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Are natural scapes more risky than bb tanks with artificial plants?

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  • Offline vlangel
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Hi everyone,  I was reading on one of my other forums about another hobbyist whose 2 seahorses recently succumbed to (she believes) bacterial infections. They were 1 year and 8 months old. She is the 3rd one to give up on keeping seahorses on that forum in the past 6 months.  She gave me a lot of advise when I was setting up my tank and she seemed like a diligent, conscientious aquarist who performed faithful husbandry.  All 3 of these hobbyists had sand beds, live rock and safe corals, and some had macros too.  Is it possible to keep up the husbandry effectively long term so that the seahorses can live a more hoped for lifespan in a natural enviroment?  I had read that seahorses could possibly live 5 years in a home aquarium, is that realistic?  I am rethinking my natural enviroment, (which I love) but I want to do what is best for Adam and Eve.  I will say that I am very regimented about husbandry and have been for years and I have stepped it up a notch higher since getting the seahorses, shaking out my macros and basting around the rock work twice a week to make sure food and detritus isn't trapped somewhere.  Now I am wondering if that is enough?  What are you all's thoughts?  Dawn
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  • Offline TamiW
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That's a good question and one that's not easy to answer. I use BB tanks in my fish room because they're much easier to clean. But you'll find that in a lot of fish rooms regardless of species.

Seahorses should live at least 5 years. There was a recent thread on another site where people had seahorses living 8 and 9 years. Ocean Rider claims they have a 15 year old seahorse (though this claim I find doubious). However, there is some suggestions they can live longer than they do for most people. The first is that many marine fish are long-lived. I think the problem comes up that most fish, even if you don't count seahorses, don't live as long as they could. It could be husbandry problems, or it could be a stroke of bad luck. Because aquariums are essentially life support systems, there is so much that can go wrong that it's hard for a fish to live out a natural lifespan in an aquarium.

The other problem that seahorses face is they are essentially immune-compromised. All fish have shitty immune systems to a certain extent. It's just more primitive than other animals, and significantly more primitive than mammals and birds.  I've seen review papers that opine that the only real way we're going to be able to deal with pathogens in aquaculture is genetic engineering and borrowing from the immune system of higher animals. Seahorses have the misfortune of missing much of their adaptive immune system. It's not clear if it's entirely missing, or significantly reduces, but either way it causes problems in captivity.

In any aquarium setup, bacteria is going to be the killer. There is much higher levels of organics for bacteria to feed on that it's really easy for ubiquitous bacteria to become pathogenic. Add to that a fish that is extremely messy, such as seahorses, and you've got a cauldron of bacteria just waiting, and then you have the extra vulnerable seahorse.

Feeding frozen food is probably part of the problem - there is a lot of "room" for bacteria to grow on dead food, especially dead seafood.. Some of the longest lived seahorses are those that have been fed live food their entire lives. It's probably because the part of the immune system they are missing is in the gut. So you have a food source that is likely to attract bacteria, and a fish that is missing the part of the immune system located in the gut. That spells trouble.

I know a lot of public aquariums are going back to feeding live food only to sea dragons because of their cost/value, even if they are trained to frozen. It's because there is a lot of risk in feeding dead food. Even if it's properly handled, the dead mysis might land on the tank bottom and sit for a while, and bacteria can start to accumulate. All it takes is one snick of the wrong piece to start an infection they can't fight.

Which is why probiotics are starting to be popular. The idea is that good bacteria will overwhelm those that are potentially harmful if you seed with good bacteria.

@DanU talks about it here.

Now, when it comes to natural setups vs bare bottom and artificial, it's a touch call. More artificial environments definitely makes cleaning easier. But I have a hunch they can also lead to worse outcomes because you don't have a naturally diverse system. Their advantage comes from the ability to easily clean frequently. But if you don't, my hunch is that they would actually be worse than natural setups. I don't have any empirical data on this, but @rayjay  has switched to using bb setups for ease of maintenance.

