Seahorse and Pipefish Foods
Seahorses are ambush predators, feeding primarily on crustaceans, mostly shrimp. In their wild state, most seahorses only eat live food. (Although H. capensis is an exception and known to feed on dead food in the wild). In our aquariums, Wild Caught specimens often don’t recognize many food items offer that are not from their natural environment. This includes dead food, which they just don’t see as food unless trained to make the switch.
Captive bred seahorse, on the other hand, are almost always willing to accept frozen. It seems as though being in captivity makes them more willing to try new foods. Even those captive reared seahorses not previously fed frozen make the switch almost immediately in most cases.
Pipefish, while more active hunters than seahorses, still rely on stealth to find food. They eat many of the same things that seahorses do, although many eat smaller foods because of their tiny mouths. Many wild caught species learn to eat frozen – Flagtail pipefish are one example that are easy to switch to frozen. Dragonface pipefish, on the other hand, rarely eat anything other than live food.
It is ideal to offer seahorses and pipefish a variety of foods – in the wild, they would not eat only one food source, so in captivity they shouldn’t be expected to. Varying their diet allows for a more complete nutritional profile, as well as providing mental stimulation which they often lack by only feeding one food type.
When feeding, whether live or frozen foods, its best to offer food that originated from a marine environment. Marine animals are rich in Highly Unsaturated Fatty Acids (HUFAs) that freshwater organisms lack or have in the wrong concentrations. The HUFAs are produced by phytoplankton, base of the marine food chain so all marine organisms are dependant on them in some way. Freshwater animals fed can be fed to marine animals, but they need to be enriched with different products containing the necessary fatty acids, such as Selco, or Ocean Rider Vibrance.
The exception to this rule is Brine shrimp, while they are technical marine, coming from a saline environment, their ecosystem is much different than the ocean, and therefore do not have the HUFA’s of other marine animals.
Some believe that live foods are the best foods available for seahorses. It was only a few years ago that the only foods ever offered to seahorses was live food. The availability of captive bred seahorses and new techniques for training seahorses has changed that, although much live food is still offered as occasional treats or for wild seahorses that can’t be trained on frozen food, as well as pipefish species that will not take frozen. While there are many types available to the hobbyist, it can be difficult to obtain from local fish stores. Culturing live food in quantities large enough to feed these provide a significant challenge to aquarists. Most cultures require large amount of space and are labor intensive. Others breed too slow, if at all. For most hobbyists, live food has to be purchased over the internet, or if they’re lucky enough to have this option, collected from local waters.
*IMPORTANT NOTE* Some wild caught seahorses and pipefish refuse to be trained on to frozen foods. Others learn, but stop for no apparent reason. Anyone attempting to keep these fish should plan to dedicate themselves to continuously providing live food should such circumstances arise. There are cases were no amount of diligence or experience will result in wild seahorses eating frozen foods. For that reason, if you are not prepared to offer live foods for the natural life span of your seahorse, which could be up to 7 years, I strongly suggest you do not consider keeping wild caught seahorses or pipefish.
Brine shrimp, Artemia Sp.
The most common food offered to seahorses and also probably the worst. Many fish stores recommend feeding this because as a live food, a lot of seahorses will react to it and eat it. However, there is virtually no nutritional value to them, and because seahorses have a short digestive tract, they can not even make use of the little bit nutrients there. Seahorses fed only this will slowly die of starvation, sometimes over a period of months. There is some value to enriching them, although not enough to be a staple of the diet. They are often refused as well because they do not behave like “normal” shrimp which are part of a seahorse’s natural diet. Their swimming habits often confuse seahorses, leaving them often to entirely ignore the brine shrimp.
Baby Brine Shrimp, Artemia sp.
Unlike Adult Brine shrimp there is SOME nutritional value to newly hatched baby brine shrimp. They have a nutritious yolk reserve to allow them to hatch out and survive the first twelve hours until they develop a complete mouth and anus. It is when they first hatch that they are still at their most nutritious and should be fed. Decapsulating the cyst before hatching (removing the shells) is recommended so it takes less energy for the brine nauplii to hatch, and are therefore more nutritious because they’ve used less of their food store. Brine shrimp can also be enriched for 24 hours before feeding. Baby brine shrimp is the normal staple for dwarf seahorses, and is often used to feed seahorse fry. Dragonfaced pipefish often require their diet to be supplimented with bbs on a daily basis.
Saltwater rotifers are microscopic organisms feed to seahorse fry that are too small to take brine shrimp at birth, and for supplementing the diet of adult dwarf seahorse. They are easy to culture using phytoplankton, yeast, special rotifer food, and even v8! There are a few different species and strains available in aquaculture, and choosing larger ones is usually better for seahorse fry. Some pipefish fry, however, will require s-strain or possibly ss-strain rotifers.
