Flagtail Pipefish In The Home Aquarium
Flagtail Pipefish, named such because of their large, brilliantly colored tails that they use in courtship and territory displays, are one of the easier pipfish to keep in captivity. They are one of the few that can be kept in reef aquariums with the proper accommodations made. They also adapt quite readily to eating frozen food such as cyclopeeze and mysis.
Flagtail pipefish are a free swimming pipefish from the genus Doryrhamphus and Dunkerocampus. This includes roughly 12 – 20 different species, depending which taxonomic source you go by. They are planktivores, feeding on crustaceans and other small prey items out of the water column. Many are cleaners as well, picking parasites off other fish (most notably damsels and cardinal fish.)
While they are generally easy to keep alive in captivity, there are still some obstacles that need to be overcome when keeping flagtail pipefish. There aren’t any commercial sources of captive bred flagtail pipefish (update 2008, The Seahorse Sanctuary breeds a few species of flagtail pipefish. They are available in Australia and parts of Europe, but no US dealers currently carry them), and very few reported hobbyist successes, so you’re limited to wild caught individuals, which can be starved and diseased. Feeding, as with any syngnathid is an issue (though you will see, not as big of one as you might expect). They can also be quite aggressive towards their own kind, and other species of flag tail pipefish. In this article, I will cover all of these issues, and what you can do about it.
The first issue is of course their wild caught status. Like most syngnathids, they don’t transport well. They rarely get fed appropriate foods at holding stations, and this can lead to a general weakening of their immune system and attack of secondary infections. This makes it is absolutely imperative that you pick healthy specimens. They are also quite delicate shippers. For this reason, buying one locally at a trusted store is probably your best option.
One thing to look for is be sure they are swimming and active. While they do occasionally rest, they spend most of their time actively moving about, or hovering mid water. If a specimen is laying in one spot and doesn’t seem interested in investigating you (or hiding from you!), move on. Also look for discoloration or washed out areas, especially grey film. If at all possible, see if you can get the fish store to offer live food. If you can convince them, bring some newly hatched baby brine shrimp from home (unless you’re really lucky and have one of those special stores that have bbs on hand!). If that’s not available, ask them to offer adult live brine shrimp. Unfortunately, some will not take LBS, because it’s either too large or just doesn’t move “right”.
Once you’ve selected your specimen, you’ll need to take it home and quarantine it for at least 4 weeks. This is not only to potentially protect any other tank inhabitants from any disease it might be carrying, but also to be able to treat it if an illness crops up. This time also gives the aquarist a change to feed in an environment where it is easy to observe the pipefish. I also only recommend quarantining one at a time, as they can be quite aggressive towards one another, and a bare tank provides no hiding spaces. If you MUST quarantine more than one together, I suggest using a divider, even if they seem to be getting along.
The bare minimum for a quarantine tank you’ll need is a sponge filter, a heater, a top (pipes can and do jump), and a light. Having artificial plants, or even PVC pipe will help, as many like to hide to feel secure. I would recommend at least a 10 gallon aquarium, and it MUST be cycled, as they are sensitive to even small amounts of ammonia in the water.
While in quarantine, you can use this as an opportunity to teach them to eat frozen food. They all seem to learn fairly quickly that dead food is still food, unlike many of their relatives. However, they may need to be started out on live food. I have always used newly hatched baby brine shrimp. Some will eat adult brine shrimp, though it isn’t nearly as nutritious. If you do offer live brine shrimp, be sure to enrich with a HUFA additive. There seems to be no risk of them refusing baby brine shrimp though. Once I have them eating bbs heartily, I start adding thawed cyclopeeze and mysis at the same time as feeding bbs is. It usually only takes one or two feedings to get them eating the cyclopeeze along side the bbs. Some adventureous pipes will even try frozen the first time they’re introduced to it! While they take to the cyclopeeze and mysis pretty quickly, I still tend to offer them bbs at least once a day (Ideally, feed them two – three times a day). As with any syngnathid, a variety of food is imperative to long term health. If your pipefish seems too small for mysis, try anyways. Even the smallest species tend to go after pieces much larger than their mouthes, using a snicking action to tear it apart. I’m proud to report I’ve even gotten my blue stripe pipes to accept frozen krill on occassion.
