrogenous (nitrogen containing) wastes. All living aquarium animals whether they be fish or invertebrates excrete these wastes, and they are also produced by the decay of protein-containing organic matter (uneaten food, detritus, dead fish or inverts, etc.). The nitrogen cycle breaks down these wastes in a series of steps into nitrogen gas (N2) which leaves the aquarium as bubbles.
The nitrogen cycle begins with ammonia, which is highly poisonous. In the first step of the cycle, Nitrosomonas bacteria reduce ammonia to nitrite, which is also very toxic. In the second step of the nitrogen cycle, Nitrobacter bacteria convert the nitrite to nitrate, which is relatively harmless but becomes harmful when it accumulates in high enough levels. In the third and final step of the cycle, denitrifying bacteria then convert the nitrate into completely harmless N2, which of course bubbles out of the tank as nitrogen gas. In this way, thanks to the nitrogen cycle, dangerous wastes are converted into progressively less harmful compounds and finally removed from the aquarium altogether.
When we set up a new aquarium, and wait for it to cycle, we are simply allowing a big enough population of these different types of bacteria to build up in the biofilter to break down all of the wastes that will be produced when the aquarium is stocked. If we don’t wait long enough for the cycle to complete itself and the biofiltration to become fully established, and hastily add too many specimens to a new aquarium too soon, they will die from ammonia poisoning or nitrite toxicity. This is such a common mistake among us impatient aquarists, that when fish get sick and/or die from ammonia/ntrite poisoning, it is commonly called the "new tank syndrome."
When your aquarium has completely cycled, the ammonia levels will stay at zero because, now that your biofilter is fully established, there is a large enough population of aerobic (oxygen loving) nitrifying Nitrosomonas bacteria to reduce all of the ammonia to nitrite as fast as the ammonia is being produced. The nitrite levels will likewise stay at zero because there is also a large enough population of aerobic (oxygen loving) nitrifying Nitrobacter bacteria to convert all of the nitrite to nitrate as fast as the nitrite is being produced.
The nitrate levels ordinarily continue to build up, however, because there are simply not enough anaerobic (oxygen hating) denitrifying bacteria to convert all of the nitrate that’s being produced into nitrogen gas (N2). Since nitrates are being produced faster than they can be transformed to nitrogen gas, the excess nitrates accumulate steadily in your aquarium. That’s perfectly normal, since the denitrifying bacteria that carry out that final step, the conversion of nitrate (NO3) to nitrogen (N2), are anaerobes that can only exist in the absence of oxygen. For our aquariums to support life, and for the fish and invertebrates to breathe and survive, our tanks must be well aerated and well circulated so that there’s plenty of dissolved oxygen in the water at all times. That means there are normally very few areas in our aquariums where anaerobic denitrifying bacteria can survive, limiting their population accordingly (which is generally good, since some anaerobes produce deadly hydrogen sulfide gas during the decay of organic matter and would poison our tanks if allowed to proliferate).
Consequently, most aquariums lack a sufficient population of anaerobic denitrifying bacteria to complete the nitrogen cycle and convert nitrate to nitrogen as fast as the nitrates are being produced. The only way to keep the nitrates from building up to harmful levels in such setups is with regular water changes and by harvesting Caulerpa or other macroalgae periodically after it has utilized nitrates for growth. Overcrowding, overfeeding, or under filtration exacerbate the problem by resulting in more nitrates being produced and more frequent water changes being required to control the nitrate levels.
Live rock helps because the oxygen-poor interior of the rock allows anaerobic denitrifying bacteria to grow and break down nitrates. A deep live sand bed (DLSB) also helps because anaerobic denitrifying bacteria can flourish and break down nitrates at a certain depth below the sand where oxygenated water no longer penetrates, but a DLSB can sometimes be difficult to set up and manage properly if you’re inexperienced with live sand. Both live rock and deep live sand beds give aquaria denitrification ability — the ability to complete the cycle and convert nitrate to harmless nitrogen. Ordinarily, about 1-2 pounds of live rock per gallon is recommended – that amount of LR will provide your aquarium with all of the biofiltration you need, as well as significant denitrification ability. You will keep nitrates at harmless levels by performing regular water changes, harvesting Caulerpa macroalgae periodically, and good aquarium management.
Prepare your aquarium for cycling by setting your system up with just freshwater at first, attaching the equipment and apparatus (filter, aeration, circulation, heater, skimmer, lighting, accessories) and testing it all for a day or so to make sure you have everything in place, and that it works. Once assured that everything’s operating properly and there are no leaks, go ahead and add the substrate, salt mix, and aquarium décor, and leave everything running for a good week, allowing the various components and water to "settle in" before adding your microbes and "seeding" the tank with beneficial bacteria that will eventually establish your biofilter.
If you are using live rock, it contains all the bacteria needed to seed the tank, so all you have to do is position the live rock in attractive arrangements and wait for the population of nitrifying and denitrifying bacteria to build up and stabilize.
If you are not using live rock, there are a number of different ways to seed the tank with bacteria and feed it with ammonia so cycling can proceed. Two popular methods are the fishless cycle, which I recommend, and the use of hardy, inexpensive (i.e., expendable) fish to produce ammonia and cycle the aquarium. Often used for this method are marine damselfish or mollies, which can easily be converted to saltwater. Both are very hardy and generally survive the cycling process, but I find this method to be needlessly hard on the fish and exposing them to the toxic ammonia and nitrite produced during cycling certainly causes them stress. Damselfish are far too aggressive and territorial to leave in the aquarium afterwards as tankmates for seahorses. Mollies are a possibility, but they really look out of place in a saltwater setup.
So all things considered, I suggest you try cycling your tank without fish. It’s really very easy. To use the fishless cycle, you need to add something else that will increase the ammonia level so the nitrifying bacteria can build up. I like to use a piece of cocktail shrimp (regular uncooked eating shrimp from the grocery store) and leave this in the tank to decay during the whole cycle. The decaying shrimp produces plenty of ammonia to kick-start the cycling process.
After about 3 days after you add the shrimp, you will notice a spike in ammonia levels until the Nitrosomonas bacteria build up enough to break down the ammonia. When that happens, you will notice the ammonia levels rapidly dropping. (If for some reason your ammonia does not hit the top of the charts initially, you may want to add another piece of shrimp.)
The byproduct of ammonia is nitrite, and during this stage of the cycling process, as the ammonia falls, you will have a corresponding increase in nitrites until the population of Nitrobacter bacteria builds up. Nitrite levels will then fall as the Nitrobacter convert the nitrite to nitrate.
It is important to use your test kits every day or two when cycling your tank to monitor the progress of the process. As described above, at first you will see a rapid rise in ammonia levels with no detectable nitrite or nitrate. Then, as Nitrosomonas bacteria begin converting ammonia to nitrite, the ammonia levels will fall and nitrite readings will steadily rise. Nitrite levels will peak as the ammonia drops to zero. Next, Nitrobacter will begin converting the nitrite to nitrate, and your nitrite readings will fall as the level of nitrate rises. Finally, after the nitrites also read zero, you are ready to stock your tank. At this point, your ammonia and nitrite levels should both be zero, nitrates will be building up, and algae will usually begin to grow. This will tell you that your biofilter is active and functioning properly, and that you can now safely begin stocking the tank. It generally takes about 3-6 weeks to cycle a tank this way from scratch.
If you any more questions about cycling, the following link should provide you with answers:
Click here: http://www.oceanrider.com/cycle.asp
So you don’t have to wait several months for your new aquarium to stabilize and mature before you add any seahorses, Barbara, but you will need to wait several weeks for the aquarium to cycle and the biofiltration to become fully established before you begin stocking the tank.
Once the tank has cycled, It’s a good idea to begin stocking your system by adding the cleanup crew first. For seahorses, I recommend a cleanup crew consisting of a combination of snails and micro hermits at a density of perhaps 1-2 janitors per gallons. You can include some Astrea and Cerith snails, but make sure you have plenty of Nassarius snails. Nassarius snail are terrific detritivores and amazingly active for snails. Try to avoid Turbo snails, however, at all costs. Turbos are big and very delicate, causing pollution problems when they inevitably die. For hermits, stick with a mixture of Dwarf Blue-leg (Clibanarius tricolor), Left-handed (Calcinus laevimanus), and Scarlet Reef hermit crabs (Paguristes cadenati). That’ll give you a good balance of herbivores, omnivores, and detritivores that are all active scavengers and completely compatible with seahorses.
Your daily chores begin with feeding your livestock and cleaning up afterwards. Considering that captive-bred seahorses are trained to eat enriched frozen Mysis as their staple diet, proper feeding means assuring that each of your steeds gets it’s fill without overfeeding them, and that you clean up any leftovers promptly. Use of a feeding station, target feeding slow eaters, and a good cleanup crew are all helpful in that regard.
Dip tubes, basters, and long-handled nets are useful for gleaning leftover Mysis, and while you’re at it, you should also take a moment to police the bottom for any debris, accumulated plant matter, and fecal pellets. Promptly removing such waste materials, before they breakdown and enter the nitrogen cycle, will go a long way toward towards assuring good water quality, controlling nitrates, and keeping your substrate clean.