Tiny crustaceans, most roughly the size of new born brine shrimp. They are the best food for seahorse fry, small pipefish species and dwarf seahorses, but are not easy to culture and depending on their swimming habits, may not be noticed by some fry. There are three kinds of copepods generally used for feeding seahorses, harpactacoid, cyclopoid and calanoid. Harpactacoid are the easiest to culture, but they prefer living on the surface of objects, and thus do not always attract the attention of seahorses. They can be gathered from aquariums at night when they are most commonly found on the sides of the aquarium. Culturing just requires a container with an airline set on low, and crushed flake food. Calanoids swim in the water column which makes them ideal for seahorse fry and dwarves. However they are not easily cultured. Most used for seahorse food are caught directly from the ocean. Cyclopoids (cyclops) are found in refugiums occasionally and fed out. They are predatory, so culturing is probably not an option. Check out http://www.livecopepods.com for a wide variety of live copepod products.
Red Shrimp, Opa’e ula, Halocaridina rubra
Small brackish water shrimp endemic to Hawaii. They are an excellent seahorse food and very few seahorses will refuse them. They are, however, not easy to obtain and must be purchased through mail order sources. Typical food of ʻōpaeʻula is algal and bacterial mats on the surface of rocks. They also have a slow reproduction rate, producing a few young only a couple times a year, making culturing at home impractical. However, some sources claim they can be encourages to breed more often if additional food such as flake food is offered and many dark crevices are offered where mating and hatching can occur. Female only carries a few berries (eggs) at time.
Mysis shrimp, Opossum shrimp, Mysis sp., Mysidopsis sp. and similar
Another great seahorse food, readily accepted. Mysis “shrimp” aren’t actually shrimp, but a very shrimp like crustacean. They probably make up a large portion of the diet of wild seahorses. They reproduce at an alarming rate, producing young every 1 – 2 weeks, and are sexually mature at around 15 days.The young are born alive, and new born mysis make excellent food for juvenile seahorses that are starting to outgrow bbs. They however require a lot of time and energy culturing as the young need to be separated from the adults to prevent cannibalism. They also require feedings of newly hatched artemia nauplii or similar twice a day.
Mysis can also sometimes be found it reef tanks among live rock and in refugiums. Sometimes you can convince your LFS to collect them from their live rock tanks, especially if you’re in a panic and ask REALLY nicely. Most LFS’s will do it, afraid of upsetting the crazy seahorse lady again.
You can buy live mysis online from Sach’s Aquaculture.
Ghost shrimp, Grass shrimp, Glass Shrimp, River shrimp
These are clear shrimp commonly found along the shore lines and in rivers and streams. They make good seahorse food for large species such as H. erectus or H. reidi. The freshwater variety is often available through local sources, such as fish stores and bait shops. Culturing is time consuming, and either requires a large outdoor container such as a kiddy pool or separation of the young. Freshwater ghost shrimp should be enriched with quality marine algae derived product if feed as a staple part of the diet. Flake food is readily accepted.
Amphipods, Gammarus, Scuds
Often described as “little bugs”, these segmented crustaceans are usually present in our tanks, even under aggressive predation. Most seahorses will poke around rocks for a quick snack when these guys come out. If they can’t live in the tank, they will often live in the filter pads. For the occasional treat, you can easily create a in the tank refugium which will allow them to hide and breed. Make a small box out of plastic screen or egg crate, and fill with algae, lightly packed filter floss, or shredded plastic. They can also be harvested from most bodies of water, fresh and marine. They prefer to hide under and around algae covered rocks.
Similar to amphipods, these relatives of the common pill bug also make good seahorse food. Just watch out for parasitic Isopods (they will usually have very large eyes). I have found that tanks with isopods rarely have amphipods and tanks with amphipods rarely have isopods. I do not know if they out compete each other or if this is just an anomaly I observed in my tanks.
Cleaner Shrimp Larvae
Peppermint, skunk cleaners, and Fire shrimp (less so) all produce small larval shrimp at regular intervals when at least two are kept together. Because they are hermaphrodites, there is no need to sex them, just put a pair in the tank. Most adult seahorses will ignore the larval shrimp, but juvenile and dwarf seahorses love them. They are usually born at night, but are positively phototrophic so can be collected by setting up a light in/near a container to trap them. Raising them is difficult, but having enough broodstock around can leave you with an endless supply of shrimp larvae.
A freshwater relative of copepods, sometimes offered to juvenile seahorses and there are reports of some finicky adult seahorses taking them. Usually these are narrow snouted species such as H. comes or H. barbouri.
Mollys, guppys, etc . . . Some seahorses will eat livebearer fry, while others ignore them completely. They are easy to have around though, so many keepers have them “just in case”
Larval Food Shrimp
These are the young of food shrimp that people eat. They can be obtained in a variety of sizes depending on their stage of development. Because of their use for human consumption, they’re also pathogen free. Most food shrimp dealers will not accommodate small orders that seahorse keepers would be looking to make.
Most captive bred seahorses readily accept the appropriate frozen foods. Some wild caught seahorses can be trained as well to eat frozen. Below are some of the frozen foods that can be fed to seahorses and pipefish.
