By Pete Giwojna
The 21st century it is the Golden Age for
Seahorse keepers. A series of revolutionary breakthroughs in mariculture
first made it possible to raise seahorses in captivity in commercial numbers
beginning around the turn of the century. Now, a scant five years later,
some 15 different captive-bred species are presently on the market (Giwojna
2005). Some of these are available in a number of distinct color phases,
creating an attractive array of hardy, healthy, hard-to-resist ‘horses from
which to choose, that are all pre-adapted to aquarium life. Hobbyists can
now take their pick from more than 20 different types of fabulous farm-raised
seahorses, with several more spectacular species on the way (Giwojna 2005). For
the first time, modern aquaculture techniques, successful breeding and rearing
protocols for Hippocampines, and effective grow-out technology and maturation
methods have brought the Holy Grail of aquarium fish within easy reach of the
Ever since they are small fry, captive-bred-and-raised
seahorses are trained to eat frozen foods like the Mysis relicta
shown here as their staple, everyday diet. This makes them a great
deal easier to keep than wild seahorses, which require hard to provide
live foods, and brings the seahorse within the grasp of the average
hobbyist for the first time. Photo by Leslie Leddo
Best of all, cultured Seahorses are all trained
to eat frozen Mysis as their staple diet, making them a breeze to feed compared
to their wild-caught counterparts, which require live foods. But even
captive-bred-and-raised seahorses are messy eaters, and many hobbyists still go
wrong when it comes to feeding their charges, jeopardizing their water quality
and putting the health of their Seahorses at risk. Allow me to explain.
Whether it is a species tank with lots of live
rock, a modified minireef, a seagrass system or a mangrove biotope, a
well-designed Seahorse setup is an elaborate environment. A certain level
of complexity is necessary in order to assure that our Seahorses behave
naturally (Topps, 1999), and to provide our ponies with plenty of hitching posts
and shelter, and enough sight barriers to assure them a little privacy when they
feel the need to be alone. Their homemade habitats may thus take the form
of a labyrinth of live rock, an intricate arrangement of soft corals and
gorgonians, a well-planted bed of seagrass or macroalgae, or even a full-fledged
Two Mustangs (Hippocampus erectus) eating from a
typical acrylic feeding station. Notice that this design has the
feeding tube built right in and attached to the side of the aquarium
with suction cups. (Many hobbyists now prefer to use opaque
feeding troughs since some seahorses have a tendency to snick at those
mouthwatering Mysis through the side of transparent containers, and
there's a chance they might injure their snouts if this behavior
persists. Notice that the seahorse on the left of this picture was
making that very mistake at the moment this picture was snapped.)
Photo by Leslie Leddo
When feeding Seahorses in such intricate
surroundings, the worst thing you can do is to scatter a handful of frozen Mysis
throughout the tank to be dispersed by the currents and hope that the hungry
horses can track it all down. Inevitably, some of the frozen food will be
swept away and lodge in isolated nooks and crannies where the Seahorses cannot
get it. There it will begin to decompose and degrade the water quality,
which is why ammonia spikes are common after a heavy feeding. Or it may be
wafted out into the open again later on and eaten after it has begun to spoil.
Either outcome can lead to dire problems, and unfortunately, broadcast feeding
is one of the most common mistakes beginners make.
The best way to avoid such problems is to set up
a feeding station for your Seahorses. In this article, we will discuss
many different options and types of feeding trays, how to select a suitable
location for the feeding tray, how to set up your feeding station, and how to
condition your Seahorses to come to their new “lunch counter”. In short,
we will cover everything the hobbyist needs to know to take advantage of this
superior feeding method.
prefer to use natural feeding stations, like the Cabbage Coral this
Mustang is feeding from, because of their attractive appearance.
Photo by Leslie Leddo
A feeding station is very basic concept.
In essence, it is a simple feeding tray that will safely contain the frozen
Mysis while your Seahorses dine on it. The feeding tray thus prevents the food
from being wafted away by currents or stolen by bottom scavengers before the
seahorses can slurp it up, and it makes cleaning up leftovers a snap, thereby
safeguarding your water quality.
Seahorses respond very well when they are fed at
the same time and place each day. They quickly learn the routine and will come
to recognize their keeper as the one who feeds them -- the giver of gourmet
delights! Once that happens, they will often beat you to the spot, gathering
around their feeding station as soon as they see you approach.
A boldly-marked Fire Red from Ocean Rider gleaning frozen
Mysis from a thicket of red grape Caulerpa , just as if
it was hunting in the wild. As shown here, dense clusters of
macroalgae make excellent natural feeding stations because the thawed
Mysis nestles amid the fronds and branches of the Caulerpa where it can
easily be slurped up by the hungry seahorses.
