Pipefish For The Reef Aquarium: Part One, The Pipefish
Pipefish are frequently overlooked by reef aquarists, either because they are assumed to be incompatible with reef aquariums, or because they are overshadowed by their seahorse cousins. There are 200+ recognized species of pipefish in our oceans, many are stunning but most never make it into the hobby, and many that do make it into the hobby are overlooked.
Of the pipefish that do make it into the hobby frequently many have specialized requirements and don’t ship well. Additionally, pipefish often don’t handle the transition from wild to captivity, especially during capture and transport. They don’t always get the foods they need or are fed too infrequently. This leaves them to be weakened considerably by the time they make it to your local fish store or online vendor.
That being said, carefully selected pipefish make outstanding aquarium inhabitants, and many thrive in reef tanks – where their seahorse cousins would perish. This article is going to cover a few commonly available pipefish that are suitable for reef aquariums, as well as how to best acclimate them to aquarium life.
Flagtail pipefish: Reef Aquarium Ready
These pipefish are some of the most brilliantly colored pipefish, and behave in the most fish-like manner. Their name comes from the large colorful tail they use both to swim and as part of courtship and territorial displays. These pipefish swim midwater, though do like hideouts under overhangs and rocky crevices. Two genera are considered Flagtail pipefish, Dunckerocampus spp. and Doryrhamphus spp. They are brightly colored, peaceful (mostly, more on that later), and fairly easy to acquire. They also do well in most reef tanks, which is a huge plus for the aquarist who just wants to dabble in pipefish. Some of them are cleaners as well, though this behavior isn’t often observed in the aquarium. Many swim upside-down at least some of the time, making them an entertaining and unique fish to watch.
One issue hobbyists can struggle with Flagtail Pipefish is aggression, which may catch the unwary aquarist off guard as pipefish are generally thought to be peaceful. Different species show different levels of aggression, and some even live in groups for a while. But even those that are coexisting together may change at any time and start fighting. In most, it’s the males that fight, but in some species, even females will fight one another. Aggression is inverse to size, with the smallest species being the most aggressive and largest being the least. The good news is that this aggression is limited to other Flagtail Pipefish, they do not bother other fish and are quite docile when other fish, including pipefish outside the Dunckerocampus and Doryrhamphus genera.
Doryrhamphus spp. The Fighters
Doryrhamphus spp. are probably the hardiest of the Flagtail Pipefish, with the Bluestripe Pipefish Doryrhamphus excisis being the number one choice for beginners. All Flagtail pipefish do well in reef systems as long as there aren’t aggressive fish or stinging corals. Bluestripe Pipefish are no exception. Some people report keeping micro-minis or bubble tip anemones with these pipefish without incidence.
Bluestripe Pipefish are probably the most well known for their assault on conspecifics and on similar species. Two males will fight to the death, and even females have been known to fight. Size is often important, there should not be too much size difference between individuals you are planning to house together. A female placed with a much smaller male may decide he’s not a suitable mate and harass him to death, or vice versa. They may also harass other Flagtail Pipefish as well, though I’ve heard reports of Bluestripe Pipefish and Banded Pipefish living together in large aquariums.
Bluestripe Pipefish are quite small, up to 3″. In spite of this small size, they are quite active and need a large area to swim. A minimum of 30 gallons should be allotted for a pair, but they would likely use most of the space in a much larger aquarium. They hide among rocks, and when first acquired or spooked, will stay hidden. They frequently swim upside-down in caves and sleep nestled upside-down under rocks, coral shelves, or even cleaning magnets.
Sexing these pipefish takes close observation and a keen eye, but can be done by anyone with patience. Because they tend to hide, your best chance is to ask fish store employees to catch them and place them in a specimen container to get a close-up view. Males have saw-like ridges on the top of their snouts, and their bellies are flat. If one let’s you get a look, you can see the flaps of skin used to protect eggs. Females lack the ridges on the snout or have them at a much lesser degree. The underside of the females bodies is slightly rounded.
