Following the trail of seahorse tails: Why buying from a breeder is so important!

Hello! For those that do not know me, I’m a seahorse lover who has owned hippocampus erectus for three years, and bred them for two. I do not sell my seahorses (yet) and do not work for any company associated with saltwater aquaria. I merely adore the members of the Syngnathidae family, and was fortunate enough to know a few very good breeders, like Felicia McCaulley, when I started my love affair with seahorses. My experienced friends guided me in the right direction and helped me avoid most of the problems people have with these amazing creatures.  To be honest, I was one of the many who purchased before researching, and only now realize how very lucky I was to have bought captive bred ponies from seahorsesource.com, to have chosen the easiest species to raise and have had experienced professionals guiding me.  My two erectus turned into eight, and then hundreds. My home now looks like a pet store, and I absolutely love it. I plan to write more about my beautiful seahorses, but back to the point of this blog…… (after a few more pictures)

Because I was so successful and had so few REAL problems with my erectus, I was quite shocked to learn how many people had a completely different opinion of these creatures. When I started showing mine off on social media forums like facebook, many people would comment that they were shocked I hadn’t had trouble with them.  I’ve kept everything from freshwater discus (who ARE extremely difficult unless you’re experienced), to a saltwater reef (also difficult unless you understand ecosystems and water parameters), and found my seahorse tank to be far less demanding than the prior two adventures. So, I was confused as to why so many people continued to say that seahorses were difficult and post extremely sad pictures of their demise. I was even more surprised when people began asking ME how to become a successful seahorse keeper.  I mean, of course my erectus are gorgeous, and I can completely understand the admiration of them, but I am a mere feeder and water changer, with no real “secrets to success”.

So, I took my little bit of experience and set out to “save all seahorses”!!!….. (yes, I’m that ridiculously naive). I went to facebook, instagram, twitter, and multiple forums with the intent to educate the masses about how easy these amazingly unique animals are, and how they can be successfully kept at home by following “the rules”. I like to write, and tend to turn comments on posts into “books”, but “the rules” can really be summed up quite simply: 1) buy captive bred seahorses from a trusted breeder, 2) buy an aquarium that is big and tall enough for them (30g per pair, 3x the height of an adult species), 3) keep the temperature under 74 degrees, 4) be ready to feed 3 times a day, 5) make sure the aquarium is completely cycled and has means to export really high nutrients (skimmer, UV, algae scrubber, etc) to keep the organic load low, and 6) keep the tank species only, with nothing that can hurt the ponies, and no fast fish that will out-eat them.  Seems pretty simple, right? There are a few other things we can do to be successful of course, but this isn’t rocket science, and just looking at the basic needs, keeping seahorses just isn’t that difficult! But that number 1 rule is the one that most people just seem to miss, or ignore in order to save money. They compare prices of seahorses like they would a vehicle, but they forget to get the carfax report. Most wouldn’t buy a beautiful red Lamborghini from a “no credit check, buy-here-pay-here” dealership, and expect it to perform like one bought from the company with no extra mileage and no previous drivers.  Yet, I’ve watched very intelligent people buy incorrectly labeled, cheap seahorses from a vendor or local fish store (lfs), who has no real knowledge of seahorses, and then wonder why the seahorses don’t eat and die.  In some cases, the store or vendor will claim the ponies are “tank-bred”, which could mean they’re raised in pens in the ocean, or in unfiltered ocean water (which eliminates many of the benefits of a captive bred seahorse), but there are just as many times that people knowingly buy wild-caught ponies, expecting to do well with no prior experience.  I just don’t understand it.  Not all vendors and stores intentionally set people up to fail, and sometimes THEY themselves are misled.  But, when I get a message from a new seahorse owner asking what’s wrong with their pony, and learn that the seller set them up with an awesome 5 gallon tank with no filtration in order to make a seahorse sale…….I’m just livid.  If the person or place cannot tell you the age of the seahorse, the correct type/species it is, and don’t explain at least the 6 simple rules…….they’re likely not selling truly captive bred seahorses, which will make raising them successfully much more difficult for a new keeper.