I think in a natural setup, the best thing you can do is focus on water movement. Make sure there is good flow throughout the tank. A closed loop system just for circulating the water might be worth investigating. I'm thinking I'm going to set up a display tank again soon, and that's an area I plan to focus on.
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  • Offline vlangel
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Thanks Tami, that is very informative and helpful.  I actually do use sanolife mic-F daily to combat bacteria.  Perhaps I should consider ordering live shrimp to gut load with Dan's feed beta gluten formula and supplement their feedings with that several times a week.  I kind of hate redoing my aquarium because I love it...but I don't want to be sorry I didn't either.  Maybe I will just syphon the sand out but leave the macros, corals and rock.  I don't have a closed loop but the Rios very effectively move water at the bottom of the tank.  I am going back to using the feeding station to feed them too which is much cleaner than just the turkey baster.
My fish live very long lives and I am striving for my seahorses to do the same.
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  • Offline suew
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I have been keeping sh for just over three years now and have always had a sand base tank,I found it hard to keep the bottom of the tank hard to keep clean.

 Water change's are done every ten days and when the sh are fed the wavemaker's are turn off (so food isn't blown in to them) what has gone down on the sand the cuc then goes to work.

  It's as Tami say's some like bb and some sb..
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  • Offline TamiW
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The downside to bb is that it doesn't look nice. Also, cleanup crews, which I like to have, don't like them. I've used hermit crabs and peppermint shrimp, and they will walk on it, but poorly and cling to decorations.

I've been considering doing one of two things - using starboard and making artificial bottoms. Or, making artificial bottoms by epoxying sand so it looks like sand, with none of the drawbacks. The downside is that I do really like the microfauna that lives in sand beds.

I'm thinking of setting up my 65gallon as a display tank (since I have no display tanks) and I will probably use sand for that. Partially because I really want garden eels.

The other two things sandbeds do - if deep enough, it can act as a nitrate sink. It also helps maintain calcium and alkalinity.
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  • Offline vlangel
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The downside to bb is that it doesn't look nice. Also, cleanup crews, which I like to have, don't like them. I've used hermit crabs and peppermint shrimp, and they will walk on it, but poorly and cling to decorations.

I've been considering doing one of two things - using starboard and making artificial bottoms. Or, making artificial bottoms by epoxying sand so it looks like sand, with none of the drawbacks. The downside is that I do really like the microfauna that lives in sand beds.

I'm thinking of setting up my 65gallon as a display tank (since I have no display tanks) and I will probably use sand for that. Partially because I really want garden eels.

The other two things sandbeds do - if deep enough, it can act as a nitrate sink. It also helps maintain calcium and alkalinity.
Ok, now I am waffling again.  I have Nassarius snails, peppermint shrimp and an algae, detritus eating sea cucumber.  Everything could move into the 36g tank with a deep sand bed but I think they do a good job in the seahorse tank.  I guess I will leave things as they are, continue to keep up husbandry and perhaps time and experience will confirm if it is adequate.  I did just learn that one of the aquarists (who recently lost her ponies to bacteria) was vodka dosing and that seems like it could be dangerous for seahorses.
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  • Offline DanU
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I personally don't believe one is better than another.  One of the reasons that folks with BB seem to do better is typically folks who have these types of setups are generally breeders with more seahorse experience and they have more mechanical filtration.  If I were to setup a personal display tank, it would have a sand bed and some live rock but I would have a similar mechanical filtration scheme to what we currently use. 

The problem I see with folks who use live rock, sand beds is that they often count on that being their primary filtration, often only filtration.  Most folks also have a tendency to overstock the tank with seahorses.  By overstock, I mean more than one pair per 30 gallons.