Occasionally I hear other reports where an aquarist is able to keep a male-female-female trio of Bluestripe Pipefish together successfully, or multiple female-only groups. However, these situations are much more rare than encounters that end with aggression. Adding to the aquarist’s frustration, these pipefish are very fast and very adept at hiding; it can be difficult to impossible to separate fighting pipefish before a death occurs. If you feel you are are unable to accurately sex them, it is best to house them singly.
There are several species on the market that show up from time to time called Bluestripe Pipefish and labeled as Doryrhamphus excisis. They are at least 6 closely related species often lumped as one in the aquarium trade. Some are barely distinguishable from others. Some are notably different. Their care the same, and appear that they can be kept with a different species of bluestripe pipefish, as long as they are opposite sex couples.
Janss Pipefish Doryrhamphus janssi is another good Flagtail Pipefish for the reef, but don’t mix with any other Doryrhamphus species. Janss pipefish is larger than the Bluestripe Pipefish and are slightly more laid back. They are still scrappy, getting into intraspecies conflicts and may go after Dunkerocampus spp. as well. Janss pipefish are known for swimming upside down most of the time, an endearing trait that often confuses aquarists the first time this behavior is observed. Rest assured, this is just what they do.
Dunckerocampus spp. The Less Fighty Ones
Dunckerocampus spp. Flagtail Pipefish are quite a quite beautiful group of pipefish. Two are commonly available to aquarists, a third infrequently, and a fourth species being uncommon but has much potential for the aquarium. Dunckerocampus spp. are less aggressive than Doryrhamphus spp, sometimes letting the aquarist keep them in groups.
The aquarist should be aware that handling and shipping is a big problem for these fish, seemingly more of an issue than with Doryrhamphus species. They succumb easily to bacterial infections, and once signs of infection are showing, it’s often too late to treat. Many expert fish keepers have struggled to keep these pipefish and failed. It generally comes down to their health at the time they were acquired, and many suffer from rough handling during capture, distribution andx shipping.
That being said, once the are established, they thrive in the reef aquarium. The Banded Pipefish Dunckerocampus dactyliophorus is probably the most commonly available pipefish of this genus. The tend to come in in pretty rough shape, but if the aquarist can get them over the initial hump, do quite well in aquariums. Unfortunately, many decline within a few days to a few weeks after acquisition. Having live food on hand can help transition them to life in captivity. Initially expect them to only take live food but try weaning to Nutrama Ova™, Cyclop-eeze™, and small mysis, as long term success requires reliably eating non-living foods.
Banded Pipefish are available captive bred through one source, making success much more likely. Ocean Rider breeds and sells them direct from Hawaii, and many accounts suggest they are healthy and hardy.
There are conflicting reports about aggression with Banded Pipefish. In the wild, they are often found living as pairs, but it’s not uncommon to find groups living together. In the aquarium, they also frequently live quite happily in groups. Unfortunately, there are numerous accounts of two deciding to spar, sometimes upon introduction and sometimes after months of cohabiting without problems. Closely watching for aggression in aquariums with multiple Banded Pipefish is advised; unlike Bluestripe Pipefish, these can usually be caught and separated before aggression becomes too serious if caught early.
Sexing is difficult, there isn’t much information about how to sex them accurately, if it’s even possible. Most attempts at sexing is done by comparing males to females, which is very difficult if you are looking at a single animal or multiple of unknown sex. Males are said to be more square, and I’ve noticed this in presumptive males. A few people have noticed that their males have ever so slightly pointed tails, while the females have rounded tails. However, this was only noticed by a small number of aquarists and may have been coincidental variations.