When feeding your seahorses, take advantage of this opportunity to conduct a close-up, daily inspection of every specimen in his tank. These detailed examinations are perhaps the most important of the seahorse keeper’s daily chores, yet many aquarist ignore this vital task altogether. Such inspections make it difficult not to notice any subtle changes in my seahorse’s appearance or behavior that might signal impending problems with disease or the water chemistry. That’s extremely important, since seahorses hide their illnesses so well, and the sooner such potential problems are detected, the easier they are to cure or prevent. Due to there sedentary lifestyle, it can be difficult to detect when a seahorse has a problem. The first signs of trouble are often very subtle: an increase in respiration, a decrease in eye movement or appetite, a localized change in pigmentation or the appearance of a tiny nodule the size of a goosebump or mosquito bite.
So take a moment to enjoy the show when feeding your seahorses. Make sure they all show up for mess call, are acting normally, and have a well-rounded abdomen when they’re done eating. Watch them swim and move around as they answer the dinner bell. Make sure they’re not having difficulty maintaining their equilibrium or experiencing any buoyancy problems. Observing their behavior at mealtimes makes it hard to miss when one these chowhounds is off its feed, which is often an excellent early indicator that something’s amiss in the aquarium.
Likewise, keep a close eye on the health of any sessile animals and benthic invertebrates in the tank, such as sponges, sea cucumbers, tunicates, corals, snails and starfish. It can be difficult to determine if inactive animals like these are alive and well or on their way out, and nothing fouls a tank faster than the undetected death of a large turban snail or sea star or sponge. This is especially important if you’re keeping your seahorses in a modified reef tank. One neglected mushroom coral turning to mush can cause an ammonia spike that imperils all the other invertebrates and thus threatens the entire tank.
Make a quick check of the electrical equipment as well. See that the aquarium temperature is holding where you want it to assure that the heaters are working properly. Double check the filters, pumps, powerheads and lights to make sure they are all operating and producing normal flow rates. Decreased flow could indicate a malfunction or indicate that the filter is dirty and clogged and needs to be cleaned. Make sure the protein skimmer is doing its job: adjust the bubble column if needed and empty the collection cup if necessary.
Checklist of Daily Chores:
*Daily inspection of livestock.
*Empty the collection cup on your skimmer.
*Clean up leftovers and debris.
It’s important to check the water level of the aquarium at least once a week. It will drop steadily due to evaporation, increasing the salinity of the aquarium water in the process. If the water level falls too far, it can break the siphon on return tubes and intakes, filters can become airlocked, and protein skimming may be disrupted. Remember, only the water evaporates; all of the salts and minerals it contains are left behind. When replacing the water lost to evaporation, top off the tank with freshwater, not saltwater. The water used to top off the tank should be treated to remove chlorine and chloramines, aerated, and adjusted to roughly the same temp as the aquarium water.
Salt creep and condensation of aquarium water on the underside of the aquarium cover can led to the build up of salt deposits on the glass, light fixture, hood or lid of the tank, or on various pieces of equipment. Not only is this unsightly, it can drastically reduce the light level in the aquarium and cause electrical shorts. It’s a good idea to remove these crusty accumulations periodically by cleaning them off once a week or so with a damp cloth or sponge reserved for aquarium use only.
The aquarium glass itself should likewise be cleaned at least once a week. Algae scrapers or algae sponges (often mounted on strong magnets) can be used to clean the interior of the tank. Different tools are available for cleaning glass tanks and easily scratched acrylic tanks, so be sure you use the right kind for your setup.
The exterior aquarium glass can be cleaned using plenty of elbow grease and crumpled up newspapers. Surprisingly, old newspaper has just the right texture, consistency and absorbency to do a marvelous job of polishing aquarium glass, and something about the newsprint prevents streaking of the glass on the viewing surfaces. Slightly damp newspaper is perfect for keeping the aquarium glass looking immaculate.
It’s also advisable to break out your test kits on the weekends and check the key measurements of your water chemistry. Test the pH for sure since it inevitably declines over time. A significant drop in pH may require the addition of a buffer to correct it or indicate the need for a water change. Get out your hydrometer and test the specific gravity. It may have fallen due to salt creep or the formation of salt stalactites, or it may have risen due to evaporation. Adjust it accordingly. Nitrate levels will rise steadily over time so they must be monitored as well. We want to keep nitrates below 20 ppm (lower if your setup is a modified reef system). Many systems rely primarily on water changes to control nitrates, and a persistent rise in nitrate levels calls for a water exchange.
Checking your dissolved oxygen level can be especially revealing. A decrease in O2 is often a harbinger of trouble, and it thus alert the aquarist to a dangerous situation while there’s still time to correct it. For instance, an unexpected drop in O2 can be an indication of overcrowding or overfeeding, or it can be a sign that the tank and/or the filters are overdue for a good cleaning, or reveal the need for better circulation and surface agitation. Take appropriate measures to correct the problem, until the oxygen readings are back to normal (6 – 7 ppm is optimal).
If you don’t already have test kits of your own for measuring ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH and dissolved oxygen, as well as a hydrometer for measuring specific gravity, you should invest in some and learn how to use them, Monique. The basic test kits are inexpensive and easy to read, and you need to have them on hand for use at the first sign of a problem. When there is trouble, finding out if the tank has experienced an ammonia splike, or the pH has crashed, or the dissolved oxygen levels are dangerously low can’t wait for the aquarium service guy to check it.
The aquarist should also be diligent at harvesting any fast-growing Caulerpa in the tank on a regular basis. Periodically removing a portion of the Caulerpa is a very effective way to export nitrates, phosphates, and other nutrients from the aquarium. When pruning back or harvesting the Caulerpa, take care not to cut or sever the plants. Cutting it or breaking off too many fronds causes the Caulerpa to leach undesirable substances from the cut or broken ends into the water. Not only is this bad for the water quality, it can sap the colony and perhaps trigger one of the dreaded “vegetative events,” during which the main colony dies off. The best way to harvest the Caulerpa is to carefully extract unbroken continuous fronds. The idea is to thin out convenient strands of Caulerpa from the colony, gently pulling up entire fronds, intact and unbroken. This is a wonderful way to remove nitrogenous wastes (which the plants utilize for growth like fertilizer) from the aquarium, and if done consistently, it will prevent the colony from going sexual.
Checklist of Weekly Chores:
*Top off tank with freshwater to replace water lost to evaporation.
*Remove salt buildup.
*Clean aquarium glass (inside and out).
*Check basic water quality parameters:
(pH, specific gravity, nitrate, etc., and especially dissolved O2)
*Partial water change (if indicated).
Depending on the number of fish kept and the filtration system you use, external filters should be cleaned about every month. For safety’s sake, take care to unplug all the electrical equipment before cleaning it and performing this type of maintenance. Rinse or replace the prefilter and filter pad(s) or sponges that provide mechanical filtration. Chemical filtration media, such as activated carbon, ion exchange resins, poly-pads, or various other purification media, should also be recharged or replaced at this time. Run a bristle brush through siphon tubes to clean them.
Aquarium decorations (coral skeletons, plastic plants, artificial corals) that have become overgrown with unsightly algae may also be cleaned monthly. They can be cleaned with bleach or soaked in one of the new oxygen-based cleaning products, rinsed very thoroughly, and then air dried in the sun.
More importantly, now is the time to perform the monthly water change. I like to combine a 25%-35% water change with a thorough aquarium clean up. Siphon around the base of the rockwork and decorations, perhaps vacuum the top ½-inch of the sand or gravel, and administer a general system cleaning. The idea is to remove any accumulated excess organic material in the uppermost layer of the sand/gravel bed, top of the filter, or tank that could degrade your water quality, serve as a breeding ground for bacteria or a reservoir for disease, or otherwise be stressing your seahorses. [Note: when cleaning the filter, your goal is to remove excess organic wastes WITHOUT disturbing the balance of the nitrifying bacteria. Do not dismantle the entire filter, overhaul your entire filter system in one fell swoop, or clean your primary filtration system too zealously or you may impair your biological filtration.]
There are a few accessories you should keep on hand to make water changing easier: one or more large capacity plastic garbage cans or rubbermaid vats for mixing up new saltwater; a small powerhead for stirring and circulating the water while it mixes; a submersible heater to adjust the temperature of the newly mixed water; a large diameter siphon hose; a couple of new plastic buckets that hold 3-5 gallons.
Use a clean plastic bucket to fill up the garbage can with 10, 20 or 30 gallons of water or however much you want to mix up at one time. Add the proper amount of artificial salt mix for that much water, and toss your small, cheap powerhead into the garbage can to stir it up. While it’s mixing, put the submersible heater in to adjust the water temp, and add dechlorinator or detox if using tap water (if using reverse osmosis deionized water, or another softened source, add a pH buffer to the new water). Let the new batch of water mix, aerate, and stabilize for 24-48 hours before you perform the water change and check to make sure the temperature and pH of the new water matches your aquarium.
Checklist of Monthly Chores:
*Clean filters/replace filter pads/rinse and recharge or replace chemical media.
*Perform partial water change.
*If needed, vacuum uppermost layer of substrate (top 1/2 inch).
*Clean aquarium decorations as needed.
*Clean sleeve on the UV sterilizer and check the UV bulb.
Best of luck with your new seahorse setup, Barbara!
Pete GiwojnaJanuary 29, 2006 at 12:23 am #2267Pete GiwojnaGuest
Pixie is the trademark name Ocean Rider has given to their strain of captive-bred-and-raised Dwarf Seahorses (Hippocampus zosterae). In other words, Pixies are domesticated Dwarf Seahorses raised at a High-Health aquaculture facility. Unlike wild dwarf seahorses, Pixies are certified to be free of pathogens and parasites.