A breeder specializes in seahorses, understands their needs and frankly, their entire business depends on the quality of the seahorses they sell. Captive bred seahorses cost more than their wild relatives, because it’s very expensive and complicated to raise fry.  However, the return for the extra cost is priceless.  Breeders go to extremes to ensure the seahorse is healthy, eating frozen foods and can survive life in an aquarium.  More importantly, their seahorses have never been exposed to the pathogens that an ocean reared seahorse or fish might bring with them into a tank, nor have they suffered capture and life in a wholesale environment.  It’s equally as important to buy captive bred from a conservation standpoint, because the biggest threat to the ocean’s seahorses is humans. There’s just no need to take them from their homes, when there are so many born in captivity. As I said, I got very lucky in buying from a breeder in the beginning, so I’m not at all here to cast judgement. But now that I do know a thing or two, I’d never suggest buying a seahorse from anyone but a breeder, unless you’re experienced, understand the risks and extra needs of a seahorse from any other source, and/or can handle a seahorse that needs to be dewormed, treated for parasites, and taught to eat frozen foods.

When my few years experience with one species, combined with long winded comments and a very black and white style of thinking didn’t seem to make people want to listen to me, I decided to try a different route.  I’ve gone so far as to gather up as many willing breeders from the US and UK as I can, and start a youtube channel dedicated to helping new seahorse keepers.  It’s still a work in progress, but I believe it will be a great tool in time, showing the many issues we’ve all faced, and how we overcame them.  My goal in starting the youtube channel was to give a visual aid to the information. I personally can’t stand when someone says “just insert a syringe slightly past the trigger, and inject .1ml of mushed artemia”. (Um…….what? Did you just tell me to put a needle down my seahorse’s throat????). But when someone shows me a video of force feeding, it doesn’t seem as scary, and makes sense. I’ve also personally watched a video sent by another breeder and thought “ohhhhhhhhhhh! You never said the mysis needed to be mushed THAT finely! No wonder I lost so many fry, my mysis pieces weren’t small enough!” So, the channel was born, and I felt really good about myself. For about a week.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYuBGdyryDe5iUirUMI47yQ

Unfortunately, I soon realized that it has been a long time since I was a “new seahorse keeper”. My four original erectus started a chain of breeding seahorses that has led to me to my current point of “pet store status”. It sounds impressive, but just as the professional breeder tends to forget to mention the little details that make a huge difference to someone who hasn’t experienced the situation, I haven’t experienced other species, nor many of the issues that people have asked me to do videos about. In my quest to help seahorse owners, and “save seahorses”, I decided it was time to get a little more experience under my belt. Because I believe one of the biggest issues people have is buying wild caught seahorses from anyone other than a breeder, I decided to test my skills as a seahorse keeper, and my theory that buying captive bred from a breeder is the most important thing.  I purchased two hippocampus reidi from a vendor (I won’t cast judgement or blame by stating a name), that I knew were likely wild, and 2 hippocampus barbouri from my original breeder (Dan and Abbie at Seahorse Source).

My 2 reidi arrived in a bag with almost no water, which was full of their waste. While the seahorses were listed as “black”, they were very obviously the “beyond stressed black”. There were no hitching posts in the bag, and I wasn’t sure one of the seahorses was alive. I quickly temp acclimated them to the quarantine tank, and got them in fresh saltwater. I basically left them alone for the first night, as they needed time to acclimate and de-stress from shipping, but I noticed they were breathing heavily and kept rubbing their faces against decorations.  The next morning, I attempted to feed.  It’s not shocking if a seahorse won’t eat right away, but upon viewing them more closely, I noticed how much bigger their heads were than the rest of their bodies, and how thin they looked in the stomach region.   I also noticed that they continued to rub their heads against anything they could, as if itching a scratch. The female ate a piece or two of frozen mysis, but the male never even glanced at it. While I’ve already been clear that I’m not a professional, I do know quite a few professionals, and have learned a lot of tricks about seahorses that won’t eat.  Over the next 2 days, I tried every single think I could think of, including gut loaded live brine, and everything suggested by my more experienced friends.  But, the most the male would do is chase a piece of food, snick, and miss the target. I knew from a video I put together for the youtube channel that this most likely meant he was suffering from protozoans in his gills.  I decided to try a freshwater dip, as it is the first suggested treatment for new seahorses, who snick but can’t eat.

