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Series: Livestocking Small: Pico, Nano, Mini-Reef's....... Marine Systems under 40 Gallons

Seahorses & Pipefishes for Small Marine Systems

By Bob Fenner

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The tube-mouthed fishes we call seahorses, pipefishes and “pipehorses” comprise the family Syngnathidae; This is an expansive group comprising some quite small to too large fishes for our stocking purposes here. Some are just “too roaming” and as wild-collected specimens do poorly through collection, holding and shipping; and even if they do survive, tend to not adapt well to captive conditions. Other species, especially captive-produced and reared do exceptionally well; trained on readily available foods and accepting the vagaries of home systems well. I cannot state strongly enough that wild-collected animals of this family are historically poor survivors; often loaded with parasite issues. Look to the several species readily available from producers of tank-bred specimens; these are far superior.

Seahorses Proper: Subfamily Hippocampinae

The singular genus of seahorses, Hippocampus (meaning "horse caterpillar"), comprises some 35 species; Of these a handful are collected for the aquarium trade principally out of the Indo-Pacific, mainly Indonesia and the Philippines; and to a lesser extent, the Caribbean.

Really Small Seahorses:

            If you can remember back to the days, years, decades of yore when comic books (nee anime, graphic novels) were a mere five and ten cents, you likely are familiar with “Sea Monkeys” (Artemia, Brine Shrimp), and Dwarf Seahorses in their mail-order advertisements. The seahorse species in question was the venerable tropical West Atlantic Hippocampus zoster.

The “original” seahorse in the hobby; the dwarf (“Florida”) Hippocampus zosterae Jordan & Gilbert, 1882, the Dwarf Seahorse. To 5 cm. in height. Very short snouts. Western Atlantic: Bermuda, southern Florida (USA), Bahamas and the entire Gulf of Mexico. Found in Zostera (Seagrass) beds near shore.

     Below: There are four and counting species of really little (About ¼” tall) Indo-west Pacific seahorse species that have yet to “hit the market”; due to scarcity and other issues. I look forward to their mass-culture for the trade. Shown: H. bargibanti, H. colemani, H. denise, and H. pontohi


 Good Mid-Sized Choices:

Hippocampus erectus Perry, 1810, the Lined Seahorse. To 19 cm. in height. Numerous lines on head, possibly down nape, body. Western Atlantic: Nova Scotia to Panama. Found in Zostera beds and on gorgonians, even floating Sargassum Bonaire and Jamaica photos.



Hippocampus histrix Kaup 1856, the Thorny or Spiny Seahorse. Indo-Pacific; East Africa to Hawai'i in shallow, sandy habitats, usually associated with macro-algae. Color variable; red, orange, yellow... long shout with white speckling. To 17 cm. in length. Common species in the pet-fish and traditional Chinese medicine interests. N. Sulawesi pix of three color variations. 



Hippocampus reidi Ginsburg 1933, the Long Snout Seahorse (often sold in the hobby as "Brazilian"). Western Atlantic, North Carolina to Rio/Brazil. To six inches in height. Variable in color... mostly warm colored individuals offered in the trade. A nice group at an Interzoo trade show. 


In Europe this assemblage is augmented by the common H. hippocampus, the regal Mediterranean seahorse, H. ramulosus and the short-snouted Hippocampus brevirostris.

Hippocampus guttulatus Cuvier 1829, the Long-Snouted Seahorse. Eastern Atlantic; British Isles to Morocco, Canary Islands. To six inches in length/height. SIO Aquarium photo. 


Too Large Non-Choices:

            The two southern Australian species require chilled systems of hundreds of gallons; but there are other varieties for sale regularly that get too large for the limit we’ve set here (forty gallons) to live to full size comfortably. I know my stance differs from others, but I assure you that these animals need space; in the wild they cover a good sized area (thousands of gallons equivalent) roaming individually seeking food organisms; meeting up with their mate daily. Cultured (vs. wild-caught) are far more accommodated in smaller volumes; but even these do better in plus forty gallon systems.

Hippocampus kuda Bleeker 1852, the Common or Spotted Seahorse. Indo-Pacific; Pakistan, India, to Hawai'i, Society Islands. To a foot in length (stretched out). Found in calm waters amongst algae, seagrass. N. Sulawesi images at right. 


Coldwater Choices:

            Surprising to many folks is the good number of temperate Hippocampine species. Yes; they can’t be kept without a purposeful chiller, or chilling mechanism. Room temperature won’t do; as it’s too variable; and tropical settings are too warm. Below are some of the more commonly offered cool to cold water species in the trade. These are also animals too-large for forty gallons…




Hippocampus abdominalis Lesson 1827, the Big-Belly Seahorse. Southwest Pacific; Australia and New Zealand. To a foot in length. Now cultured in good numbers by OMLAS Pty Ltd (Seahorse Australia) in Tasmania for the aquarium trade.