As their name implies, Pixies or dwarf seahorses are much smaller than any of the greater seahorses — a fully grown adult is only the size of your thumbnail — and they are best suited her small aquaria of 2-10 gallons. They are a little more challenging to keep than their larger cousins because they are generally too small to accept frozen foods. They thrive on a daily diet of newly-hatched brine shrimp (Artemia naupli) and their babies are considered the easiest of all seahorse fry to raise.
In case you’re thinking of giving them a try, here is some of the information on dwarf seahorses or Pixies, which discusses their natural history and the type of tank setup I prefer for them. It is excerpted from my new book (Complete Guide to the Greater Seahorses):
Hippocampus zosterae (Tropical to Subtropical, Benthic)
Common name: Dwarf Seahorses, Sea Ponies, Pygmies or Pigmies, and Pixies (US).
Scientific name: Hippocampus zosterae Jordan & Gilbert, 1882
Maximum size: 2 inches (5.0 cm) in total length.
Climate: subtropical to tropical: 20 degrees N to 30 degrees N.
Western Atlantic: Bermuda, southern Florida, Bahamas and the entire Gulf of Mexico.
Rings: 9-10 trunk rings + 31-32 tail rings.
Dorsal fin rays: 12 soft rays spanning 2 trunk rings + 0 tail rings.
Pectoral fin rays: 11-12 soft rays.
Snout length: 4.2-4.3 in head length. In other words, the length of the snout will fit into the seahorse’s head length more than four times (i.e., they have very short, stubby snouts that are usually < 1/4 the length of their heads).
Other distinctive characters:
Coronet: high, columnar or knob-like, without spines or projections.
Spines: low or knob-like.
Cirri: variable — some have none, others are very shaggy due to profuse cirri.
Key Features: short snout (always <1/3 to 1/4 their head length).
Adult height: 3/4 inch to 1-3/4 inches (2 to 4-1/2 cm).
Color and Pattern:
Dwarf seahorses can be extremely variable in coloration. Their base coloration is typically beige or fawn, but may be dark brown, gray, or oyster shell white and colorful sports of every description occur occasionally. Their normal pattern is a mottled fawn color, but greenish, yellow, black, brown, and pearly specimens are fairly common, and saddles, blotches, ringed-tails, and pinto- and bumblebee-like patterns are seen from time to time (Giwojna 1990; Giwojna, Jun. 2002). Many specimens are marked with white flecks like splashes of paint and a dark sub-marginal stripe on the dorsal fin is a common feature.
Breeding Season: mid-February to late October, as determined by day length.
Gestation Period: about 10 days, depending on temperature and diet.
Egg Diameter: 1.3 mm.
Brood Size: 5-55 fry; occasional large broods up to 70 fry have been reported, but two dozen fry is much more typical.
Size at Birth: 1/3 inch (7-9 mm)
Onset of sexual maturity: fry grow rapidly, reaching maturity after 2-3 months.
Pelagic/Demersal (benthic): benthic; newborns orient to the substrate and seek out hitching posts immediately after birth.
Ease of Rearing:
As easy as it gets. Many home hobbyists have closed the life cycle with this species and H. zosterae is widely considered to be the easiest of all seahorses to raise. Eminently well suited for the easy rearing method.
H. zosterae is restricted to seagrass microhabitats in shallow water, and is typically found living in association with the seagrass Zostera (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p56), for which the species is named.
The dwarf seahorse resides in shallow grass flats amidst Zostera and other seagrass and is also known for its rafting ability, commonly being found in mats of floating Sargassum. It occurs in the coastal Gulf of Mexico, Bahamas, Bermuda, the Florida Keys, Florida’s East Coast, Old Tampa Bay, Lemond Bay, Pensacola, and Texas (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p56).
These tiny seahorses are tough as nails, a legacy of their shallow, inshore environment in which the water conditions typically range from 43 F to 98 F (6 C – 37 C) and from marine to brackish (40% fresh water) during the seasons. They tolerate extremes that would be fatal to most other fishes and can adapt to a wide range of temperatures and salinity in the aquarium, but they are most common in bays during periods of high salinity and prefer the specific gravity to be maintained in the low normal range (1.019-1.022). They are diurnal seahorse that are active by day, and their aquarium should be lighted at least 12 hours a day since their breeding season is determined by day length (they stop reproducing when there is less than 12 hours of daylight) (Strawn 1954).
H. zosterae has been well studied in the field and in the laboratory, and research has determined that the dwarf seahorse forms monogamous pairs in the wild that court early each morning until mating occurs (Masonjones and Lewis 1996). Four distinct phases of courtship precede pair formation and mating (Masonjones and Lewis 1996). The first phase of courtship lasts for one or two mornings prior to the actual mating and consists of repeated bouts of reciprocal quivering in which the male and female brighten and alternately engage in a series of rapid (12 cycles per second) side-to-side body vibrations (Masonjones and Lewis 1996). When one of the seahorses stops quivering, its partner must pick up where it left off and resume shimmying within 5 seconds (Masonjones and Lewis 1996). Back and forth, the pair will exchange repeated series of quivering throughout the morning of the first day(s) of courtship.
The remaining 3 phases consist of new behaviors that all appear during the final day of courtship and build up inexorably to the grand finale. In the second phase, the female begins to Point and the male responds with displays of Pumping (Masonjones and Lewis 1996). In the third phase, the male begins to echo the female’s Points by Pointing in return (Masonjones and Lewis 1996). And in the final phase of courtship, the pairs repeatedly rise together in the water column, eventually leading to a brief midwater coupling during which the females deposits her eggs in the male’s brood pouch (Masonjones and Lewis 1996).
One a pair has formed in this manner, the partners are believed to remain together and mate exclusively with each other throughout the breeding season in the wild (Masonjones and Lewis 1996). The female normally re-mates with the male 4-20 hours after he gives birth to his latest brood (Masonjones and Lewis 1996). Interestingly, although these miniature ponies are but a fraction the size of H. reidi, female dwarves produce eggs that are slightly larger (egg diameter is 1.3 mm) than the ova reidi mares produce (Lourie, Vincent & Hall 1999).
The breeding season extends from February to October, and the males deliver anywhere from 5 to 55 fry after a gestation period of just 10 days. Considering the tiny size of the males and the very short period of gestation, newborn H. zosterae are surprisingly large (7-9mm) and well developed (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p56). They immediately orient to the bottom and seek out hitching posts, and are able to eat newly hatched brine shrimp (Artemia nauplii) right from birth. The young grow very rapidly, more than doubling in size after their first 17 days (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p56), and within a mere 2-3 months they are already producing offspring of their own. When fully grown, they will only 1 inch to 1-3/4 inches (2.5-4.5 cm) long (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p56).
This accelerated life cycle is necessary because dwarves have a very short life expectancy in the wild. Very few adults survive their first winter, and to my knowledge none of them have ever been known to overwinter twice (Strawn 1953, 1958). That makes their maximum lifespan about 1-1.5 years in their natural habitat. But they are amazingly resilient and these diminutive denizens of the deep cram a whole lot of living into that short period. In 85 F (30 C) water, a male will have at least two broods a month, with the young developing very quickly during the summer months and becoming sexual mature in only 2 to 3 months. That means a male that delivers his first brood in mid-February can easily produce a dozen broods or more during the breeding season, and may become a great-great-grandfather by the end of the season in October. Amazing animals!
Carol Cozzi-Schmarr recommends that Ocean Rider’s captive-bred-and-raised dwarf seahorses (H. zosterae) be maintained under the following conditions:
Temperature = range 68 F to 80 F (20 C-27 C), optimum 75 F (24 C).
Specific Gravity = range 1.018 – 1.024, optimum 1.019-1.022
pH = 8.2 – 8.4
Ammonia = 0
Nitrite = 0
Nitrate = 0-10 ppm
Suggested Stocking Density: 2 pairs per 1 gallon (4 liters).
Because of their small size, dwarf seahorses are best suited for a small aquarium of 5-10 gallons (19-38 liters). The water quality parameters should be as described above.
I prefer a very basic setup for keeping dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus zosterae). Depending on the size of my herd, I like anything from a standard 2-1/2 gallon to a 10-gallon tank (all glass construction, of course — no stainless steel), equipped with a glass top and an ordinary strip reflector.
For filtration, I keep things really simple, using only air-operated sponge filters or a well-maintained undergravel filter that covers the bottom of the tank completely on dwarf tanks. I know undergravels are considered old-fashioned technology nowadays, but they are inexpensive, utterly reliable and foolproof (no moving parts), easy to install, and work extremely well for dwarf seahorses with no modification whatsoever. An inexpensive diaphragm air pump will operate the filter and provide all the aeration you need.
Sponge or foam filters provide all the same advantages of undergravels and more. So in actual practice, I normally prefer foam filters over undergravels for smaller dwarf tanks, simply because the foam filters are easier to clean and maintain, and are quite a bit more versatile than the undergravels.
Avoid sponge filters with weighted bottoms or other metal components, however, since they will rust when exposed to saltwater. Sooner or later this will cause problems in a marine aquarium (sooner in the small setups that are most suitable for H. zosterae). Select a sponge filter that has no metal parts and is safe for use in saltwater. The proper units will have suction cups to anchor them in place rather than a weighted bottom.