The freshwater dip was an awful experience.  I’d do it again in a heartbeat to save a seahorse, but I’ll warn you now that it’s difficult to watch.  If the seahorses DO have a heavy infestation of protozoans, as mine did, they will thrash around like crazy during the dip, and even fall to the bottom as if they are dead.  After leaving them in the dip for the appropriate time, I moved them to a clean container of fresh saltwater.  I literally watched a worm-like white string come in and out of the male reidi’s gill. I tried to look at the worm-like string and a sample from the dip bucket under a microscope, but I just wasn’t sure what I was looking at, and frankly, when I saw things still moving, I became afraid of what I might be dealing with. I’d already read about the multiple pathogens that can come in on a wild seahorse, and even though I wore gloves constantly, I was still in over my head. Even more unfortunately, the male died the next morning. The female slowly withered away over the next week, even though she was eating, and I was doing everything in my power to help her.  When I called the vendor, they did not even seem surprised, and gave me my money back.  I suppose I should be happy that I was refunded, but i’m only filled with sadness that I was unable to save them, and basically contributed to the collection and sales of wild seahorses.  I had truly hoped that either my theory would be wrong, or I would be able to save them anyways.  I later learned that this was one of the many Reidi coming from Asia, that are malnourished as fry (which explained the large heads) and that they were doomed from the start. It didn’t make me feel much better, and I now understand why people think seahorses are difficult. If you start with a sick pony, you still feel like a failure when they pass away.

DSC_1140

My experience with the barbouri was VERY different. I had to wait a little bit longer to get the seahorses because the breeder (Abbie) called to let me know the weather wouldn’t be good, and we’d need to wait until the following week to ensure safe delivery. I was so impressed that this mattered to someone who already had my payment, that I didn’t at all mind the extra week wait. When the seahorses arrived, the carrier rang the doorbell and waited to hand me the package. The package itself was covered in stickers, showing the delivery people which way to hold the box, that live cargo was inside, and to handle with care.  I felt no rush to get them into new water, as they were curiously peeking out at me, hitched on a little media contraption, and didn’t seem the least bit concerned with their time in shipping. I temperature acclimated them, and added them to their new tank with no issues at all, and left them alone for their first night.

DSC_1141 (2)

The next morning, I attempted my first feeding of my beautiful new barbouri. After my experience with the Reidi, I was distraught to see neither seahorse go after any food. I knew they were going to behave differently from the erectus, because the breeder had explained it all before selling them to me.  Still, I was afraid.  I called the breeder to ask what to do, and was surprised that the call lasted two hours.  Not only did Dan (seahorse source) make me feel so better about the shy behavior of the barbouri, but he gave me many suggestions to get them eating, and reminded me that they wouldn’t behave like my aggressive erectus.  Over the following week, I spoke with Dan and Abbie two more times, and the barbouri have completely warmed up to me.  It was such a different experience to have my only issue be my own personal worry that they weren’t eating enough, and getting accustomed to a new species.  I now remember that feeling of uncertainty, and how to handle a new seahorse, which will help me to help others when they ask. But……my theory about buying from a breeder was strengthened.  What a difference it was from having to immediately start treating a seahorse, scrambling to find live foods, and losing them so quickly, as I did with the reidi.