The Yellow Banded Pipefish Dunckerocampus pessuliferus is possibly the most beautiful of the Flagtail Pipefish, but of the Dunckerocampus pipefish, doesn’t have a particularly good record of survival in aquariums, even when the aquarist takes extra precautions with this delicate species. One can start with healthy specimens, feed all the right foods, and the pipefish seem to be doing well, only to disappear weeks or months later. The reason for their decline isn’t exactly clear. Some possible reasons might relate to diet, or it could be a long term infection from handling during capture. As beautiful as they are, I would advise against keeping this species to all but the most dedicated aquarists.
The Multibanded, Multibar or Many-Banded Pipefish Dunckerocampus multiannulatus not common in the hobby, but is seen on occasion. It is similar to Dunckerocampus pessuliferus, but has a white background instead of orange. It is so similar that the two are often confused and D. multiannulatus mislabeled as D. pessuliferus at many wholesalers and fish stores. They are also often mislabeled with the wrong genus Doryrhamphus multiannulatus. This will fight readily when two males are kept together, and there is little information on sexing. Males likely have a flat underside, but this can be difficult to distinguish.
The Redstripe Pipefish Dunckerocampus baldwini isn’t commonly available, but thanks to Jim Welsh we now know these make good candidates for the aquarium. Jim acquired a group for breeding purposes and thoroughly documented their acclimation to aquarium life as part of his successful breeding project. The wild caught adult pipefish transitioned to life in captivity readily. What we know about their care and breeding is largely due to Jim’s work. They seem better adapted to captivity than other Dunkerocampus pipefish, but it may be due to shorter handling time from collection to our aquariums. These pipefish are endemic to Hawaii and local collectors are able to capture them for aquariums.
These pipefish also exhibit some aggression and fighting between males. They, like other flagtail pipefish, are tricky to sex, but it can be done. Males have very small bumps on their snouts, and have a yellow band under their jaws. These bumps are an order of magnitude smaller than the already difficult to sex Bluestripe Pipefish. Because of the size of these features and speed of the pipefish, it may require photographing and zooming in to see these features.
Dragonface Pipefish Corythoichthys spp. are another popular reef pipefish. There are 12 recognized species, but only three make it into the hobby regularly. Much of their popularity seems to have arisen because they are thought to eat the red bugs that attack acropora corals. There are varying reports whether or not this is true. Some aquarist report success in eradicating red bugs with Dragonface Pipefish; others noting there was no change in the number of pests. Dragonface pipefish eat small microfauna such as copepods; making them a good candidate to go after the copepods Tegastes acroporanus that we know as red bugs. Some of the variations in reports may be due to different species of Dragonface Pipefish or what other foods were available in the aquarium.
While Dragonface pipefish do well in reefs, they do not handle shipping well. Like their seahorse cousins, they need frequent feedings to do well, which they likely do not not get during capture and transit. Also like seahorses, they have a primitive immune system leaving them vulnerable to bacterial infections when stressed; stresses such as capture, transportation and inadequate food.
The three species of Dragonface Pipefish commonly available in the aquarium trade are Corythoichthys flavofasciatus, the Network Pipefish and Corythoichthys intestinalis, the Scribbled Pipefish and Corythoichthys haematopterus, the Messmate Pipefish. Don’t expect to find them by that name; most vendors just label them “Dragonface Pipefish”. Because of the similarities in species, it’s entirely possible that many other Corythoichthys species are making it into the trade just labeled at Dragonface Pipefish. Additionally, some vendors will get various Dragonface Pipefish that are a named varieties. Fortunately care is the same for all three varieties. Reports from aquarists suggest that Corythoichthys haematopterus and Corythoichthys intestinalis have better survival than Corythoichthys flavofasciatus, though with the difficult identification, it isn’t possible to evaluate how accurate those claims are.
