Ask the WWM Crew
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Amongst animal groups that actually deserve more prospective "protection" from habitat destruction collection for the ornamental trade and hobbyist use, the large Indo-Pacific Anemones that are naturally symbiotic with Clownfishes rank high. Not only do these organisms perform absolutely vital service as protective homes to Amphiprionines (the subfamily of Damselfishes that comprises the Clowns), they are known to have very long lives (perhaps indefinite... until met with adverse conditions, predation...), and slow rates of reproduction/replacement (some not so asexually), but the record of success in captive care is utterly dismal. Years back Joyce Wilkerson (of "Clownfish" book fame) conducted a survey of survivability (on CompuServe) in which responders tallied some one out of thirty two specimens living five or more years... I assure you, this figure is an one or even two orders of magnitude off... The VAST majority of all anemone specimens utilized in the trade don't live even a few months... Many of them due to poor collection, processing, shipping/handling (I have been part of all these), and likely an equally high percentage due to being placed in poor circumstances by dealers and hobbyists... I am here to address, remedy these staggering losses, and hopefully help you do your part to reduce them.
Of the dozen or so naturally Clown-symbiotic species, undoubtedly the most commonly offered and kept are the Bubble Tip (aka Four Color, Rose...) Anemone, Entacmaea quadricolor and the subject of this article, the Leather or Sebae Anemone, Heteractis crispa. The former rates a strong endorsement as being quite aquarium hardy, and more and more readily availability as captive produced "propagated" asexual clones... of reasonable cost. Due to its wide distribution and good numbers to be found, the Sebae is a steady import... In the wild this is a gorgeous animal of a few possible warm and cool colors. Unfortunately, many specimens are mishandled... not provided adequate lighting, outright starved, kept in poor water conditions... such that they arrive "bleached", devoid of useful endosymbiotic algae... which grant them their color as well as photosynthetic foods, washing out of CO2... Even more unfortunate are the spurious dyed specimens... Contributing to this despicable practice by carrying or purchasing such animals should be avoided.
Heteractis crispa is generally easy to discern as a species... Most have rather long, slender and numerous tentacles that taper toward their apex, and each of these tentacles bears a more or less prominent pink tip. Their "stalks" are generally grayish in color, with no evidence of verrucae (striations).
Can an appearance or physical property be labeled as behavior? I think so. Being "open" with extended tentacles and having a full, turgid of pedicle (base) is a healthy state for this and all other symbiotic anemone species. On being moved to a new setting, often a specimen will stay "small" or open and close during the day/night... It may also hunker down due to over-attention from hosting fish... But once acclimated the "usual" state of your Heteractis should be open, extended, with only occasional and temporary shifts in tumescence.
Color is important... Though there naturally tan to light brown (as well as purple, grey, blue...) specimens, there are no naturally-occurring white ones... These have been badly treated somewhere along the line... and must be fed solid foods to make up for the loss of photosynthetic input. The endosymbiotic algae that also are the source of color can be reincorporated in time...
Moving about... should not happen; some anemone species do "get about" quite a bit (e.g. the congener Heteractis magnifica). H. crispa anchors itself to hard substrate and stays there. That one is "moving" is an indication (along with being closed, faded in color) that something is adverse. Your job is to find and correct whatever this is, or barring discovery to exercise ameliorative actions like water changes... Or even moving the specimen to another, hopefully more suitable system.
Anemones can and do eat fishes in the wild, including this one... Some species of fishes, most notably the Clownfishes, can develop a symbiotic relationship with this anemone... over time. Other fish species may not recognize anemones as a danger, or inadvertently stumble into it during the night... Having plenty of room discounts most of this source of mortality. Mmmm, and turn about is fair play as the saying goes... there are some fishes that could/might consume your Sebae Anemone... the Angels especially... though triggers, large puffers and even some bigger wrasses might have a go if so inclined.
The same fate can befall motile invertebrates, particularly crustaceans like Hermit Crabs, which may fall haplessly from above an anemone into its tentacles. Do bear this in mind when arranging rock work and placement of your specimen.