 

(Sorry for all the pictures, I think I might be in love…….). Back to my point: Seahorses are not cars, but I really wish people valued them even more than cars.  Okay, so that wasn’t exactly my point, but it’s close! If you want to keep seahorses, please treat them like the magical creatures that they are, do your research before hand, and buy captive bred seahorses from a breeder.  SEAHORSES ARE NOT DIFFICULT!!!! As long as you follow a few simple rules, they are quite easy, and make the most wonderful, unique, interestingly amazing “pets”. There are multiple groups full of breeders who want to help new owners, and work very hard to provide healthy, captive bred ponies for aquarists.  I’m doing my best through this blog and youtube channel to help educate and admit my own mistakes and failures, so that hopefully someone else will avoid making them.  Seahorses are not everyone’s idea of a perfect pet.  And, if you do not specifically want seahorses, and are not willing to give them what they need, please, please, PLEASE just pass.  If people stopped buying wild seahorses, there would be no demand, and the ocean’s ponies could live happily ever after in peace, while captive bred seahorses would shed the “difficult” label. (So, I might still be a tad naive, but it could happen!) If you’re as smitten with them as I am, then spend a little bit more money upfront for captive bred seahorses that will live happily in a tank for YEARS (not months, this is not a typo). There isn’t enough current seahorse care information available, but following the basic guidelines and buying healthy ponies to begin with is truly the key to success with these awesome, exotic fish.

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4 thoughts on “Following the trail of seahorse tails: Why buying from a breeder is so important!

  1. Very well written, I too have purchased h. erectus and h. reidi from Abbie and Dan with great results.
    Please explain how h. barbouri eat differently? Did you start feeding them only frozen mysis or did you purchase live mysis to start? Dan said to me they eat slowly and more methodically than h. erectus.
    Your advice would be appreciated.
    Did you buy a pair or two females of h. barbouri? I just worry about GBD and pouch emphaseyma in the males, lost a male h kuda from GBD in the past and have only purchased female seahorses since. I only want to enjoy them, not looking to breed.What would you advise?
    Thank you
    David

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    1. David-
      Thank you for your comment! I was used to only H. Erectus, who would (as dan put it) “snatch a bite of my pb&j as I walked past the tank if they could!” Lol. H. Erectus are definitely the easiest seahorses to raise because they are not at all shy, very active and pigs (for lack of better word). So, I couldn’t understand when people asked me how to get their seahorses eating, because I’d never experienced a time when my erectus didn’t rush to the front as I approached with food, and literally body pile each other going after pieces.
      H. Barbouri are exactly as dan described: slower, more cautious, and purposeful in everything they do. So, trying to feed them helped me understand what others go through when the seahorses don’t rush to the food. I couldn’t just throw a rinsed lump of mysis in and let them go at it. They don’t eat as much as erectus, and not in the same “way”. In fact, my first attempt to feed was not successful, and they watched mysis float past their heads, while looking cautiously at me with distrust. To my astonishment, my inexperienced boyfriend actually got them to eat their first meal. He’s more laid back, like the barbouri are, and approached feeding by waiting until they were already out and looking around, and slowly adding one piece of rinsed frozen mysis at a time, within the reach of the seahorses. At first, they refused to chase down food, and would only eat if it came close enough to where they were hitched. So, the first step was getting the food within their reach, without using turkey basters or other things that would frighten them. If they let the single mysis float past, he’d wait a while before offering another piece, so they didn’t think there would be endless opportunities. The next piece he dropped in, the male snicked up quickly. The female was more difficult, and he couldn’t get the mysis within her reach, because she stayed within the rocks. Later we realized that she was actually brilliantly positioned to catch pieces that the direction of flow in my tank would bring right to her. But for that first feeding, we just turned off all flow to the tank, in order to “aim” where the food went, and get it within her reach.

