Pipefish For The Reef Aquarium: Part Two, Husbandry
Now that we’ve discussed which pipefish are appropriate for the reef aquarium in Pipefish For The Reef Aquarium: Part One, The Pipefish, we can look at acquiring and caring for your pipefish.
Picking Your Pipefish
When purchasing pipefish, there are a few things you can look out for to ensure you get healthy pipefish. Pipefish are susceptible to bacterial infections, so look for areas of cloudy skin, fins or eyes. Rapid breathing is frequently a sign of distress; although it can be situational i.e. fear from recent acclimation, or it can be a sign of a bigger problem such as parasites or bacterial infection.
Flagtail Pipefish should be swimming above the substrate, not resting on the bottom. You want to pick pipefish that are actively eating, if possible offer live brine shrimp. Some may take frozen food immediately. Their color should be vivid; dull coloration suggests a problem.
Dragonface Pipefish should be moving around and looking actively at surfaces near it. It may be difficult to see if it is eating in a fish store because the food they hunt is very tiny, but watch for picking at the substrate or rocks, suggesting they’re targeting copepods. One condition that afflicts Dragonface Pipefish is their mouths appearing “stuck” open. It’s not clear what causes this, but it is generally a sign it is in ill-health and should be avoided.
Captive bred pipefish would be ideal, as they would be less likely to have gone through the stress that wild pipefish do with capture and transportation. Seahorses have been available as captive bred for the last few years and are much hardier than their wild caught counterparts. This would likely be the same with pipefish if they were available.
Unfortunately to date, there are very few captive bred pipefish, and mostly taking place by hobby breeders. Jim Welsh has been at the forefront of breeding pipefish, successfully raising both Bluestripe Pipefish and Redstripe pipefish. A handful of other hobbyists around the world have bred different pipefish species. Ocean Rider is the only commercial source of captive bred pipefish, offering Banded Pipefish, and they must be ordered direct.
Reef Pipefish Husbandry
For your best chances at success with any new pipefish coming into an aquarium, plan in advance to have a few different live foods on hand. This is a good idea even if you’ve seen the pipefish eating frozen food before bringing it home. A change in environment can cause a setback and require live food to get to the pipefish started. Newly hatched brine shrimp is a good starting diet for Dragonface Pipefish and some Flagtail Pipefish. Adult live brine shrimp should also be on hand for Flagtail Pipefish that aren’t eating.
One issue that many aspiring pipefish keepers face is that many aquariums do not produce enough food to feed your pipefish naturally. This seems to be a fairly common problem. Unfortunately can take some time for the microfauna to be decimated; any starvation may go unnoticed until it is too late. I recommend the aquarist have at least a contingency plan in place if they need to feed their pipefish. In the case of Flagtail Pipefish, they can frequently be trained to frozen foods. Dragonface Pipefish may need to be fed live food continuously, though some will take learn to take frozen copepods or prawn roe. If this is the only food source, they will need to be fed multiple times per day.
If you have the space to culture copepods they are a great food for pipefish, and can be a great addition to any reef aquarium. Tisbe spp. copepods are a fantastic option, Tigriopus spp. (Tigger Pods™ and similar) tend to irritate fish with their clinging behavior and are not recommended. Pelagic copepods such as Apocyclops panamensis or Acartia tonsa are great for Flagtail Pipefish fish as they swim mid-water. Live mysis shrimp make great treats for most any pipefish, however they are very labor intensive to culture. If you are lucky enough to live near an ocean, you can collect your own foods. Reef mysis can sometimes be acquired from fellow aquarists and added to the refugium to supply a small but steady supply of mysis to the display tank housing the pipefish.
A surprising source of food is the plankton created in your aquarium. Many animals we consider cleanup crew; shrimp, crabs, snails and worms all reproduce in the aquarium. These larvae are rarely noticed by the aquarist as most spawning occurs at night. However, larvae animals is part of the natural diet of pipefish. If you have a diverse cleanup crew, this can help support the dietary requirements of pipefish.
While these pipefish tended to do well and a reef aquarium once established, there are still a few precautions the aquarist should take. They shouldn’t be kept with aggressive fish such as puffers or maroon clowns. Pipefish should never be kept with clams; they can easily startle a clam, getting caught in partially or wholly in the shell. Unfortunately in these circumstances both animals will usually perish.
Anemones pose a big threat to pipefish. Many reef aquarists report no problems with anemones and their pipefish, however because of the pipefishes tendency to swim too close to rocks and the substrate; they significant risk of injury by stinging animals. Pipefish don’t have scales, they have a sensitive skin stretched over their modified skeleton. This is sensitive to the stings of not only anemones but sweeper tentacles of many large polyp stony corals. These pipefish seem to know to avoid these corals if there is space to do so, but it only takes one slip up to lose the pipefish, or open a wound that can lead to a secondary bacterial infection.
Flagtail and Dragonface Pipefish tend to like crevices and crawlspaces. Any aquarium equipment they can get into is a danger. Overflows are a particular hazard. Precautions should be taken to place guards whenever possible. If a pipefish goes missing, check the overflow or sump. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found one that’s managed to get around the guard and hanging out in the overflow.
To Quarantine or Not To Quarantine
The aquarist faces the tough decision whether or not to quarantine their newly acquired pipefish. Quarantining gives the aquarist time to watch the behavior of their pipefish closely in a setting that is easy to monitor, and without other fish competing for food. It also allows for treatment of disease if so desired. A quarantine tank can be an opportune time to work with pipefish to ensure they’re eating live foods and work on transitioning to frozen foods.
Quarantining has one major downside, and that is feeding. For species that rarely take prepared foods like Dragonface Pipefish, this is can be very problematic. Pipefish aren’t believed to harbor cryptocaryon, and rarely amyloodinium, so there isn’t significant risk of infecting other fish with these to common maladies. However, they are frequently carriers of other parasites that may or may not cause problems down the line. This is true in of all wild fish. Praziquantel, Fenbendazole and Metronidazole are used to treat for nematodes, trematodes and pathogenic protozoans. It’s debated whether copper is a problem or not in the pipefish family, and out of caution should be avoided.
The question of whether or not to quarantine really hinges on the aquarists ability to provide food. Can you provide food in sufficient quantities during the entire quarantine period? If not, then it’s probably best to forgo and place directly into the aquarium.
Pipefish are great reef fish, and can be kept in many reef aquariums. Like any fish, there are various approaches that might be required for the best success, and some species better suited than others for a reef aquarium. But if you are looking for something different for your reef tank, think pipefish!
A special thanks to Jim Welsh for both help with this article and in general for all the work he has done with pipefish and the information he’s shared with us all.