Cleaning the foam filters is a snap. Simply immerse them in a bucket of saltwater and gently squeeze out the sponge until it’s clean and releases no more sediment or debris. Run a bottlebrush through the inside of the tube, wipe off the outside of the tube, and you’re done. The filter is ready to go back in the aquarium with no impairment at all of the biofiltration. Takes only a couple minutes.
I like to keep a few extra sponge filters running in my sump or a refugium at all times. That way, I’ve got instant, fully established, portable biofilters I can use wherever needed — a hospital ward or quarantine tank, a nursery tank or rearing tank, a brand new setup, or anytime the biofiltration needs a boost in another tank for any reason. Very versatile! You’ll never realize how valuable an instant biofilter can be until you really need one.
I find sponge filters and undergravels are generally the best option for dwarf seahorses because most other types of filtration aren’t practical in such small setups. Power filters would turn a 2-1/2 or 5 gallon tank into a maelstrom, battering pigmy ponies around. And power filters have a bad habit of "eating" dwarf seahorses and filtering out all the Artemia nauplii before the seahorses can make a dent in it.
I still use rock in my larger dwarf setups, but it’s "dead" foundation rock that quickly enough becomes alive as it’s overgrown by algae and inhabited by copepods, amphipods and myriad microfauna. It looks completely natural when surrounded by living, growing macroalgae, which is primarily how my dwarf tanks are decorated.
A lush bed of assorted Caulerpa dominates the rear third of my current dwarf tank, completely concealing the sponge filters. The Caulerpa consists of various long-bladed and plumed or feathery varieties such as Caulerpa sertularioides, Caulerpa mexicana, Caulerpa ashmedii, Caulerpa serrulata and Caulerpa prolifera. The center of the tank is aquascaped with more macros — mostly red and gold species of Gracilaria (Hawaiian Ogo), plus a seahorse tree centerpiece and yet more Caulerpa. Other decorative macros are arranged in the foreground of the aquarium where the light is brightest: a cluster of Merman’s Shaving Brushes (Penicillus capitatus) and a stand of Halimeda sea cactus, interspersed with Udotea palmate fans. The result is a colorful macroalgae garden with a very nice contrast of colors (reds, yellows, greens, and brown) and interesting shapes. A tank heavily planted with macros such as these is a lovely sight and mimics the dwarf seahorse’s natural seagrass habitat well.
As an added benefit, the macroalgae act as an excellent form of natural filtration, supplementing the sponge filters, and reducing the available levels of phosphates and nitrites/nitrates. When we prune and trim back the fast-growing Caulerpa regularly and remove the clippings, we’re actually exporting phosphates, nitrates and other nutrients from the tank, thereby helping to maintain good water quality.
For the substrate with sponge filters, I like a bed of fine grained black sand about 3/4-inch to 1-inch deep, both for it’s pleasing appearance and to accommodate Nassarius snails, which like to bury in the sand bed. The Nassarius snails and Scarlet Reef hermit crabs (Paguristes cadenati) are the cornerstones of the clean-up crew in my dwarf tanks. The Scarlet Reef micro-hermits are colorful and interesting in their own right, and these harmless herbivores are the only hermit crabs I trust with my dwarf seahorses. A half dozen of the colorful Scarlet Reef crabs make nice additions for a dwarf seahorse tank, as do the Nassarius snails, which are very active, efficient scavengers that handle the meatier leftovers.
I do small weekly water changes on my dwarf tanks of 10%-15%, rather than the monthly or bimonthly water changes I perform on large setups, but the volume of the water exchanged is so small — just a gallon or so at most — that they are a breeze. Heck, if I mix up a 5-gallon bucket of new artificial salt mix in advance, that provides enough clean, aged saltwater for a month’s worth of water changes on my dwarf tank. When I siphon out the water for the weekly exchange, I use the opportunity to vacuum the substrate and tidy up the tank a bit. Once it settles, I use the water I siphoned out to clean the sponge filters. The whole process, water change and all, takes all of 10 minutes.
But that 10 minutes of weekly maintenance returns wonderful rewards in terms of water quality. With such a small volume of water, the conditions can deteriorate quickly in a dwarf tank, and this modicum of weekly maintenance keeps things running smooth and trouble free.
In short, my current dwarf seahorse setup is basically a 5-gallon tank equipped with two air-operated sponge filters for biological and mechanical filtration, plus lush beds of macroalgae for natural filtration, simulating the pigmy ponies’ seagrass habitat. This is a very simple, inexpensive, low-maintenance aquarium that’s extremely easy to set up, yet it’s also quite attractive and a very fun display.
It’s currently housing a breeding colony of about 15 adults and all their offspring and it’s far from overcrowded. With that many adults, I find I have at least one pregnant male at any given time, usually more, and births virtually every week. I find it endlessly fascinating to witness the seahorse’s entire cycle of life taking place in microcosm — courting, mating, giving birth, newborns, juveniles and young adults all thriving and growing right alongside the old warhorses.
When my herd of zosterae grows a little more, it will be time to upgrade to a bigger tank. For all practical purposes, I find 25-30 adults can be maintained in a 10-gallon tank set up as described above before water quality becomes problematic (especially if your are raising the young with their patents). Rather than sponge filters, I prefer to use an undergravel filter in conjunction with a very small power filter for a heavily stocked 10-gallon dwarf tank such as that. For such a system, I use an undergravel filter with a single uplift tube and mate the intake tube from the power filter to the UG uplift, so that all the water that goes through the filter first passes through a gravel bed 2-3 inches deep. That simple modification both improves the efficiency of the undergravel filter and prevents the power filter from engulfing dwarf seahorses or their food supply. The small power filter allows filter media such as polyfilter pads and a good grade of activated carbon to be used in the dwarf tank.
Although beginners will be better off keeping a modest herd of dwarves in a small, simple setup like those I’ve described above, there is another type of dwarf tank that works very well for more advanced aquarists. It allows dwarves to be kept in much bigger tanks than is otherwise possible by partitioning or compartmentalizing a large aquarium.
Ordinarily, this is done by using perforated tank dividers to separate a 20-30 gallon (75-114 liters) aquarium into two sections — an equipment area for the filters and such, and a living area for the dwarf seahorses. The perforated barrier allows water to circulate freely between the areas while acting as a baffle that greatly dampens the turbulence generated on the equipment side.
There are some definite advantages to keeping dwarves in a big aquarium this way. For one thing, the larger volume of water gives the aquarium greater stability as far as fluctuations in temperature and pH go, makes it easier to maintain optimum water quality, and just generally gives the hobbyist a greater margin for error. For another, it gives the dwarf keeper better filtration options. For instance, you can’t get a decent protein skimmer for a setup of 5 gallons or less, and power filters create way too much turbulence in small tanks for Pixies. No such problems with the big subdivided tanks. Such setups allow the dwarfs to benefit from the lower volume of water and superior filtration such a system provides, yet the smaller living area makes it easier to maintain a proper feeding density for the pigmy ponies than would be possible in an undivided tank.
For complete details and instructions for setting up the type of dwarf tanks discussed above, as well as other aquarium options for keeping H. zosterae, see Alisa Wagner Abbott’s outstanding new book on dwarf seahorses (The Complete Guide to Dwarf Seahorses in the Aquarium, 2003, 144 pages). It’s the only aquarist’s guidebook ever to be devoted entirely to dwarf seahorses. It includes excellent, up-to-date information, on every aspect of their care and keeping, including breeding and rearing, population dynamics, and maintaining a self-sustaining colony. All in all, a wonderful resource for the dwarf seahorse keeper.
Dwarf seahorses are generally considered the easiest of all seahorses to raise. While rearing them is still a challenge, once they’ve gained some valuable experience and straightened out their learning curve, many hobbyists find their dwarf seahorse herds grow steadily. With a short gestation period of around 10 days, and rapidly growing young, H. zosterae will produce three generations in a single year under ideal conditions, which means before long many dwarf seahorse keepers find themselves looking for a larger setup. My own dwarf tank is again fast approaching that point, leaving me with three options: set up a second dwarf tank, move the entire colony into a bigger tank, or find homes for my excess livestock among my fellow hobbyists.
It’s a nice problem to have. And few things are more rewarding to an aquarist than handing out healthy homegrown seahorses to your admiring friends!
Juvenile Rearing Tanks:
Cannibalism is unknown in H. zosterae, and one of the neat things about them is that the fry can be reared in the main tank right alongside their parents since the newborns eat the same foods as the adults. However, for best results, the fry should be reared in a separate nursery tank where the hobbyist can maintain better control over their feeding, growth and development (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p57). A basic benthic nursery with sponge filters works great for this and can be set up in much the same way as the adult tanks.
More frequent maintenance is required for the nurseries, however. With heavy, continuous feedings in such a small volume of water, regular siphoning is necessary to maintain water quality (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p57). Fecal pellets and debris should be siphoned from the bare-bottomed nurseries at least twice a day with the deficit made up with new seawater (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p57). The sponge filters must also be cleaned often as described previously.
The benthic fry thrive on newly hatched brine shrimp (Artemia nauplii) with small, frequent feedings that provide live prey throughout the day. They seek out hitching posts from birth, meaning the fry rarely gulp air, floaters and surface huggers are virtually nonexistent, and they are largely immune from the buoyancy problems that so often plague pelagic seahorse fry.
Experienced aquarists often achieve good success rates (better than 20% survival) in rearing H. zosterae to adults using these simple methods (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p57).