      If they had not eaten on the second day, I would definitely have tried live mysis or adult Artemis. I’d never let them go hungry, But I would have tried everything else first, because I feared them needing to be re-weaned if they got a taste of live food. If I had used live foods, I would have tried frozen mysis the first 2 feedings, when they would be especially hungry and more likely to eat, and live on the third feeding. A lot of people suggest mixing the live and (rinsed) frozen in a container first, so they all have the same smell, and feeding at the same time so the seahorses are tricked into eating the frozen. Luckily, we figured out that feeding one piece at a time within their reach gave them the chance to eat in their “comfort zone”. Barbouri also like to eat when they feel like it, so unlike my erectus tank, I will actually leave a few pieces of mysis in the tank for a while, to give them time to eat at their leisure. As long as all food is eaten or removed by the end of the day, it won’t become too much of a contribution to the organic load.

      The final trick was to keep the mysis moving. Letting it settle on the bottom is when it will create more problems. Dan showed me a neat diy “powerhead” made of a sweeper and pvc, that helps to keep the food in motion, (if I can figure out how to post it, I will), but whatever method works for you is fine….just keep the food moving in the water column if possible.

      Since then, the male has completely come around and approaches me when I bring food. But, he still prefers one piece at a time, and won’t chase food very far. I’m still working with the female, but she’s stopped hiding for the most part, and comes out for food. I believe I can train them on a feeder or baster soon, but giving them time to adjust to new things, and having patience, seems to be the key!

      As far as gbd is concerned, I don’t fear it, and my barbouri are male and female. I’ve successfully treated a male with pouch issues, and one with bubbles in his tail. Both times, I believe the problems were caused by me. In the barbouri tank, I will be diligent about keeping the water clean, have already gotten a skimmer going, and all of my tanks are bare bottom to avoid build up of organics and bad bacteria in the substrate. While there isn’t diffinitive proof about the cause of gbd, and I personally believe there are a few different reasons it can occur, I know that in both cases I’ve experienced it, the organic load in my tank was high. The male with pouch issues actually cut his pouch on a rock. I saw it happen, but was too inexperienced to know what to do. The air and issues in his pouch that followed was clearly related to a bacterial infection. I did pouch flushes and treated with Furan2 in a hospital tank successfully. It’s been 2 years since he had issues. The male with bubbles in his tail was in a tank in which the skimmer broke. A skimmer is so very important to remove organic particles in a seahorse tank, and I firmly believe that the lack of skimmer played a huge part in his issues. I also found aptasia in the tank, and think he was possibly stung, and then the high organic load made it impossible for him to heal. He was treated with diamox and Furan2, also successfully.
      However, if you prefer not to deal with fry, it’s always a better idea to buy same sex ponies. If you also fear pouch issues, getting 2 females is the safest bet. Females can actually get gbd in their egg tubes, but it’s far less likely. And, as I said, keeping the organic load low helps avoid MANY of these issues! Seahorses are all beautiful, so I think you’re smart to stick with females.

      I tend to go on and on, but I hope I answered your questions?

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      1. Hi Kelly:
        After much consultation with Dan and Abbie I decided to get a male/female pair of h. barbouri.
        Thank you so much for your insightful information on their care!
        I do have a protein skimmer in place as well as UV sterilizer, two small nano power heads great filtration in a 34 gallon..
        Abbie firmly believes in keeping a pair as to their long term health.and really convinced me to go with a pair when I initially wanted to go with 2 female h. barbouri.
        My female h. reidi and h. erectus are all doing fine in their own tanks.
        So I am trying a male seahorse after several years of being leery of them.
        I always purchase live mysis from Sach Aquaculture and will try your methods to feed the new arrivals.
        I do have 2 inches of fine coral sand in my seahorse tanks with nassaurius snails and blue leg hermit crabs as well as various small gobies. I just like the natural look with lots of live rock as well for a natural filter.
        Thanks again for your help,
        Take care,
        David

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Always listen to Dan and Abbie! I know that I do! It makes sense that seahorses will do better long-term in pairs, and I didn’t realize you were already keeping multiple species. My response was aimed at a newer seahorse keeper and geared more towards “playing it safe”. I believe you’ll be just fine with your pair of barbouri. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

        Kelly

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