In our previous article on Keeping Seahorses in Aquaria, we looked at options for stocking your seahorse tank with everything other than the ponies themselves. In this article, we'll look at actually selecting your ponies and how to keep them happy and healthy.
Where to Get Them
Where you purchase your seahorses can be very important to your success in keeping them. In years past, most seahorses were bought in LFS (live fish stores). Unfortunately, most of those seahorses were WC (wild caught). They were accustomed to eating live food and were kept in conditions not suitable for seahorses. They were sold to uninformed customers who did not provide for their needs. Sadly, most of them perished in their first year. Things are beginning to change, but it is very important to ask a lot of questions before purchasing a seahorse at a LFS.
The first question should be whether the seahorses are CB (captive bred). CB seahorses are raised in tanks with synthetic or filtered seawater. They are trained to eat frozen mysis. They are well adapted to living in aquarium conditions because that is all they have known. Most CB seahorses come from one of two sources.
The first is a seahorse farm. In the US, there are some excellent choices. My first recommendation would be Seahorse Source in Florida because no one else offers better customer service. There is also Ocean Rider in Hawaii (here's a thread with some great pics of this farm) and Pacific East Aquaculture on the east coast.
A few pictures of the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm by R2R member @secretreefer
There may be other seahorse farms operating in the US, but these are the ones that I am acquainted with. As a private hobbyist, these are my preferred sources for seahorses. They can be purchased directly without going through a LFS. Rarely do LFS get their seahorses from a farm since there are less expensive seahorses available.
The second source of CB is a hobbyist who just enjoys raising fry up to adults. They can be purchased directly, or sometimes these seahorses find their way into conscientious LFS. Most hobbyists who have poured blood, sweat, and tears into raising fry choose LFS that have standalone seahorse systems and informed personnel to assure that their ‘darlings’ get a good start.
WC seahorses have a poor prognosis in aquariums. Even if they have been trained to eat frozen mysis, they could revert to only wanting live food. Also, many arrive with a variety of parasites and therefore should go through a process of de-worming and parasite eradication. Many do not survive the process. The ocean’s vastness protects these seahorses from the pathogens that they are exposed to but once they are placed in a contained system many of these pathogens manifest themselves. The price tag on a WC pony is less than CB because it is cheaper to get a seahorse from the ocean than it is to raise and feed it for 6 months. However, when you factor in treating it for pathogens and likely replacing ponies, it is no longer a bargain.
To confuse the matter even more, there is TR (tank raised) and net- penned seahorses available in LFS. Although TR sounds good (similar to CB), it is not at all like CB. Many poor countries in an effort to generate income capture pregnant seahorses and keep them in tanks using natural seawater. This exposes the seahorse fry to all the pathogens in the ocean. To make matters worse they often ship seahorses that are too young to travel and subject them to long distances. These juvenile seahorses arrive at the LFS malnourished and sickly where they are placed in a tank that shares water with the rest of the fish. Again, long term prognosis is poor.
Net-penned seahorses live in a built containment in a lagoon usually just of the coast. These too are usually from poor countries. They may be supplementary fed but they are basically WC that are contained and harvested.
The next important question to ask a LFS is whether the seahorses are kept in a standalone seahorse-only system. If a seahorse has been exposed to all the pathogens of the other fish in the store then it is going to be prone to disease as soon as it’s immunity is suppressed by stress or some other factor. Also, the chances of it being in the proper water temperature are very slim if it is not in a seahorse-only system. This is a good time to inquire about the water temperature.
Ask the LFS what and how often the seahorses are fed. It is surprising how many LFS employees think that seahorses can live on live crap (brine shrimp) alone. Live crap can be fed if it is enriched or gut-loaded with medication but it should never be a staple. If these questions have been answered satisfactorily and you trust the LFS to be truthful, then you can probably buy ponies there with confidence.
Now that you know where to buy your seahorses, you must choose what species to purchase. At times that can be limited to what is available in your area at the time. I will only be dealing with the 5 species that I mentioned in my first article since those are the species that can live in the tank specifications we’ve already discussed previously.
The first species I will recommend is Hippocampus erectus, also known as the Lined Seahorse. This species is generally considered the hardiest seahorse and is an excellent choice for new keepers. They are outgoing and interactive with their owners. They are especially easy to feed and come in lots of colors. They are a large, robust species with a maximum size of 8”. Their fry can be started on enriched BBS (baby brine shrimp) and are therefore easier to raise than other species that require copepods or rotifer as a first food. These are a wonderful species even for the most experienced keeper and I highly recommend them.
H. erectus by @1979fishgeek
The next specie is H. reidi, also known as the Brazilian Seahorse. This species is next in popularity with H. erectus. They also would be considered an easy species to keep. They have special appeal to aquarists who want bright yellow, orange or red seahorses. They are typically not bashful but also are not as outgoing as H. erectus are. Also, their fry are more difficult to rear since they need copepods as a first food.
H. reidi by @gparr
It is possible to now acquire a Reidi x Erectus Hybrid Seahorse. In the Atlantic Ocean, the territories of these two species somewhat overlaps and so they have naturally interbred in nature. Some seahorse farms, like Seahorse Source and Pacific East Aquaculture have duplicated this hybrid seahorse in captive bred conditions and now they are available to seahorse customers.
A third popular species is H. comes, also known as the Tiger Tail Seahorse. This specie is delicately featured and has a striped tail. Some have outstanding coloration. They are shy by nature and moderately difficult to keep. Their fry require copepods at birth.
H. comes photo from LiveAquaria.com
The fourth species is H. kuda, also known as the Yellow Seahorse. There seems to be 2 varieties of H. kuda, one being smaller and moderately difficult to keep. Their fry can be started on enriched BBS at birth. The other variety is distinguished as Hippocampus taeniopterus, which is larger and easier to keep. Their fry however need copepods as a first food.