Diet, Nutrition, and Feeding Techniques:
Adults do well on a staple diet of enriched Artemia nauplii at various stages of development, which have been fortified by feeding the brine shrimp “greenwater” phytoplankton or special enrichment products rich in HUFA (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p57). Enriched brine shrimp should be offered at least 3 times a day or as often as is convenient (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p57). This basic diet can be supplemented liberally with copepods, plankton, rotifers, small amphipods and the larval stages of Mysids, ghost shrimp and many other shrimp. If you can possibly provide them, copepods are the ideal food for H. zosterae. Research indicates that in some locations the dwarf seahorse’s diet consists primarily of harpacticoid copepods (Tipton and Bell 1988).
Newborn dwarf seahorses require a constant supply of newly hatched brine shrimp (Artemia nauplii) for the first 2-3 weeks of life until they are big enough to begin taking larger brine shrimp (Bull and Mitchell, 2002, p57).
Some success at getting dwarf seahorses to accept nonliving foods has also been reported by hobbyists. A commercial product consisting of Cyclops copepods in frozen form is sometimes accepted by H. zosterae (Alisa Abbott, pers. comm.) Some hobbyists have also been able to wean dwarf seahorses onto a diet of minced frozen mysids by using juvenile erectus that greedily eat the frozen mysids as role models to teach the dwarves that its edible (Liisa Coit, pers. comm.). The eager feeding of the young erectus appears to stimulate the interest (and appetite) of the H. zosterae and encourages them to try the new food.
If you are interested in attempting to wean dwarf seahorses onto nonliving food such as chopped frozen Mysis, you should wait until they are at least 3 weeks old to begin training them. Keep in mind that they will not be able to take larger pieces of Mysis until they are 3 months old, and be very diligent about cleaning up any leftovers after each training session. Using a role model to teach them the ropes is especially helpful. Be advised, however, that some dwarf seahorses simply never learn to eat frozen foods no matter how much training or coaxing they receive.
Commonly known as the dwarf seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae is the smallest of all the seahorses available to hobbyists. Dwarf seahorses reach a maximum size of about 1.75 inches or 45 mm, half of which is tail. To me, their diminutive dimensions are a source of endless delight; I find them quaint and charming in the extreme (Giwojna, Jun. 2002).
Many specimens are adorned with numerous cirri, giving them a shaggy or weedy appearance that adds to their charm (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). In some individuals, these fancy skin filaments are developed to such an extravagant extent they look downright fuzzy (Giwojna, Jun. 2002).
As I described them in the June 2002 issue of Freshwater And Marine Aquarium: “Of all the seahorses, these exquisite animals were my first love. Thirty years ago, they were the easiest seahorses to feed, accepting newly hatched brine shrimp as their staple diet from the cradle to the grave (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). I could breed them, raise them, and keep them healthy throughout their normal life span at a time when undergravel filters were new and controversial — the cutting edge of aquarium technology (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). My “nursery tank” for the first fry I ever raised to maturity was a mayonnaise jar I rescued from the trash (no such thing as recycling back in those days) (Giwojna, Jun. 2002)!
They remain among my favorite seahorses today, and my preferred setup for keeping them is still a basic 2 to 2.5-gallon aquarium equipped with simple undergravel or foam filters. I find that dwarves tend to get lost (visually that is — the tank appears barren or empty at first glance) in anything much larger than that, and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain an adequate feeding density of baby brine shrimp for the fry in systems bigger than about 10 gallons unless the tank is partitioned off or subdivided (Giwojna, Jun. 2002).
Dwarves breed best in large groups and are the most sociable of all the seahorses. What makes it extra fun is that these pint-size ponies are as prolific as they are promiscuous. Any time you have an adequate number of H. zosterae together — say several pairs — and conditions are to their liking, mating is a foregone conclusion. Once your dwarf seahorse herd includes 10-12 adults, you can be sure that one or more of the males will be pregnant during the breeding season at all times.”
Heck, anytime you order several pairs of dwarves during the months of May to August, the height of their breeding season, you’re virtually guaranteed that some of the males will be pregnant when they arrive (Abbott 2003). In that case, expect your first dwarf babies to be born in the shipping bags en route or while you’re acclimating your new additions or immediately after you introduce them to the aquarium (Abbott 2003). Or all of the above. Happens all the time!
Far from inhibiting courtship, crowding seems to stimulate breeding in dwarf seahorses, almost as if they reach "critical mass" at a certain population density, triggering a chain reaction of mating attempts. Thus, provided water quality can be maintained, "the more the merrier" appears to be the rule with this species.
For instance, pet dealers must occasionally crowd large numbers of fish together in cramped quarters due to a lack of space, including dwarf seahorses. Robert Straughan was once forced to keep 300 H. zosterae in a 10-gallon tank in such a situation back in the old days, and was pleasantly surprised to find that over 100 of them managed to pair off and breed nonetheless. He reported that at any given moment, dozens of dwarves were actively engaged in courtship, so it was a common sight to witness several couples rising simultaneously to exchange eggs, and that one or more of the gravid males would be delivering young virtually around the clock (Straughan, pers. comm.)!
In terms of their hardiness, fitness for aquarium life, prolific breeding habits, and ease of rearing, dwarf seahorses should be considered the guppies of the sea (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). In fact, this is one seahorse that may enjoy a greater life span in captivity than the wild (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). In nature, winter storms and hurricanes take a heavy toll on their numbers, and very few adult dwarf seahorses survive their first winter; none are known to overwinter twice (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). A detailed field study marked all the individuals of a Cedar Key population and followed them closely for a period of several years (Strawn 1958). The study revealed that the Cedar Key dwarves grew fast, reached sexual maturity early (within 3 months), and died young, with few surviving for more than a year (Strawn 1953; 1958). No 2 year-old specimens were ever observed. (Strawn 1953; 1958) Thus, their natural life span is believed to be about one year in the ocean. In captivity, experienced hobbyists have kept them for 3+ years and not only can they survive to that ripe old age, they are still going strong and may even keep breeding well into their third year. As with other farm-raised seahorses, expect the captive-bred dwarf seahorses to be even hardier than their wild-caught conspecifics.
Nematodes can be a chronic problem with wild-caught dwarves and pigmy seahorses keepers are often plagued by hordes of hydroids and Aiptasia anemones–colonial stinging organisms that kill zosterae babies and injure the adult seahorses, which often subsequently succumb to secondary infections (snout rot; tail rot) (Giwojna, Jun. 2002).
These cnidarians often explode to plague proportions in dwarf tanks because they thrive on the newly hatched brine shrimp that’s fed to the ponies. These persistent pests are the single greatest cause for failure among dwarf seahorse keepers (Abbott 2003).
Nematodes and hydroids (or their hydromedusae stages, which are micro-jellyfish) often enter the aquarium right along with the wild-caught specimens. They typically arrive with WC zosterae or their tankmates, or are introduced shortly thereafter on live plants or live foods (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). Once they gain a foothold in the aquarium they are extremely difficult to eradicate. In fact, once hydroids appear in a dwarf tank, most hobbyists deal with the problem by dismantling the aquarium, sterilizing everything, and starting over from scratch (Alisa Abbott, pers. comm.). Experienced dwarf seahorse keepers often run duplicate setups for that very reason. One tank is the seahorse exhibit; the other is established as a backup tank, held in reserve for the dreaded day when the hydroids appear (Alisa Abbott, pers. comm.). That way, when an infestation inevitably breaks out, the specimens can be given a freshwater dip and transferred safely to the standby tank while the infested tank is taken down, sterilized, and reestablished anew to serve as the backup tank for the next outbreak (Alisa Abbott, pers. comm.).
This is where the domesticated dwarves, farm-raised in Hawaii, have an enormous advantage over wild-caught dwarf seahorses from Florida (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). The CB H. zosterae reach the hobbyist completely free of hydroids and ectoparasites (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). Providing they are then fed with decapsulated Artemia (the decapping process eradicates any and all pathogens or parasites the brine shrimp cysts may have been harboring), chances are great the dwarf seahorse keeper will never have to deal will nematodes or wage war against an invasion of hydroids (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). The trouble-free day of the all-but-indestructible dwarf seahorse has finally dawned (Giwojna, Jun. 2002)!
Cultured H. zosterae are the only captive-bed seahorses that are not pre-trained to eat frozen Mysis (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). The tiny size of these pigmy ponies precludes that possibility. Fortunately, they will thrive on a steady diet of easy-to-provide enriched brine shrimp (Artemia) of all stages from newly-hatched to adult (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). But if you are really interested in dwarf seahorses, I wouldn’t let the fact that they need live food deter you in the least from keeping these amazing little marvels! Hatching brine shrimp for dwarves is a daily chore, but it’s not difficult and quickly becomes routine. Moreover, it is a chore that every seahorse keeper must master sooner or later. Regardless of what species of seahorse you keep, if you want to raise their offspring, you will need to hatch out brine shrimp on a daily basis since that’s the first food most newborns accept. And with dwarf seahorses you are assured that you will always have plenty of fry to raise!