Photo by Leslie Leddo
In fact, the aquarist can easily condition his
Seahorses to come a-running at feeding time! Before you open the aquarium cover,
make a point of lightly tapping it a few times or rapping on it gently. The
Seahorses will quickly learn to associate the tapping with the mouthwatering
morsels that follow, and before you know it, they will respond by gathering at
the feeding station as if you were ringing the dinner bell.
To facilitate this process and make feeding them
easier, choose a feeding station that's convenient for you in a relatively
uncluttered part of the aquarium, and give your Seahorses their meal right there
every day. The feeding station should have some convenient hitching posts
situated nearby as well. Avoid using an area where currents might whisk the food
away from the Seahorses before they can eat it. (We'll discuss choosing the
right location for your feeding station in more detail later on.)
Natural Feeding Stations
A great many artificial or man-made objects will
make a suitable feeding trough for seahorses, but many hobbyists prefer a
natural feeding station that looks at home in the aquarium and doesn't detract
from their artful aquascaping.
For example, I know one hobbyist who uses a
Toadstool Leather Coral as his feeding station. He places the Mysis on the
bowl-shaped top of the toadstool, which contains them nicely while his Seahorses
perch around the edges and scarf up the shrimp as if dining at a breakfast bar.
An upturned clamshell also makes a nifty natural
feeding station that fits in perfectly in any Seahorse tank. Choose a colorful
natural seashell for this, such as one valve of a Tridacna clam or perhaps a
Lion's Paw Scallop shell, and you have an attractive feeding station that's
perfectly appropriate for your tank. The concave interior of the bivalve shell
acts as a shallow bowl to contain the frozen Mysis until it's eaten, and a
seashell looks as natural as can be in a marine aquarium.
With its polished, iridescent interior, an abalone shell
makes a wonderful natural feeding station that looks right at home in
any seahorse setup. Here we see a hungry Mustang slurping up Mysis
from its abalone feeding trough. Photo
by Leslie Leddo
My favorite for this type of feeding station is
a medium-sized Abalone shell. The iridescent, opalescent colors of the upturned
interior, with its magnificent polished surface of mother-of-pearl, are
spectacular! An upturned Abalone shell requires no further modification
whatsoever, making it the ideal feeding station for the unhandy hobbyist who's
Surprisingly, a good cluster of Red Grape
Caulerpa also makes a superb natural feeding station (Leslie Leddo, pers. com.)!
Seahorses love to perch on the Caulerpa and are naturally attracted to it as a
convenient hitching post. Release a baster full of frozen Mysis over the
grape Caulerpa, and you will find that the Mysis becomes trapped amongst the
tightly packed branches of the algae, clinging to the cluster of fronds wherever
it happens to settle (Leddo, pers. comm.). The hungry Seahorses will then
carefully scour the branches of the Caulerpa for the Mysis just as if they were
hunting live shrimp amid the beds of seagrass in the wild. Grape Caulerpa
is ideal for this because the seahorse's tubular snout is adapted for suctorial
feeding, perfectly designed for plucking small invertebrates from amongst dense
Artificial Feeding Stations
As you can see, a toadstool coral not only makes an
attractive addition to a seahorse setup, but it can also do double duty
as a convenient natural feeding station. With all its polyps
extended, the dish-shaped coral head contains thawed Mysis very
nicely. Here we see a SunFire from Ocean Rider scouring the coral
for morsels of
Mysis . Notice the purple mushroom corals in the background.
Photo by Leslie Leddo
Not everyone has a living Toadstool Coral to
serve as a natural feeding station, of course, but it's easy to make your own
lunch counter that will work just as well. Get a small Pyrex bowl or a similar
shallow container made of clear glass or plastic (a large petri dish works great
for this) and fill it about halfway with your tank substrate (Mike Kelly, pers.
com.). Then sink the bowl into your sand bed until the substrate you placed in
the bowl is level with the substrate in the tank (Mike Kelly, pers. com.). Leave
the rim sticking up above the sand bed about a 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch or so (Mike
Kelly, pers. com.). The clear glass rim of the bowl is transparent and virtually
unnoticeable, so don't worry that it will ruin the appearance of your display
tank. Artfully position a few natural hitching posts around the bowl to provide
your seahorses with a handy perch from which to snick up their dinner.