More at: www.seahorseaquaculture.com.au  

Aquarium pix.




Hippocampus ingens Girard 1858, the Pacific Seahorse. Eastern Pacific; Southern California to Peru, including the Galapagos Islands. To a foot in height. Nocturnal. Found out and about during the night, feeding. Galapagos pic.


Sea Dragons:

Seadragons are infrequently offered from their restricted ranges around Australia (where they are protected by law); they have a notoriously poor record of survivability in shipping and short lives if at all in aquariums. If you must try them, DO look for captive-produced specimens.


Phycodurus eques (Gunther 1865), the Leafy Seadragon. Southeastern Indian Ocean; South and Southwestern Australia. To fourteen inches in length.

Phallopteryx taeniolatus (Lacepede 1804), the Common Seadragon. Indo-West Pacific; southwestern Australia. To eighteen inches in length. 



Pipefishes, Pipehorses: Subfamily Syngnathinae. Fifty one genera, about 190 species

            More elongate, but still wacky in terms of feeding strategies (reverse hypodermic tube-mouthed!), and male-carrying reproductive mode, pipefishes and seemingly intermediate twixt them and seahorses, the pipehorses can also make interesting displays; given selection of better, smaller species and healthy specimens.

As for Pipefishes, they're survivability is, if anything, even more dismal than wild-collected seahorses. They should only be attempted by folks in the know and of dead earnest. Reef-type set-ups with few or no competing fish tankmates are best for providing conditions conducive to their care.

Pipefishes can be divided into two groups for our purposes; ones that live up off the bottom and are unsuitable for small volumes; and those that creep along the bottom and can be accommodated in small tanks.

To Be Avoided: Need More Room:

Various banded pipefishes, in the genera Dunckerocampus and Doryrhamphus are available from time to time mostly out of the Indo-Pacific. All but the Bluestripe Pipefish (Doryrhamphus excisus) need more than a forty gallon space to do well.


The creeping Pipefishes of the genus Corythoichthys are probably the most popular, best-lived forms, some known to have lived for years in well-established reef tanks. Some of the temperate species of Syngnathus, likewise have been kept and bred in aquarium confinement, as "species-tanks" by themselves. Due to space limitations, we’ll just hit the spotlight by mentioning the most celebrated genus, and a scant few of the numerous species therein.

Corythoichthys spp.: Excellent choices

            There are many members of this genus, though only a few make their way into the trade regularly. This is another group of fishes that will be great for small systems when they’re life-history, feeding of young are worked out and their available as captive-produced specimens. These are great animals for controlling/eating “red bugs” for you Acropora keepers. Some examples:

Corythoichthys amplexus Dawson & Randall 1975, the Brownbanded Pipefish. Indo-Pacific. To a mere four inches in length.  Specimens in N. Sulawesi.

Corythoichthys flavofasciatus (Ruppell 1838), the Network, Dragonface et al. Pipefish. Indo-Pacific. To six inches in length. One of the hardier "creeping" types of Pipes. Here in N. Sulawesi.


Corythoichthys nigripectus Herald 1953, the Black-Breasted Pipefish. Indo-Pacific; Red Sea to Micronesians. To five inches in length. Found in lagoons and seaward reefs. Red Sea image. 


 Pipehorses: Somewhere between horses and pipes… Occasionally show up in the trade.

Acentronura (Amphelikturus) dendritica (Barbour, 1905), Pipehorse. Western Atlantic. To 7.5 cm. This one in Cozumel 2012


Selecting Healthy Syngnathid Specimens:

            There are a few basic criteria for getting good seahorses and pipes: Not buying newly arrived, examining them carefully for a lack of sores, discolorations and parasites; and the acid-test of having the animals fed in front of you… with foods you will be able to secure on a continuous basis.

            Give just-arrived individuals a few to several days to rest-up from the rigors of handling and transport. Even tank-bred and reared specimens take a beating in this process. Study carefully photos of healthy specimens so you can discern what they look like and how they should act, react in your presence. And feeding should be self-evident: A fish that eats is a fish that lives. The negative corollary holds as well.

Other Gasterosteiform Fishes:

            Seahorses, Pipes and Pipehorses are but one of several families in the Order Gasterosteiformes; the “tube mouthed fishes”; and though most of them are too big to be considered for our purpose here, there are some that might fit: Solenostomids, Sea Robins, Shrimpfish, darlings of the public aquariums currently … Unfortunately all require larger than forty gallon volumes to do well.



            As you can tell from reading how many species of Syngnathids there are, the hobby only has used a smattering of them as ornamentals thus far. True; many are too large, free ranging for small aquarium use; but there are still many to choose from that will go in a system of a few to several gallons nicely. One last “plug” for buying “tank raised”. Commercially produced animals are far better choices for avoiding disease and overall stress; they have been trained from early stages to accept novel foods that you can procure, and are already adapted to confined spaces.



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