The crux of the issue, at least the way I see it, is what was eluded to above, excess organics.  Consider when a seahorse snicks at food, up to 8% of the food can be ejected from operculum from the maceration process.  Then 20 to 25% of what they get down comes out not fully digested.  That means roughly 30% of what they are fed ends up as excess organics in the tank, not counting anything that wasn't eaten to begin with.  Live rock is a great biological filter but does not filter out these organics.  For the live rock to do it's job, something has to eat the organics first and turn it into ammonia.  This means an increase in microbial growth, both bacteria and protozoans.  Everything is fine until the flora shifts and the pathogenic bacteria get a foot hold.  Good filtration with a tight weave filter sock and an over sized protein skimmer can remove a lot of this and lower stocking densities mean less food entering a small space.  This as well as a good clean up crew, proper husbandry and lower temps to slow things down and one should be fine.

I have customers who still have their seahorses from when we first started.  It is not unusual for seahorse keepers to have their seahorses for 5 to 8 years or more.  Most of them have live sand and live rock.

Dan
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  • Offline vlangel
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I personally don't believe one is better than another.  One of the reasons that folks with BB seem to do better is typically folks who have these types of setups are generally breeders with more seahorse experience and they have more mechanical filtration.  If I were to setup a personal display tank, it would have a sand bed and some live rock but I would have a similar mechanical filtration scheme to what we currently use. 

The problem I see with folks who use live rock, sand beds is that they often count on that being their primary filtration, often only filtration.  Most folks also have a tendency to overstock the tank with seahorses.  By overstock, I mean more than one pair per 30 gallons.

The crux of the issue, at least the way I see it, is what was eluded to above, excess organics.  Consider when a seahorse snicks at food, up to 8% of the food can be ejected from operculum from the maceration process.  Then 20 to 25% of what they get down comes out not fully digested.  That means roughly 30% of what they are fed ends up as excess organics in the tank, not counting anything that wasn't eaten to begin with.  Live rock is a great biological filter but does not filter out these organics.  For the live rock to do it's job, something has to eat the organics first and turn it into ammonia.  This means an increase in microbial growth, both bacteria and protozoans.  Everything is fine until the flora shifts and the pathogenic bacteria get a foot hold.  Good filtration with a tight weave filter sock and an over sized protein skimmer can remove a lot of this and lower stocking densities mean less food entering a small space.  This as well as a good clean up crew, proper husbandry and lower temps to slow things down and one should be fine.

I have customers who still have their seahorses from when we first started.  It is not unusual for seahorse keepers to have their seahorses for 5 to 8 years or more.  Most of them have live sand and live rock.

Dan
Thank you Dan for your reply.  I spoke to you on the phone back at the beginning of Oct, the night before my seahorses were to arrive. You gave me a lot of very helpful information even though you knew that I did not purchase them from you folks.  I have always really appreciated that. (BTW, I purchased Dan's Feed, immune boosting formula and used it to enrich the bb shrimp I was hatching for the seahorse fry my pair of seahorses had Oct. 29th.  I kept 22 fry and to date I still have 15.  I credit that to the Dan's Feed and the Sanolife mic-F I purchased from you folks so thank you for that as well.).
I am going to keep my display natural with the live rock, sand, macros and coral since both you and Tami confirm with appropriate filtration and good husbandry, my seahorses can enjoy happy, healthy lives.  I think I will simplify those elements to make the tank more husbandry friendly though.  It is taking me a little while to switch over from a mindset of years of reef keeping to understanding the special vulnerability of seahorses to pathogen bacteria and how husbandry differs for seahorse keepers.  I am getting there though.  I appreciate everyone's advise.
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  • Offline TamiW
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Dan (unsurprisingly) spelled everything out in a concise and clear manner. That's probably the best way to think about it. Incidentally, I've been considering sand in the new broodstock tanks I'm (still) setting up. A friend of mine uses sand In her broodstock tanks. Not seahorses, just other marine fish. But it looks nice, and she always has cleanup crew spawning and has raised hermit crabs.

The other option I'm still leaning towards is artificial, which will look nice and make it easier for some cleanup crew (the non-burrowing ones). I found a thread with some good ideas I wanted to share: http://www.thereeftank.com/forums/f164/anyone-tried-faux-sand-bed-and-kept-it-looking-sandy-220783.html
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  • Offline vlangel
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Thanks Tami.  Yes the fiberglass resin and sand looks very realistic.
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