About keeping this (and other species of ) anemone with "Corals", including the diverse Classes (even phyla...) that hobbyists label as such. By and large this is a poor idea... and most folks are strongly encouraged to set-up a system to highlight the anemone w/o other cnidarians present... A "species" or concept/biotope tank if you will. Take a look at pix of this species in the wild though... and what do you most often see? That they are literally surrounded by soft and hard corals et alia groups of stinging-celled life... Look a bit closer though... and you'll see there is a definite "demilitarized" zone around the anemone... Cnidarians employ a mix of competitive devices... potent chemicals, sweeper tentacles, over-growing (to use/block light), even digestive dominance (eating ones competition...). It is decidedly NOT peaceful and pastoral on the reef... So, can you keep this anemone in a "reef system" with "corals"? Oh yes... Given enough room, starting with small specimens, placing the anemone likely last... along with the other stinging-celled life in a less noxious/stinging to more so order... given plenty of initial room (a foot or more) clear space around the anemone... they can "grow up" learning to get along with each other.
Can you have more than one specimen of Sebae anemone in a system? Mmm, yes... I have seen this done... in the wild as well as captivity. Ideally the specimens would be clones... genetically identical... but in a large enough, well-maintained... system it can be done. Can you stock more than one species of anemone in one system? It has to be very large... a few to several hundreds of gallons...
There are ten species of Clownfishes and the Three-spot Damsel that are known to form life-long partnerships with this species of anemone in the wild. In captivity all Amphiprionine species may or not do so... Particularly tank-bred and raised specimens can be slow to recognize anemones for what they are... As with much of the marine aquarium keeping experience; only time can/will tell whether yours become associated thus.
Naturally Symbiotic Relationships Between Amphiprionines and H. crispa (After Fautin)
Many factors can and should be considered in sizing up a prospective anemone for purchase. We'll focus on the top four here: color, apparent tears in the foot, the openness of the mouth/anus and the orientation of the animal.
Tears in the basal disc disqualifies a purchase for me. These occur easily when the animal is being extracted in the wild... It takes seemingly forever to carefully nudge this anemone from its hard substrate emplacement. Most collectors don't have that much skill, patience... or time! One way to be assured of an intact specimen is to buy one that has been at your dealers for a few to several weeks... Either these will have perished from previous damage or be on the mend by then. For dealers who hand-pick their specimens: Do look for wholesalers who use "indoor-outdoor" carpeting in their anemone holding systems, and even then, DO take care in handling, removing specimens... wedging your thumb nail under one edge, slowly working the disc to release.
Gaping, everted mouth/anus... Anemones, corals, sea fans... all Cnidarians/Coelenterates have just one opening for food, wastes... Take a look at a healthy anemone... it's "lips" are somewhat pursed together unless it's in the process of ingesting food... or sick. An inside-out part of the body cavity is an extreme warning sign that something is amiss with the specimen. You want a closed mouth not one that's gapingloose and fleshy.
Not upright... leaning over, upside down? A healthy anemone is oriented mouth-up. If the ones you're looking at are "spatially challenged", do consider why this is so... Is the light coming from other than an overhead direction? Is a fish "twisting" the animal. Is the position compromised due to hard decor, other sessile invertebrates? Is it dead or dying?
Size, shape... Larger and flatter versus tall and narrow is better. A minimum of sixty uncrowded gallons... Bigger is definitely an asset... to dilute metabolites, for your aquascaping expression... to allow for growth of all sessile, non-motile invertebrate life... And more shallow to allow for greater photonic energy (aka "light") penetration to light-using livestock.
Age of the system... the tank needs to be well-established... Better to wait six months to a year... and to place the anemone AFTER all other cnidarians have become established if you're mixing them. Changeable systems chemically, physically, biologically are not for anemones.
Pump and powerhead and overflow... intakes... Very often if an anemone "moves around" it ends up sucked up against such outputs... and if too damaged, in too small a volume, it may die and take all else with it. Make provision for adequate screening of all such gear.
Space I'll mention yet again for waste dilution and removal... You want a good skimmer, ideally a very large refugium, with RDP lighting, macroalgae, a DSB... what you can have/do to reduce the accumulation of biochemical accumulation.
Lighting. Sebae anemones like/need bright light! Metal halides are best, with boosted formats of fluorescents (T-5's, PC's) being okay if the animal is in shallow water (15" or less let's say). As rules of thumb go, maybe we're talking some four watts per gallon minimum in terms of gauging "intensity"... but six or more watts (as long as the other livestock, your energy bill and sunglass darkness can handle it...) is not too much light for this species.