Dwarf seahorses are great for beginners and ideal for breeders. Pint-sized and prolific, these pigmy ponies are the perfect pick for anyone primarily interested in rearing or for any seahorse keepers who can’t afford to devote too much money or space to their hobby. Hippocampus zosterae is the best choice for the novice who wants to learn more about keeping and breeding seahorses before moving on to the big boys. More budding seahorse keepers have cut their teeth on dwarves than all the other seahorses put together. H. zosterae is the right pick for newbies who would like to try their hand with seahorses for a modest investment, or for hobbyists with a tight budget, or aquarists looking for captive-bred seahorses that are a snap to breed and a breeze to raise, or anyone captivated by keeping tiny elfin creatures no bigger than your thumbnail. This species gets my highest recommendation.
However, H. zosterae is not a good choice for hobbyists with tanks larger than 10-20 gallons (38-76 liters) for the reasons mentioned above. And this is NOT the seahorse for anyone who minds hatching out brine shrimp on a daily basis.
Additional Information (to learn more about Hippocampus zosterae, please consult the following references):
Abbott, Alisa Wagner. 2003. The Complete Guide to Dwarf Seahorses in the Aquarium. Neptune City, NJ: TFH Publications.
Heuter, Joanne. 1997. “The Dwarf Seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae).”
Hippocampus zosterae, Dwarf seahorse. 23 Feb. 2004. Fish Base. <http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm?id=3286>
Masonjones, H. D. and S. M. Lewis. 1996. “Courtship behaviour in the dwarf seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae.” Copeia. 1996(3): 634-640.
Masonjones, H. D. 1997. “Sexual selection in the dwarf seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae (Syngnathidae): An investigation into the mechanisms determining the degree of male vs. female intrasexual competition and intersexual choice.” PhD thesis, Tufts University, U.S.A.
Masonjones, H. D. and S. M. Lewis. 2000. “Differences in potential reproductive rates of male and female seahorses related to courtship roles.” Animal Behaviour, 59: 11-20.
Masonjones, H. D. 2001. “The effect of social context and reproductive status on
the metabolic rates of dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus zosterae).” Comparative
Biochemistry and Physiology A 129, 541–555.
Strawn, Kirk. 1953. “A Study of the Dwarf Seahorse, Hippocampus regulus Ginsburg, at Cedar Key, Florida.” M.Sc. Thesis, University of Florida, 1953.
Strawn, Kirk. 1954. "Keeping and breeding the dwarf seahorse". Aquarium Journal 25(10), 1954: 215-218, 227, 228.
Strawn, Kirk. 1958. "Life history of the pigmy seahorse Hippocampus zosterae Jordan
and Gilbert, at Cedar Key, Florida." Copeia, 1958: 16-22.
Tipton, K. and S. S. Bell. 1988. “Forging patterns of two syngnathid fishes: importance of harpacticoid copepods.” Marine Ecology — Progress Series. Vol. 47: 31-43.
Best wishes with all of your fishes, Barbara!
Pete GiwojnaJanuary 29, 2006 at 12:25 am #2268Pete GiwojnaGuest
If you’re interested in the larger breeds of seahorses rather than the miniature species, I would recommend Mustangs (Hippocampus erectus) for your first seahorses. Commonly known as Lined Seahorse or Northern Giant, Hippocampus erectus was the first seahorse to be commercially raised for the aquarium hobby. They have been captive-bred and raised for more generations than any other seahorse, and have now achieved a level of domestication that makes them better adapted to aquarium conditions and life in captivity than other seahorses. The aquaculture facility in Hawaii that raises H. erectus selects them for traits such as adaptability, vigor, disease resistance, fast growth and aggressive feeding habits — traits that increase the fitness of each line over time (Abbott 2003). After numerous generations of strengthening and improvement, the current breeds of farm-raised erectus are tough as nails. Very hardy and very impressive, yet affordable, CB Mustangs are a great choice for a novice seahorse keeper who is still learning the ropes (Abbott 2003). They are very adaptable and have led the on-going trend toward keeping captive-bred seahorses only; more than any other specimens, captive-bred-and-raised erectus are responsible for the ever-growing popularity of cultured seahorses (Abbott 2003). Simply put, more hobbyists keep CB erectus than any of the other greater seahorses, and rightly so.
These are impressive animals. They are large, robust, deep-chested seahorses that can reach well in excess of 7 inches in length when fully grown. They tend to be cryptically colored, and often show earth tones such as beige, russet, charcoal black, gray, brown, ochre or olive over an underlying pattern of fine parallel lines that run down their necks and across their chest (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). White blazes, blotches, saddles, triangles, and diamonds are common markings for captive-bred erectus (Giwojna, Jun. 2002).
The lighter specimens that show their stripes boldly can be very striking, and they are apt to express a wide range of color phases as time passes, including everything from yellow to yellow-green, green, lavender, purple, maroon, magenta, pink, red, and orange from time to time (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). Like all seahorses, the coloration expressed by Lined seahorses can vary with their mood, environment, and social activities.
The first pair of captive-bred seahorses I ever owned were Mustangs, and my ‘stangs quickly learned to recognize me as their feeder, whereupon they would often interact with me at dinnertime by turning on their greeting colors. My original pair are still going strong several years later, and I have watched them go through a number of color phases from month to month. One has settled on gray-green as its base coloration for the moment, and the other ranges between rust, burnt umber, and orange, but always with contrasting beige bands (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). Last season, the male adopted a rich ochre yellow as his everyday attire (still with the same beige bands, though), while the female displayed a dark purplish ensemble with definite greenish highlights. When courting, they consistently brighten to a pearly white and a creamy yellow respectively (Giwojna, Jun. 2002). They make a handsome couple, and I find my erectus to be very attractive specimens in all their guises.
I set up my pair of these spirited steeds in a brand-new 30 gallon (tall) aquarium all their own, and that tank has been my most entertaining, trouble-free exhibit ever since. With a simple setup like theirs, I prefer to target feed my seahorses. That allows me to observe them closely on a daily basis, monitor their health, keep track of exactly how much each specimen is eating, and remove any leftovers immediately.
Led by the female-by far the bolder and most outgoing of the two-the Mustangs were soon literally eating right out of my hands. (I know, I know-sensible aquarists should always strive to keep their mitts out the aquarium as much as possible, but handfeeding is a thrill I find difficult to resist, and hey — nobody ever said I was sensible!) Of course, I’m very well aware of the risks involved and extremely diligent about taking all the necessary precautions beforehand. And besides, there are major advantages to handfeeding that more than offset any minor risks.
For one thing, the seahorses seem to enjoy the experience every bit as much as I do. They head for the feeding station as soon as I approach the tank, a series of color changes betraying their excitement, and queue up at the dinner table looking their best and brightest. Of course, they both try to snap up the first morsel – even pair-bonded ponies are not big on sharing or waiting turns – so I no longer offer them one mysid at a time. I offer them a handful of individually thawed Mysis in my upturned palm instead. They know the drill and happily perch on my fingers while snicking up the shrimp as fast as they can.
Secondly, feeding your seahorses by hand permits the aquarist to conduct a close-up, daily inspection of every specimen in his tank, and I like to use the opportunity to give ’em a good once over. These detailed examinations make it difficult not to notice any subtle changes in my seahorse’s appearance or behavior that might signal impending problems with disease or the water chemistry. That’s a big advantage, since the sooner such potential problems are detected, the easier they are to cure or prevent, and I recommend other hobbyists do
Take a moment to enjoy the show when feeding your seahorses. Make sure they’re all eating well, and use this opportunity to look them over closely for wounds, injuries, or signs of disease. Seahorses are natural-born gluttons. Ordinarily, these galloping gourmets are ALWAYS hungry, so when a seahorse is off its feed, that’s often an excellent early indicator that something’s amiss in the aquarium.. Early detection of a potential problem can be the key to curing it, so it’s a good idea for the alert aquarist to observe his prize ponies while they put on the ol’ feed bag. Make sure they all show up for mess call, are acting normally, and have a well-rounded abdomen when they’re done eating. Handfeeding makes it hard to miss when one these chow hounds is off its feed, tipping off the alert aquarist to a potential problem.
Best of all, handfeeding is pure, sure-fire, 100% unadulterated fish-keeping fun! Feeding time for my seahorses is always a high point in my day. Having your pet ponies literally eating out your hand is a very rewarding experience. These daily feedings tends to forge a close, personal relationship between the aquarist and his charges, and hand-fed seahorses often become special pets.
As much as feeding time brightens up my day, I have no doubt it livens things up for my seahorses even more. They genuinely appear to enjoy interacting with me, and I believe in enriching their captive environment as much as possible. No doubt it’s the food they’re looking forward to, not the food giver, but our daily encounters are always eagerly awaited and they like to linger on my hand long after all the food is gone. They would allow me to lift them out of the water when I withdraw my hand if I didn’t gently shoo them away first.
After I’d had them a week or so, my Mustangs were beating me to their feeding station whenever I approached their tank, betraying their eagerness and excitement by flashing through a series of bright color changes as soon as I opened the aquarium cover. Needless to say, I was delighted to find my Mustangs were such aggressive feeders. They have never had a health problem, and I’ve been equally pleased with the results of Piscine Energetics frozen Mysis enriched with Vibrance as a long-term diet.