Or you can always purchase a Seahorse feeding
station off the shelf, ready to go, as is. Artificial Cup Coral makes an
attractive elevated "lunch counter" that does the job nicely. Elevated on a
pedestal, the seahorses can perch around the edge of the cup, which contains the
frozen shrimp neatly until eaten. The coral cups are very lifelike and make
nifty ready-made feeding stations if positioned at a convenient (for you and
your galloping gourmets) spot in your tank where currents won't whisk the Mysis
A brilliant yellow SunFire dines on frozen Mysis
from its coral coffee table -- another good example of a natural feeding
station. Photo by Leslie Leddo
Other handy items that make great ready-made
feeding stations for Seahorses are the conical worm feeders designed for
offering Bloodworms andTubifex Worms to fish. They may require a little
modifying since many of them are designed to float. Depending on the type of
feeder, you may have to perforate air filled chambers around the collar, weigh
it down to submerge it, or cut the conical worm trap free from the rest of the
feeder. Worm feeders come with a suction cup, so once you've overcome the
buoyancy problem, they can be secured anywhere in the aquarium you want, and
they work just as well with frozen Mysis as with worms. If you position the
conical feeder where a slight current hits it, gently jostling and agitating the
frozen Mysis inside, it is even more effective. The flow of water imparts a bit
of movement to the frozen Mysis, causing it to twitch or swirl about just a bit
periodically inside the feeder. This makes the thawed Mysis look all the more
lifelike and quickly attracts the interest of the Seahorses. They will gather
around the feeder and snick up Mysis through the open top. The conical shape of
these feeders contains the frozen Mysis even better than most other feeding
Some hobbyists prefer a more natural looking,
aesthetically pleasing feeding station, which they fashion themselves to suit
their own tastes. They start with a piece of well-cured live rock that's
approximately the right size and shape, and painstakingly hollow out the center
to form a shallow concave depression. This shallow bowl is fashioned by grinding
it out, using an electrical moto-tool (available at any craft store or hardware
store) with a carbide burr. You can even use a shop grinder. Once the bowl has
been hollowed out, a series of holes are then drilled around the circumference
of this depression. Red, brown or purple Gracilaria, green Caulerpa and/or
Gorgonian branches are planted in these holes to create natural hitching posts.
As the macroalgae takes hold and fills out, this produces an attractive feeding
station that looks completely natural. It's a great do-it-yourself project for
the handy hobbyist.
Some do-it-yourselfers take it a step further
and fashion portable feeding stations that hang off the side of their aquarium
and which can be easily removed for cleaning and maintenance. This is
usually accomplished using rectangle pieces of acrylic plastic joined together
so that there is a short horizontal piece of the top with a lip (that hangs over
the side of the tank) connected to a long vertical piece that extends all the
way from the top of the aquarium to an inch or so above the substrate, which is
joined at a right angle to a vertical shelf that supports the feeding tray.
In other words, the sections of this plastic feeding station that extend into
the water are L-shaped, with the short leg of the “L” serving as a shelf that
holds the feeding trough.
The feeding tray of their choice is then secured
to the shelf using marine epoxy (for securing coral frags to foundation rock in
reef tanks), silicone aquarium cement or even suction cups. The feeding
trough can be a lid from a Tupperware container, an upturned clamshell, or
whatever you prefer.
The beauty of this type of rather elaborate
feeding station is that the whole apparatus can be raised and lowered for easy
filling or emptying of feeding tray without ever getting your hands wet.
And it's equally easy to clean and sterilize should it become overgrown with
algae or need sanitizing.
Other aquarists favor convenience and simplicity
above all else and will reserve a small, glass bowl or clear plastic receptacle
for feeding their seahorses. They merely place the bowl or plastic container on
the bottom of the tank at feeding time, add the enriched Mysis, and let their
Seahorses gather ‘round and dine at their leisure as though eating from a
feeding trough. A few hours later, the feeding container is removed, along with
any leftovers. Quick and easy!
Selecting the Right Location for Your Feeding
As indicated by this SunFire, seahorses often thrive amid
the natural surroundings of a modified reef tank with compatible soft
corals that do well under relatively low lighting and moderate water
movement. But scatter feeding in such an elaborate environment is
a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, as shown here, toadstools and
cabbage corals make great natural feeding stations.
Photo by Leslie Leddo
There are a few factors to bear in mind when
choosing the location for your feeding station.
First of all, it must be in a location that's
convenient for you to reach and observe, since you will be depositing the
enriched Mysis in the feeding tray, watching closely to make sure that all your
Seahorses show up for chow and are feeding normally, with their usual hearty
appetites, and then removing any uneaten leftovers when the Seahorses have eaten
Second, the feeding station should be located in
an area with relatively low flow so that the seahorses can approach it easily,
and more importantly, so that brisk currents don't whisk the frozen Mysis out of
the feeding tray or make it too difficult to guide the enriched Mysis into the
feeding dish in the first place.