One sad fact of any wild caught syngnathid is that apparently healthy specimens can and sometimes do die for “no good reason”. Unfortunately these pipefishes are no different. Once established, this doesn’t seem to be a problem, but early on they can be fine one day, and belly up the next. The limited research and evidence for seahorses a suggests it’s an internal vibrio bacteria infection; which probably holds true for pipefish as well. This kind of infection is unfortunately very difficult to treat. You may be tempted to treat prophylacticly. It’s difficult to do – whether or not it is worth it, since you may run the risk of creating a antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria. What you can treat for prophylacticly that is shown to be effective is treating for parasites. Fenbendazole and praziquantel are very effective in treating parasites commonly found in wild caught fish. Praziquantal should be administered at a dosage of 1-2ppm for 24 hours and fenbendazole offered via enriched foods (such as gut loading brine or ghost shrimp). Short freshwater dips can also help remove external parasites.
After 4 weeks, your pipefish should be ready to go in the main tank. Now, some people are (rightfully so) afraid that mixing wild caught pipefish with captive bred seahorses can cause disease outbreaks in the captive bred seahorses, as they have no resistance to wild bacteria. This is certainly possible, though I’ve never seen or heard of it happening with flagtail pipefish. Perhaps their physiology is different enough they aren’t affected by the same diseases. Or perhaps because they behave quite differently, they never interact in such a way to be transmitting diseases between one another. I can’t guarantee it won’t happen, but thus far mixing wild caught flag tail pipefish and captive bred seahorses does not see to be a problem.
Flagtail Pipefish are very adaptable and can live in more aquarium types than many of their cousins. Being faster than most seahorses and pipefish, food competition is much less of an issue (though they should probably be kept away from extremely aggressive eaters). Harassment may be an issue, so it’s important to keep them from overly terriforial tank mates. I personally wouldn’t keep them with the likes of damsels, even if they are some of the fish they normally clean. Water flow doesn’t seem to be too important, they are agile swimmers, and don’t seem to suffer like most syngnathids when it comes to high current. They prefer to hang out in caves and under overhangs; providing these gives them a place to feel safe and venture out more than if there is no protection. Pump and filter intakes should be covered, but that is more because many like to explore nooks and crannies and may end up being sucked into the intake out of curiosity.
These pipefish are one of the few in the seahorse family that I would recommend as being okay in the right reef tank. Consideration needs to be taken with the type of fish and corals kept with them. I wouldn’t put them with really aggressive fish, or corals with a strong sting, and certainly not anemones. Clams are probably a bad idea. The’re also experts at jumping in overflows, and are capable of jumping (though they aren’t as ready of jumpers as other species). The heat of most reef tanks doesn’t seem to bother them like most synghathids, though temperature extremes do need to be avoided.
The only really disappointing thing about this group of pipefish is some species are very territorial towards each other. In the wild, they live in male – female pairs and stake out a cleaning station or hunting ground, and chase of any competitors. In captivity, they will defend their territory until one or both are dead, even different species are intolerant of related species or similar looking species. Ironically, the most aggressive ones I have encountered are the smallest; the blue stripe pipes (Doryrhamphus excisus). They will kill any intruders in a matter of days, even pipefish two-three times their size. I’ve had females kill a male that was too small. Janss are similarly agressive. Banded pipefish (Doryrhamphus dactyliophorus), on the other hand, seem to be the most docile of the flagtail pipes, sometimes occuring in groups as adults.
If you want to keep more than one in the same aquarium, you’ll have to try to create a male/female pair. The problem is, there is very little sexual difference. The males carry eggs on a brood patch under their body but it is very difficult to see if they are not carrying eggs. When looking for a male, try to find one that has a flatter underside. Female will be more round. To the untrained eye, this can be diffcult to spot. Some species (Doryrhamphus excisus, Doryrhamphus janssi) are reported to have small tubercles on the snouts of the males. These can be difficult to percieve, especially on these fast moving fish. Females sometimes also have very small bumps, confusing the matter further. However, if in doubt, you can try to use this method to sex them.
Of the agressive species, you also run the risk of two juveniles living together peacefully and fighting as they get older, as the juveniles congregate in some species. Unfortunately, your best chance is to quarantine two animals separately, and watch them very closely when you do put them together and be prepared to separate at a moments notice. Again, because juveniles can getting along for a while, you may end up watching for some time. If you get really lucky, you may find what looks like a pair, but unless you’re sure they are full-grown adults, you will need to be vigilant for the first few months they’re in your aquarium.
Flagtail pipefish are a beautiful addition to the home aquarium, if the time and effort is made to properly acclimate and house them. They are a great fish if you want to venture into pipefish without the heartache that many species provide. While I wouldn’t recommend them for the beginner, anyone that’s kept seahorses, or even just saltwater fish beyond damsels and clownfish should be able to do quite will with these beautiful seahorse cousins.
Updated March 3rd, 2009.