The only thing I don’t like about this extremely nutritious diet is the obligatory fast day. The problem with fasting is that the Mustangs don’t seem to realize it’s good for them-that it’s absolutely in their own best interests, essential for their long-term health. Whenever I make an appearance on fast day, they insist on parading back and forth in front of the glass in their greeting colors, begging for a handout. Before my butt hits the upholstery, both of them will be dancing at the feeding station, impatiently awaiting their gourmet shrimp dinner. When it doesn’t materialize, they forlornly abandon their post at the lunch counter, and come up to stare at me through the front glass. When I still don’t take the hint, the female paces back and forth at the front, looking her brightest and most conspicuous, as though trying to attract my attention, while the male reverts to his drab everyday attire and dejectedly resumes his futile vigil at the feeding station. If not for their well-rounded cross-sections, one would think they were dying of hunger, making it difficult to resist their puppy-dog antics. Just sitting there ignoring them makes me feel like a first-class heel. Sheesh–talk about your guilt trips Dang! I hate fast days.
In short, Barbara, I would recommend you try a pair of Mustangs as your first seahorses. After you.ve gained a little experience with your Mustangs, I suggest adding a pair of Sunbursts to your herd next. Sunbursts are very similar to Mustangs in most respects, including their hardiness, and will even interbreed with them freely; the main difference is that the Sunbursts tend to be even more brightly colored, as their name implies. They are predisposed to display sunset colors (shades of yellow, gold, and orange) when conditions are to their liking. But you really can’t go too far wrong when selecting your first specimens as long as you stick with captive-bred-and-raised seahorses and avoid wild-caught specimens.
Best of luck with your first seahorses, Barbara!
Pete GiwojnaJanuary 29, 2006 at 12:27 am #2269Pete GiwojnaGuest
As long as their aquarium requirements are the same and you are not concerned about crossbreeding, different species of seahorses can be kept together in the same aquarium. For example, Mustangs and Sunbursts (Hippocampus erectus) are completely compatible with Brazileros (Hippocampus reidi), Hippocampus barbouri and Hippocampus kuda. All of these different seahorses have nearly identical aquarium requirements and would coexist peacefully in the same aquarium. However, a mixed species tank generally works best if you obtain all of the livestock from the same breeder.
There is no simple answer to the question, "How many seahorses can be kept in the same tank?) In actual practice, determining how many seahorses can comfortably live in an aquarium of a certain size is not as simple as it seems at first glance. The proper stocking density for any given setup depends on a great many complex factors. I have listed a few of the most important of these below:
· The size of the aquarium.
· The filtration system it uses.
· Is it a species tank or a mixed community?
· The number and type of non-seahorse tankmates it houses.
· The type of seahorses you will be keeping and the maximum size they reach.
· The experience level of the seahorse keeper.
· Are the seahorses you will be keeping wild specimens or farm-raised livestock?
Many of the considerations you must keep in mind when stocking your aquarium are self-explanatory. For example, common sense dictates that the bigger the tank the more seahorses it can safely house, or that an aquarium of given size can support more small to medium sized seahorses than it can if stocked with one of the giant breeds. And you don’t need to be Jacques Cousteau to realize that if you are keeping your ponies in a mixed community with other reef fishes, you will have to settle for fewer Hippocampines than if you kept them in a species tank dedicated to seahorses only (Giwojna, Jan. 2002).
Likewise, the experience level of the hobbyist certainly has a bearing on how many seahorses he should attempt to keep in a given volume of water. If you’re a rank beginner, you will be better off keeping your stable under stocked in order to provide a margin of error while you learn the ropes with these amazing aquatic equines. Savvy seahorse pros who’ve seen it all before and know all the tricks and trouble spots, on the other hand, can afford to push the envelope a bit and keep their herds near capacity (Giwojna, Jan. 2002).
In addition, the filtration system obviously affects the number of specimens a certain aquarium can support, yet it is often overlooked when stocking densities are discussed. Consider two identical 29-gallon (tall) tanks: one relies on undergravels and/or foam filters, perhaps supplemented by a small external, hang-on-the-back filter packed with media such as activated carbon; the other features plenty of live rock and perhaps even a live sand bed, supplemented with a good protein skimmer and a power filter for added circulation and water movement. The first simple setup has an adequate biofilter but is something of a nitrate factory, whereas the more sophisticated setup has significant dentrification ability in addition to plenty of biofiltration (Giwojna, Jan. 2002). Both systems have the right dimensions and sufficient water volume to support several large seahorses, but you don’t need to be a marine biologist to understand that the live rock setup with the skimmer can handle a greater bioload and safely house more specimens than the more basic system (Giwojna, Jan. 2002).
Perhaps the most common mistake seahorse keepers make when considering the appropriate stocking density for their systems is failing to distinguish between wild-caught and captive-bred seahorses. Enough field work and research has now been done to conclude that, in terms of their behavior and need for elbow room, seahorses in the wild are very different animals from captive-bred and raised seahorses (Giwojna, Jan. 2002). For example, field studies show that pair-bonded seahorses typically enjoy a large territory in the wild (100 square meters in the case of female Hippocampus whitei, a fairly small Australian species that has been studied closely), and with their patchy distribution pattern, these seahorses only infrequently come in contact with others of their kind (Vincent & Sadler, 1995). Traumatic capture techniques, mishandling, and lack of feeding opportunities often plague wild-caught seahorses during transport and holding, and by the time they finally arrive at your local dealer’s, chances are great that wild ponies have already endured quite an ordeal (Bull and Mitchell, 2002). Malnutrition and stress at a time of high metabolic demand are likely to have weakened them (Lidster, 2003). When confined in an aquarium, therefore, wild-caught horses do not tolerate crowding well, and given their low disease resistance compared to their captive-bred brethren, it is NEVER a good idea to crowd wild-caught seahorses. They often have a more difficult time acclimating to life in captivity and will therefore be stressed, at least initially (Giwojna, Jan. 2002).
Farm-raised seahorses, on the other hand, are raised at far greater population densities than any seahorse experiences in the wild. Born and bred for aquarium life, they are far more social than wild caughts and are used to living in close proximity to each other (Giwojna, Jan. 2002). For them, that’s their normal condition and the aquarium is their natural environment. They reach the hobbyist well fed, in peak condition, and already accustomed to aquarium life and frozen foods. As a result, farm-raised seahorses are simply hardier, more disease resistant, and tolerate crowding and life in captivity far better than their wild-caught counterparts (Giwojna, Jan. 2002). Suffice it to say that more captive-bred seahorses can be maintained in an aquarium of a given size than wild-caught ‘horses.
Quantifying all of this, and specifying a certain number of seahorses per so many gallons of water, is a very tricky proposition because so many factors like those described above must be weighed. Consequently, my recommendations for stocking density always include a range for each size of aquarium in order to accommodate variables such as differing filtration systems, whether the seahorses are wild or captive bred, and varying levels of expertise. If you’re new to seahorses or have a basic setup that relies on regular partial water changes to control nitrates, you will need to stick to the lower end of the recommended range when stocking your stable (Giwojna, Jan. 2002). However, if you’re an experienced reefer or an old hand at seahorse wrangling, with a relatively sophisticated system at your disposal, feel free to explore the upper limits of the suggested stocking densities (Giwojna, Jan. 2002). Likewise, if you’re keeping wild-caught seahorses, I suggest you cut the recommended stocking densities for captive-bred seahorses at least in half (Giwojna, Jan. 2002).
Assuming that your aquarium will be a dedicated seahorse tank and not a community tank, and that you’ll be keeping captive-bred seahorses such as Mustangs or Sunbursts of average size, the suggested stocking density for Hippocampus erectus under those circumstances is about one pair per 10 gallons of water volume. So, as an example, a reasonable number of average size Mustangs (or Sunbursts) to keep in a 29-gallon aquarium is a total of about three pairs or six individuals. An experienced seahorse keeper with a relatively sophisticated filtration system could comfortably keep around eight H. erectus in such a tank with no problems, but a beginner with a basic filtration system should keep no more than four erectus in a tank that size, at least until he or she games a little more valuable firsthand experience keeping seahorses.
And when the big day comes and you are finally ready to begin filling up the old corral with thoroughbreds, be sure to remember the three golden rules that should always guide your actions when stocking your seahorse setup:
I. Under stocking is ALWAYS better than over stocking. Always! That is the one immutable law that governs the seahorse-keeping universe, and if you violate it, the aquarium gods will exact swift and terrible retribution!
II. When in doubt, under stock. Don’t push your luck! If you have any doubt whatsoever as to whether or not your system is running at capacity, it probably is. In such a situation, you MUST err on the side of caution.
III. Don’t mess with success! If your seahorse setup has been running smoothly and trouble-free for a prolonged period at it’s present level of occupancy, try to resist the temptation to increase your herd. Why risk upsetting the balance in a system that has settled into a state of happy equilibrium? Rather than risk overcrowding an established tank, consider starting up a new aquarium when the urge to acquire some new specimens becomes overwhelming.
When stocking your aquarium, consider these golden rules to be your commandments. Obey them, and your system should flourish. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow thee all of thy days. Break them, and you will soon find yourself teetering on the brink of disaster. Abandon all hope ye whom embark down that dark road to ruin.
And for you beginners, looking for a surefire formula for success, consider the following suggestions when stocking your stable with seahorses (Giwojna, Jan. 2002):
1) Start with the largest aquarium you can reasonably afford and maintain (the taller, the better);
2) Make sure your filtration system includes plenty of live rock, a quality protein skimmer, and provides plenty of circulation (Giwojna, Jan. 2002);
3) Stick with captive-bred seahorses and avoid mixing wild-caught and captive-bred specimens at all costs (Giwojna, Jan. 2002);
4) Under stock while you are learning and gaining experience with seahorses (Giwojna, Jan. 2002);
5) Target feed your seahorses or use a feeding station and remove any uneaten frozen foods immediately after every meal (Giwojna, Jan. 2002).
