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 average hobbyist.
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 reef face.
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.
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.
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.
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 all thumbs.
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 foliage.
Artificial Feeding Stations
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 away.
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 stations.
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 Station
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 their fill.
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
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 seahorses.
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 destination.
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 Station
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.
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 too.
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 (Gilchrist, 2002).
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. 2002):
"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). http://www.syngnathid.org/media/mookie.mov
Part of syngnathid.org article library: http://www.syngnathid.org/ubbthreads/articlesLibrary.php
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 Aquarium
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.) http://www.mysis.com/index1.html
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 University, UK.