"Reef System" quality water... of near sea water specific gravity (1.026), high and steady pH (8.2-8.2), no detectable ammonia nor nitrite and as little nitrate accumulation as practical. Like a "canary in a cave" your Anemone will make it known if your water quality is sliding... Changes to chemistry and physics must be done outside the system... through water change-outs. These animals are exceedingly sensitive to "supplement" additions made directly to their tanks. Don't do this.
Mike Giangrasso of the WWM Crew mentioned the use of a pipette to force feed a badly bleached anemone a mixture of Cyclops-eeze, liquid garlic, and Selcon. This was done by placing the tip of the syringe/pipette between the anemone's "lips". This specimen made a full recovery.
Brenda Furtak of the Crew reminds me to suggest feeding a bleached specimen every other day... Silversides soaked in Selcon are a good choice here, being discrete (so you can retrieve easily if not eaten). Whatever you feed, the portions should be smaller than the anemone's mouth. You can use tongs to drop the food near its mouth. If it regurgitates the food, try even smaller pieces. Healthy Sebaes can be fed about twice a week intentionally if there is insufficient "auxiliary" food being provided otherwise by your feeding your other livestock. Cut or whole small marine fish are best as a staple, with smaller crustaceans like krill, Mysis shrimp, or raw shrimp added for occasional treats.
If your Sebae "throws up" its food, and/or the food doesn't appear to stick to its tentacles... It may not be hungry... or it may not like the type, size of food item offered. When in doubt... try again another day with a different food of smaller size.
Likely nine out of ten specimens of Sebae anemones are outright killed unintentionally within a month of their purchase. The vast majority of these losses are entirely preventable... the few that are not aquarist generated are mainly losses attributable to rough collection (mainly tearing of the basal disc), holding and shipping damage/insults. The iatrogenic hobbyist causes can be neatly delineated by larger to smaller numbers of deaths: As such:
1) Improper environment. Placed in too small a system, inadequately illuminated, under-filtered and circulated...
2) Starved by not feeding, insufficient light and/or photosynthetic potential period, offered too small or too large food items...
3) Poisoned by allelopathy... stuck in an otherwise cnidarian occupied system when too weak to recover, launch an offensive itself.
4) Sucked up against a pump, powerhead intake, overflow... death by damage, trauma.
The infectious and parasitic diseases of these animals are poorly elucidated, but these pathogenic sources of mortality, along with incidental predation, very likely make up a very small percentage of cases of lost specimens.
The best species of Sea Anemone for captive use is the Bubble Tip, Entacmaea quadricolor... which happily is more and more available as captive produced cloned specimens. Likely second best, and secondarily used is the Sebae or Leathery Anemone, Heteractis crispa. Most of these latter are lost to poor initial health, coupled with a lack of provision of basic system needs, incompatible placement and improper feeding. The vast majority of losses of these animals are preventable... With time, interest, dissemination of useful information, it is sincerely hoped that the high hobbyist-attributable losses will greatly diminish and that this species collection in the wild will become limited, subtended with asexually produced captive stock.
Fatherree, James. 2002. Keeping Sea Anemones. What you need to know. TFH 12/02
Fautin, Daphne G. & Gerald R. Allen. 1992, revised ed. 1997. Anemone Fishes and Their Host Sea Anemones. Western Australian Museum. 160 pp.
Fenner, Robert. 1992. Anemones in captive systems. FAMA 10/92
Karli, Scott W. 2003. Sea Anemones. FAMA 1/03.
Shimek, Ronald L. 2002. Host Anemones. Responsible care will ensure their survival. AFM 10/03
Shimek, Ronald L. 2003. Anemone troubleshooting; With no defined life span, anemones may last indefinitely- but only if given proper care by an aquarist who researches their needs and meets their care requirements. AFM 10/03
Shimek, Ronald L. 2004. Are any Anemones right for beginners? In a stable tank, a couple species might work. AFM 3/04
Toonen, Rob. 2001. Invert Insights (column) Re: Anemones, Clownfish symbionts. TFH 9/01.
Toonen, Rob. 2003. Ask the Reefer (column). Gen. disc. re Anemones in captivity. TFH 3/03.