Finally, if the aquarium has a heavy population
of bristleworms, micro-hermit crabs, or miniature brittle stars (micro stars),
and they tend to converge on the feeding station at mealtime and steal the Mysis
or just generally get in the way, many hobbyists find it useful to elevate their
feeding tray in order to keep it out of the reach of such bottom scavengers.
Setting the Dinner Table: Depositing Frozen
Food in the Feeding Station
Scatter feeding seahorses in an intricate reef tank
jeopardizes both the water quality and the health of the inhabitants.
But this beautiful green pony (a captive-bred Hippocampus whitei)
will flourish in this colorful setting if provided with a feeding
station. Photo by Leslie Leddo
When it's time to put on the ol' feed bag, some
Seahorse keepers use a fine-meshed aquarium net, such as a brine shrimp net, to
deposit the thawed, enriched Mysis they have prepared into the feeding trough.
Other hobbyists prefer to load a Turkey baster with the prepared Mysis and
gently squirt them out over the feeding dish, using the baster to fill the
feeding station with a serving of the mouthwatering Mysis. Although simple
and effective, these two methods have one big drawback -- they require you to
immerse your arm and hand in the aquarium every time you need to feed the
Using a feeding tube to guide the Mysis into the
feeding trough is a much better option. A feeding tube is exactly what it
sounds like -- a length of rigid, clear-plastic tubing an inch or so in
diameter, that’s long enough to reach all the way from the surface down to the
feeding station. When the food is ready, the bottom of the tube is
centered in the middle of the feeding station and the enriched frozen Mysis is
placed in the top of the feeding tube, where it sinks slowly down the length of
the tubing to be deposited in the feeding bowl or tray below.
Often the Seahorses will track the Mysis all the
way down the tube to the end and be ready to snap it up as soon as it emerges
over the feeding station, which is an added benefit of this method since it
eliminates the need to train the Seahorses to come to the feeding dish.
The hungry ‘horses will just naturally follow the sinking Mysis to its
Other advantages of the feeding tube are that it
keeps your hands out of the water and it delivers the frozen Mysis precisely
where it's supposed to go. As it sinks down the tube, the Mysis is guided
exactly where you want it, protected from wayward currents and eddies that might
otherwise deflect it from its intended destination, which is often a problem
when using a baster to deposit the prepared Mysis.
Feeding tubes are so convenient and foolproof
that many Seahorse keepers them permanently in their aquariums directly above
their feeding stations using suction cups designed for aquarium use to secure
them to the glass.
Training Seahorses to Come to the Feeding
Setting up your feeding station is simply a
matter of selecting the type of feeding trough you prefer and setting it in
place in the desired location, which should meet all the criteria discussed
above. All that remains is to train your Seahorses to come to the feeding
station and eat, which normally is a very simple process that they often take
care of on their own.
When you set up a feeding station, most
Seahorses pick up on it right away and respond to the new feeding method very
well, as described above. However, sometimes there is a slow learner that needs
to be trained to come to the new feeder. There are a couple of fairly simple
ways to accomplish that, which usually work pretty well.
One way to get your Seahorses up to speed on a
new feeding station is to target feed them with a turkey baster, and once they
are eating from the baster well, use it to lead them to the new feeding station.
The old-fashioned ones with the glass barrels work best because the seahorses
can see the Mysis inside the baster all the way as it moves down the barrel and
out the tip. By exerting just the right amount of pressure on the bulb, great
precision is possible when target feeding with a turkey baster. By squeezing and
releasing the bulb ever so slightly, a skillful target feeder can keep a piece
of Mysis dancing at the very tip of the baster indefinitely, and hold the
tempting morsel right in front of the seahorse's mouth as long as necessary.
If you can do that, it is an easy matter to hold
a morsel of Mysis at the end of the baster, and use this tantalizing tidbit to
lure the Seahorse toward the new feeders by holding it just out of reach and
leading the hungry Seahorse in the direction you want him to go before you allow
him to take the bait. This may have to be done in several steps, and it may take
a while for you to get the seahorses accustomed to taking food from the baster
before you start making much progress, but eventually you'll have the pupil
perched close enough to the new feeder for you to drop the dangling Mysis inside
the feeding station before you allow them to slurp it up. This method takes time
and patience, but it allows you to make sure the Seahorses are getting plenty to
eat while they make the transition to the new feeders. And it's a gradual
conditioning process that will eventually work with even the slowest learners.