Ensuring you have enough pods in the aquarium to sustain Dragonface Pipefish can be difficult. They need large aquariums with lots of macrofauna such as copepods, amphipods and isopods to graze on. The rarely learn to take frozen food. If they do take frozen foods, it would need to be fed several times daily for them to subsist off of it as their primary nutrition. A refugium is a must to keep these Pipefish. Smaller aquariums can support Dragonface Pipefish if they are supplementally fed, but the supplemental feeding required to keep Dragonface Pipefish healthy and happy is usually more work than most aquarists would be willing to take on. It requires feedings at least once a day, possibly more with newly hatched and enriched brine shrimp, or a dedicated copepod culture to feed from. The occasional dosing of copepod starter cultures is inadequate as the sole source of food.
Minimum tank size recommendations vary for this species; the two most common sizes recommended by reputable sources being 30 gallons and 50 gallons. While both sizes are likely fine for physically accommodating this fish, they need a much larger size to ensure they have enough food to graze on. If you do not plan to supplementally feed with bbs or cultured copepods daily, the minimum they should have 90 gallons for one. 90 gallon minimum aquarium size isn’t a hard rule; some aquariums this size may end up a barren wasteland if kept nutrient poor, while a smaller tank may be able to support dragonface pipefish if fed heavily and a refugium abundant in pods is attached.
The best indicator is the amount of live food naturally occurring in the aquarium. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to check the aquarium at night using a flashlight. Look around the glass near the sandbed. If you see a lof of tiny dots hopping around the glass and sandbed, your tank can likely support these pipefish.
Fish that graze on microfauna are competition for Dragonface Pipefish. Wrasses, mandarins and other pipefish can all outcompete Dragonface Pipefish, and Dragonface Pipefish can reduce the microfauna load available to competing species as well. Keep this in mind when planning appropriate tankmates.
Dragonface Pipefish get along quite well with each other. They prefer to spend their time in pairs. In the wild, large groups are often found in large aggregations. In the home aquarium if the food source can sustain them, a group of dragonface pipefish can live quite happily together. Pairs will frequently hang out side by side. They may wander apart from one another, only to decide they urgently need to find and check in with their mate a few minutes later. (Hint, it’s adorable to watch).
Sexing isn’t necessary, but is fairly easy to do. Males have claspers which are colored at the top of their pouch. It can be difficult to get them to lift their bodies up to see the claspers, but if you are able to have a fish store employee transfer to a specimen container, look at the pipefish from below. The female will be have an all white underside, while the male will have an orange and blue spot halfway down it’s body.
There are a number of other species that make it into the aquarium trade but do not really make great reef special specimens. Gulf Pipefish Syngnathus scovelli, Dusky Pipefish Syngnathus fuscus, and Chain Pipefish Syngnathus Louisianae are commonly available in the US. However these come from seagrass beds and are not at home in a reef environment. Alligator Pipefish Syngnathoides biaculeatus are frequently found in the hobby but are difficult to keep,. Alligator pipefish care is similar to that of wild seahorses, i.e. difficult to keep and not suited for reefs. They need a aquarium environment with peaceful fish that won’t out compete them for food. Some never learn to take frozen food, and it can be a difficult, drawn out process to train them to frozen food, with no guarantee of success.
Harlequin Pipefish Micrognathus crinitus are native to the Caribbean and West Atlantic as far north as Florida. They live in similar habitats to Dragonface Pipefish, likely making a good reef aquarium inhabitant. Because of their proximity to the US and the trouble pipefish have with long distance travel, they would likely do well in captivity.
The are also several species of pipefish that come from reef environments that are not usually available in the aquarium trade but would likely do well in a reef environment. Siokunichthys spp. pipefish have a close relationship to various corals. This includes the Mushroom Coral Pipefish Siokunichthys nigrolineatus which lives within the tentacles of Heliofungia corals and the Barred and Spotted Xenia Pipefish Siokunichthys bentuviai and Siokunichthys herri, which live within Xenia corals. They likely have care requirements similar to Dragonface Pipefish.
Pipefish are a quite diverse group. Hopefully we will see more pipefish make it into the aquarium trade as interest for them grow, and with expanded interest, that care and transportation improve.