The staple of captive bred seahorses. As most brands are freshwater mysis, they will need to be enriched occasionally. Hikari is thought to be saltwater mysis. Many pipefish species will learn to eat small frozen mysis.
Brands: SFB, Hikari, PE M.Y.S.Y.S, Gamma, Lifeline, MBF, Mike Reed, Henkel
Usually Krill harvested at a small size. Roughly the same size as mysis shrimp, but may have a harder shell as seahorses seem to struggle with them a little more.
Brands: Hikari, SFB, Fish King
Good for large seahorse, such as adult H. erectus, H. reidi, and H. ingens.
Brands: SFB seems to be the only suitably sized krill commercially available.
Ghost Shrimp, Grass Shrimp, River Shrimp, Prawns
Another freshwater animal that would need to be enriched if it was part of the seahorses diet. Good for large species of seahorses and large pipefish like Alligator pipefish.
Brands: Fish King (Grass Shrimp), ProSalt (Prawns), Mike Reed
A copepod species. Sometimes accepted by seahorse fry and small pipefish.
Brands: Cyclop-eeze by Argent Labs, MBF, SFB
I have no experience with feeding frozen daphnia, but I would assume its a good transitional food for fry if they accept it. As its a freshwater food, it would need to be enriched.
Brands: Hikari, MBF, Mike Reed, gamma
I have never had the chance to offer frozen gammarus, but I suspect they would be taken willingly. Enrich if the source is freshwater gammarus.
Brands: Fish King, MBF, Henkel
Enriched Brine Shrimp
While its not a particularly good food source, some seahorses are too small to eat anything other than brine shrimp. A few companies like Hikari and San Francisco Bay put out enriched brine shrimp. I would recommend ONLY feeding frozen brine as a treat or a last resort, and only the enriched kind.
Brands: SFB, Hikari
Some especially greedy seahorses and pipefish are known to take pretty much any frozen food they can eat, so don’t rule out trying foods such as squid or silversides. Be sure to cut the foods in to strips or shred using a cheese grater to make small enough to eat.
Enriching foods is done to complete the nutritional foods offer to seahorses. In many cases, the foods offered, while good, lack certain components or do not have the right proportions of the correct components. For example, PE mysis is a great food source. However, the HUFA EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid ) to DHA (Dososahexaenoic acid) ratio is too high. Too much EPA interferes with the bodies use of other necessary fatty acids, while high DHA to EPA increases the growth rate in fish. And many freshwater food sources do not contain any fatty acids, which is why enriching is so important.
The number of enriching products ranges in the thousands, and are specific to what your intended results are; such as general HUFA increase, DHA increase, enriching for color enhancement, additional protein, etc . . . as well as the existing profile of the food you are trying to enrich. Discussing the specific products and uses is beyond the scope of this article. However, some commonly use enrichment products are:
SELCO – increasing HUFAs
Spirulina - Protein, Vitamins, low in HUFAS
Naturose – astaxanthin powder for color enhancement.
Phytoplankton and Phytoplankton pastes – Increasing HUFA, pigmentation
Vibrance – Astaxanthin and HUFAs?
SpectraVital – Rumored to be the same as Vibrance
Algamac 3000 – High in HUFAS, DHA
I encourage each person to tailor their enrichment needs on the foods that they offer. Researching enrichment products used in commercial aquaculture is likely to give all the answers to what product is best for you.
How to Enrich:
There are several ways one can enrich foods. I’m only covering the ways that work best for me, but don’t be surprised to find many people suggesting many different ways.
Small Frozen Food.
Take a chunk of mysis and place in a plastic dixie cup in the fridge. Add enrichment product. Once thawed, mix up the enrichment product with the mysis and add more if necessary. Leave overnight refridgerated. The next day, rinse lightly in a regular net. If you use a net with holes too small, the excess of some non-liquid products don’t rinse away properly. Feed to your seahorses.
Large Frozen Foods.
WARNING, PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK! SHARP POINTING THINGS AHEAD! I prefer this way of feeding because then I know the products are getting in the food. I use it primarily for frozen ghost shrimp. Get a small gauge need from a vet or farm supply store. Liquefy any dry enrichment product by adding Reverse Osmosis water and mixing in a blender. Inject the enrichment product into the food. If its a shrimp, I will usually insert the needle parallel to the body as far as I can, then inject while I am removing the needle, in hopes of producing a pocket where the enrichment goes, kind of like a Twinkie.
Bio-Encapsulation AKA Gut Loading
Here is where you feed the intended food the enrichment product your trying to get to the seahorse or pipefish. Most only take 15 minutes to an hour to feed. For larger shrimp such as ghost shrimp, liquid products won’t work as well; feed powders and pellets. Brine shrimp can be offered liquids and powders if the powders stay in suspension. Adult brine shrimp only take a short while to enrich, but baby brine shrimp require an additional 12 – 24 hours from the time they hatch to be enriched. When enriching newly hatched brine shrimp, never use the hatch water; always switch to freshly made water.