A captive-bred lined seahorse (Hippocampus erectus
) hunting frozen Mysis among the fronds of its favorite clump of
red grape Caulerpa. Notice the two white mysids shrimp in the
upper right corner of the photo on the right, which the seahorse is
drawing a bead on as it closes within striking distance. In
the photo on the left, the seahorse is in the process of eating one of
Photo by Leslie Leddo
Some Seahorse keepers like to condition their
seagoing gluttons to come to the right spot for their meals (i.e., where the
feeding station will be subsequently located) before they actually put the
feeding trough in place. This is easily accomplished simply by making a
point of feeding the Seahorse whenever it happens to wander into the right
location. Every time the Seahorse ventures into the corner or spot where
you will be setting up his feeding tray, reward him by target feeding him a
couple of Mysis with the baster. After you've been doing this for a couple
days, the seahorse will go to that area whenever it's hungry, expecting gourmet
Mysis to appear like manna from heaven. At that point, you can set the
feeding station in place and the seahorse will take to it immediately.
This method is easier than the baster training, since you're just delivering the
Mysis into the right area when the seahorse happens to be right there and not
trying to lead the Seahorse in a particular direction. It thus requires
much less precision with the baster.
Net training is a similar technique to baster
feeding that also works well and may be even easier to execute because it
doesn't require any skill with the baster or syringe. It involves first
training the Seahorses to eat the frozen Mysis from a small fish net (a
fine-meshed brine shrimp net works best for this), which they learn to do rather
readily. Once that is accomplished, the net serves as a portable feeding
trough, which the Seahorses will come to and follow anywhere in order to eat, so
you simply use it to lead them to the new feeders. Your next step is to
rest the net inside the feeding station while they eat from it. After a
few days of feeding them like that, you simply dump the Mysis from the net into
the new feeder, and they will happily dine from there from then on. The
net or feeding tray contains the frozen food neatly and keeps it from getting
strewn around the tank.
Believe me, training the Seahorses to eat from
your feeding station sounds a great deal more difficult than it actually is.
In most all cases, all you have to do is get one of the seahorses to snick up
that first piece of shrimp from the feeding tray and your mission is
accomplished. That first bold individual will happily continue to eat from
the feeding station thereafter, and more importantly, very often the rest of the
herd plays follow-the-leader and quickly learns from his example.
Seahorses are real seagoing gluttons, ruled to a very large extent by their
stomachs, and once the rest the seahorses see that first fast learner pigging
out on gourmet shrimp, they usually can't wait to get their share of the goodies
If you follow these suggestions and set up a
feeding station, it will help keep your Seahorses eating their best and you will
soon find that keeping them well fed is fun and easy. Feeding time for my
seahorses is always a high point in my day. They do appear amazingly like
fire-breathing Dragons when they eat frozen Mysis -- it looks for all the world
like smoke is shooting out of their "ears" when they eat enriched Mysis, due to
the pulverized particles they expel from their gills after slurping it up
So 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 wrong (Giwojna 1990). 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.
Once your Seahorses are eating frozen Mysis from
their feeding station, your only real dietary concern will be the mandatory fast
day. Enriched Mysis relicta is such a nutritious, fat-rich diet (Piscine
Energetics. 2003), it's very important to observe a once-a-week fast day, during
which your Seahorses are not fed at all. Fasting helps prevent any
potential problems with hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease) and keeps your
Seahorses feeding aggressively rather than losing interest in frozen foods.
The problem is that although fasting is very healthy for Seahorses on a staple
diet of enriched Mysis, it can be very hard on the hobbyist. Here's how I
described this dilemma in a recent aquarium magazine article (Giwojna, Jun.
"The only thing I don't like about this extremely nutritious diet is the
obligatory fast day. The problem with fasting is that my 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."
Gilchrist, Ann. Watch Mookie eat frozen
Mysis from a baster! 2002 (accessed 12 Dec. 2003).
Part of syngnathid.org article library:
Giwojna, Pete. 1990. A Step-By-Step Book
About Seahorses. Neptune City, New Jersey: T.F.H. Publications.
Giwojna, Pete. Jun. 2002. "Ocean
Rider: A 'Horse of a Different Color, Part II." Freshwater and Marine
Giwojna, Pete. 2005. The Complete
Guide to Greater Seahorses. (Unpublished)
Piscine Energetics. 2003. Natural Food for
Saltwater & Freshwater Fish: the Perfect Substitute for Live foods!
(Accessed 2 Oct. 2004.)
Tops, S., 1999. "An investigation into the
effects of habitat complexity and food types on the behaviour of the Knysna
Seahorse, Hippocampus capensis." B.Sc. Thesis. St. Andrews