H. Kuda by @Ari21
The last species I will cover is H. barbouri, also known as the Zebra Snout Seahorse. These lovely seahorses have striping on their face. I would only recommend this species to expert keepers, as they are difficult to feed and generally have a lower success rate in captivity. Some of this may be due to them being mislabeled as CB when they are actually WC. If purchasing this species, be sure that you know where it came from. Their fry need appropriate sized copepods at birth. If choosing other species of seahorses, be sure to thoroughly research them to know what their specific needs are.
H. Barbouri photo from Reef Builders.com
Now that you know what species you are interested in, another question about choosing your ponies is: What gender is right for you? Seahorses are quite passionate and a male/female pair of seahorses can quickly turn into an entire herd if the keeper has a knack for raising them! There are different options depending on the keeper’s objective. If the objective is to attempt to raise some seahorses, then of course, acquiring both male and female is the obvious choice. Their courtship dance is charming and although raising fry is rigorous, it is also very rewarding. However, if you want to avoid MTS (multi-tank syndrome) and only want to enjoy a set number of ponies in your herd, you still have options. You may still want to be charmed by the courtship dance and experience the miracle of birth. In that case, you can contact other aquarists in your local club or area and see if any of them are interested in some free fry to raise. Fry can also be shipped to a seahorse enthusiast for them to rear for the cost of shipping. Another more difficult option is just let the fry be filtered out immediately. This option can be hard for the tender-hearted keeper because the fry can require several days to perish, and filter material must be cleaned or removed to prevent dangerous bacteria.
Video of seahorse giving birth by @JHuneke
If you are not interested in rearing fry or witnessing male and female courtship you can keep same-sex herds. Generally, since females tend to be a bit hardier than males, most keepers who choose this option keep females. There is one small glitch in this option…young females can develop a pouch and end up being a male! Not being an expert myself, I am not sure if this happens when a seahorse that appears to be a female is really a late blooming male or if the pony was indeed a female and to help propagate the species she has the ability to change into a male (An example of what I am discussing happens with clownfish whose males have the ability to change into a female if the dominant female is suddenly killed). I can’t answer this mystery, but I can say that it is not always possible to keep your herd only female.
There are keepers who choose to keep male-only herds. Since these are fewer and I have read fewer accounts of this, I am uncertain if male seahorses with pouches ever turn female. My guess is that it is unlikely, but I can’t say that for certain. What I can say is that my personal experience is that male seahorses have more health issues than females. A full-grown male stallion is a magnificent creature to behold. If you choose to keep a stallion-only tank, just be even more vigilant about husbandry.
One last word about keeping same-sex herds…both females and males kept only with their gender will often dance and display courtship behavior. This can be a charming display of affection without the hassles of dealing with fry.
Seahorses are gregarious creatures and do best with at least 2 in a tank. The way they interact to one another is both fascinating and addicting. Unlike fish that have no compassion for a weak individual or a newcomer, seahorses are generally kind and gentle to one another. Even when seahorses are competing for a mate, they rarely injure one another. When a member of the herd is ailing, the other seahorses stay near to watch over the sick tankmate. In the event that the ailing pony passes, the rest of the seahorses seem to grieve the loss. It can be heart-wrenching to witness.
Photo by @SherryD
Keeping Seahorses Happy and Healthy
If your seahorse tank is set up for a single pair of seahorses, it is inevitable that at some point you will lose one of them to death. The remaining pony may get very lonely and depressed. It can sometimes be helpful to place a mirror against the tank glass so that the solitary seahorse can see its image and be tricked into thinking it is not alone. That way the owner can have time to make any adjustments to the tank system if necessary or QT a replacement seahorse without rushing any important steps.
An important part of keeping happy, healthy seahorses is getting them settled and acclimated into your tank system after you have purchased them. If you have had them shipped from a CB seahorse farm, then you should prepare to help them recover from the shipping process. A 10-gallon QT with newly made saltwater is a good size for this purpose. When making the new saltwater, make it as close to the DT’s parameters as possible. Make sure there is plenty of aeration and surface agitation. I use LR from my sump and plastic ornaments for hitches in my QT. I also have a HOB Prism Pro skimmer for filtration and open airlines tubes.
Follow the directions of the seahorse farm exactly when moving the seahorse into the QT. If your ponies arrive without instructions, then float the closed bag in the QT for 15-20 minutes. Do not open the bag when they first arrive because ammonia quickly builds up in the bag water once it is exposed to air. Also, never drip acclimate. Instead, keep the bag closed until the temperature is close to that of the QT. Once you open the bag you will need to work quickly. Gently cup your washed, clean hands around the seahorse and form a loose cage. Lift the pony out of the bag and transfer into the QT.
I keep a close watch on ammonia with an ammonia badge or by testing. When water changes are necessary, I use water from the seahorse DT. In the smaller QT, it is easier to make sure your new seahorse is eating well and passing waste. If all is as it should be, the new pony can be transferred to the DT in a week or so. It is important to know that when transferring a seahorse from one tank into another, you should never use a net. Their boney skeletal structure can cause them to be injured by a net. Simply use clean hands to gently cup the seahorse to make the quick transfer.
If the seahorse has been purchased from a LFS, the process is the same, except for the possible treatment of pathogens if the seahorse is suspected of being WC or of being kept in the same system as the other fish.
Congratulations! Now you can select your ponies! If you've stuck with us this far, you're well on your way to keeping your seahorses happy and healthy. In our last two articles, we'll address subjects that will contribute to successful long term care of your herd.
To read the next installment (Keeping Seahorses in Aquaria #5 - Feeding Your Ponies), follow this link.