Best of luck with your upcoming seahorse setup, Barbara!
Pete GiwojnaJanuary 30, 2006 at 6:00 pm #2270Pete GiwojnaGuest
There are several fairly recent books about seahorses available that would be helpful for a beginner. I would say the most useful of these is "How to care for your Seahorses in the Marine Aquarium A Stable Environment For your Seahorse Stable" by Tracy Warland. Either of Neil Garrick-Maidment’s two latest books, Seahorses: Conservation & Care or the Practical Fish-Keeper’s Guide to Seahorses would also be good choices. And "Seahorses: Complete Pet Owner’s Manual" by Frank Indiviglio is another worthwhile book for someone new to seahorses. You can order all of these books online from Jim Forshey at the Aquatic Bookshop (http://www.seahorses.com/index.shtm) or from Amazon.com and the other major booksellers.
Keep an eye out for my new book as well. It is called the Complete Guide to the Greater Seahorses and should be coming out sometime later this year. It is far more detailed and comprehensive than the other books mentioned above, and is considerably longer than all four of them put together.
Yup, if you’re new to seahorses, Barbara, you are indeed better off keeping them by themselves until you’ve gained a little seahorse savvy and experience. Once you’ve learned the ropes and gained some confidence, there are quite a number of seahorse-safe companions you can consider. Here’s an idea of what you can look forward to in that regard when the time comes:
Compatible Tankmates for the Greater Seahorses.
There are a wide variety of compatible fishes and invertebrates that make suitable tankmates for seahorses. However, when discussing compatible tankmates for seahorses, it’s important to remember that one can only speak in generalities. There are no unbreakable rules, no sure things, no absolute guarantees. For instance, most hobbyists will tell you that small scooter blennies make great tankmates for seahorses and 9 times out of 10 they’re right. But every once in a while, you will hear horror stories from hobbyists about how their scooter blenny coexisted peacefully with their seahorses for several months and then suddenly went "rouge" overnight for no apparent reason and turned on the seahorses, inflicting serious damage before it could be captured and removed.
Does that mean that we should cross scooter blennies off our list of compatible tankmates for seahorses? Nope — it just means that we must be aware that individuals within a species sometimes vary in their behavior and respond differently that you would expect, so there are exceptions to every rule. It’s fair to say that scooter blennies generally make wonderful companions for seahorses, but there’s always a small chance you might get Satan reincarnated in the form of a scooter blenny. There’s no guarantee that adorable scooter you picked out at your LFS because of his amusing antics and puppy-dog personality won’t turn out to be the blenny from hell once you release him in your seahorse setup.
Likewise, micro-hermit crabs are generally entertaining additions to an aquarium that do a great job as scavengers and get along great with seahorses, but over the years, I’ve had a few seahorses that were confirmed crab killers. These particular ponies were persistent hermit crab predators that specialized in plucking the hermits out of their shells and attacking their soft, unprotected abdomens, and they honed their skullduggery to a fine art. They were experts at extricating the crabs and would eat only their fleshy abdomens and discard the rest. Mind you, that was only a few individuals out of a great many Hippocampines, but I could never keep hermit crabs in the same tank with those specific seahorses.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s the micro-hermits that are the troublemakers. Most of the time, they coexist perfectly well with their fellow janitors in the cleanup crew. But I’ve had more than a few tiny hermits with a taste for escargot that persecuted snails mercilessly. These cold-blooded little assassins would kill the snails in order to appropriate their shells. Once they had dined on the former occupant, they would take up residence in their victim’s cleaned-out shell! It soon became clear that these killer crabs were driven not by hunger, but by the need for a new domicile. Once I realized they were house-hunting, I found I could curb their depredations but providing an assortment of small, empty seashells for the hermits to use. Colorful Nerite shells are ideal for this.
Other times, the exceptions are pleasant surprises. For example, as a rule, I would not suggest keeping seahorses with angelfish due to their pugnacious attitude, aggressive feeding habits, and territorial nature. But hobbyists occasionally find that a dwarf angel does well with their seahorses. And although triggerfish can certainly be the terror of any tank, I once had a small Humu Trigger that befriended a Brazilian seahorse and became its constant companion. It would seek it out during the day and make the seahorse the center of its daily activities; at lights out, the Humu would find the seahorse’s resting spot and wedge itself against the base of its hitching post or lock itself into a nearby hole in the live rock.
I have prepared a list of suitable fishes and invertebrates that generally make compatible tankmates for tropical seahorses below. Avoid fin nippers and aggressive, territorial fish that would be inclined to bully or physically abuse the seahorses, such as damsels, most clownfish, triggerfish, angels, puffers, cowfish and the like, as well as any predatory fishes that are large enough to swallow a seahorses, such as lionfish, anglers, sargassumfish, rays, large groupers and morays. For best results, other fishes that would not persecute the seahorses in any way should also generally be excluded because they are active, aggressive feeders that would out-compete the seahorses for food. This includes most butterflyfish, tangs, and wrasse. Stinging animals like anemones and jellyfish are unsuitable, as are other predatory invertebrates such as lobsters, mantis shrimp, certain starfish and most crabs.
Clownfish meet many of the criteria for suitable tankmates, but should generally be regarded with caution (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). Most species, such as Tomato Clowns (Amphiprion frenatus), Maroon Clowns (Premnas biaculeatus), and Skunk Clownfish are surprisingly aggressive and territorial, and should be shunned on that basis. Others do best when keep with anemones, which are a threat to seahorses. All clownfish are prone to Brooklynella and Marine Velvet (Amyloodinium), and should be considered Ich (Cryptocaryon irritans) magnets as well (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). The only species I would recommend as companions for seahorses are Percula Clowns (Amphiprion percula) and False Percula Clownfish (A. ocellaris), and then only after a rigorous quarantine period (Giwojna, Feb. 2004). Captive-bred specimens are best.
In short, fishes that are suitable as companions for seahorses must be docile, nonaggressive specimens, which are fairly deliberate feeders that won’t out-compete them for food. Some good candidates include:
Anthias (assorted Mirolabrichthys, Pseudanthias, and Anthias sp.)
Firefish Goby (Nemateleotris magnifica)
Purple Firefish Goby (Nemateleotris decora)
Gobies (assorted small species)
Neon Goby (Gobiosoma oceanops)
Assessors (Assessor spp.)
Midas Blenny (Ecsenius midas)
High Hats (Equetus acuminatus)
Marine Betta (Calloplesiops altivelis)
Banggai or Banner cardinals (Pterapogon kauderni)
Flame cardinals (Apogon pseudomaculatus)
Pajama cardinals (Apogon nematoptera)
Pipefishes (assorted small species)
Percula clownfish (Amphiprion percula)
False percula clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris)
Royal Grammas (Gramma loreto)
Blackcap Basslets (Gramma melacara)
Green Chromis (Chromis viridis)
Longnose Hawkfish (Oxycirrhites typus)
Six Line Wrasse (Psuedocheilinus hexataenia)
Flasher Wrasse (Paracheilinus sp.)
Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus spp.)
Scooter Blennies (Synchiropus spp.)
Green Mandarin Goby or Dragonet (Pterosynchiropus splendidus)
Psychedelic Mandarin Goby or Dragonet (Pterosynchiropus picturatus)
Orchid Dottyback (Pseudochromis fridmani) – avoid other Pseudochromis species!
Good inverts for seahorses include decorative cleaner shrimp like those listed below:
Peppermint Shrimp (Lysmata wurdemanni)
Scarlet Cleaner Shrimp or Skunk Cleaner Shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis)
Fire Shrimp (Lysmata debelius)
large ornamental snails (living sea shells) such as the following:
Tiger Cowry (Cypraea tigris)
Deer Cowry (Cypraea cervus)
Assorted Feather Dusters (Sabellastatre magnifica, Sabella sp.) whose colorful crowns resemble gaily-colored parasols.
There are also quite a number of compatible corals that do well under low-to-moderate light levels with low-to-moderate currents that are compatible with seahorses, but setting up modified reef tank for seahorses is another subject altogether and not a suitable project for beginners.
By no means is this intended to be a comprehensive compilation. It is intended merely to give the hobbyist an idea of the types of fishes and inverts that generally make suitable tankmates for seahorses. But there are many more seahorse-safe fish and invertebrates that could have been added to the list, and no doubt many aquarists would disagree about some of the species that have been included.
Be that as it may, there are two precautions that should always be observed when contemplating keeping seahorses with other fishes:
(1) All fishes that are intended as tankmates for seahorses MUST be quarantined first without exception. For the same reasons we discussed earlier with regard to wild-caught seahorses, any fish you bring home from your LFS is a potential disease vector for all manner of nasty pathogens and parasites, and you need to take every possible precaution to prevent these from being introduced to your display tank.
(2) If you are new to seahorses, you will be much better off sticking to a species tank rather than attempting to keep them in a mixed community. Beginners are well advised to keep things as simple as possible while they learn the ropes, and introducing other fishes and invertebrates tankmates complicates feeding and carries new risks that inexperienced seahorse keepers are ill-equipped to cope with. Get some firsthand experience with seahorses before you consider adding any tankmates other than a cleanup crew.
Will Wooten is also compiled a good compatibility guide for seahorses. You can access Will’s list online at the following URL:
Best of luck with your ongoing research, Barbara!
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