Over my life time I've had a number of exotic pets, and dwarf seahorses have been by far some of the most interesting to observe. My mom owned an aquarium business when I was growing up and we previously kept regular tank raised seahorses, so I felt well armed enough to give dwarves a try this year when I saw a local herd that needed re-homing (via craigslist). As one of my seahorse forum colleagues says "they are absolutely the best fish, but SO much work".
Saltwater aquarium keeping requires a certain level of financial commitment and routine maintenance that isn't for everyone. Seahorses have specific care parameters that whittle that pool of people down further. Dwarf seahorses are their own thing entirely and require perhaps even more particular care. If you like the idea of a living zen garden that must be tended daily, the dwarf seahorses might be for you. Of all my pets, they are the ones I have to be most delicate with and most attentive to. My cats, tortoise, and geckos take care of themselves in a lot of ways. Dwarf seahorses require daily ritual and close attention.
In this Ible, I'll review the care basics topic by topic, what to expect from dwarf seahorses, how to know if they're for you, and some approaches to care that have worked for me personally. Plus, lots of super cute photos! Since there's not a ton of education out there about dwarf seahorse keeping, I hope this can provide another helpful perspective. As with all animals, I want to see the right pets with the right people, so that the animals thrive.
Dwarf seahorses are an intermediate level fish at least, so in the Instructable I will assume some things about your aquarium base knowledge. For example, I'm not going to go over what a water change is or how to do it, because you either already know or can look it up a million places. We WILL discuss how to mix water for seahorses and WHEN water changes should be done in regard to their specific care. I will link to products and terms throughout, but always google an aquarium term you aren't familiar with before embarking on a new tank.
Regarding contests: A few years ago I wrote a guide to standard seahorse care, but it was very flawed since I wasn't keeping any in my own home at the time. My write up was based on memory of having kept them in my childhood, old books (we're talking 1980's), and care guides available elsewhere on the internet. It simply wasn't original or up to my usual Ible bar, nor was it a great reflection of current standards for seahorse care. THIS Instructable --as a Remix-- allows me to give you a much more thorough and first hand guide to dwarf seahorses and how to help them thrive. We took an old idea and made it better (and cuter). It is important to recognize when you can improve, especially when animal care is the topic.
Step 1: PreReqs and the Need to Know
Have Aquarium Keeping Experience --First off, I would not advise anyone who has never kept a successful aquarium to dive into dwarf seahorses. Monitoring water quality and knowing how to effectively and safely change tank water is a must --this is not a tank you can set, forget, and maybe get around to cleaning once the algae prevents you from seeing in. You need to be willing to observe the tank every day and address issues asap. Seahorses don't tolerate a low quality environment. You don't need to be a master level expert, but you need to have kept a tank alive for a stretch of time and if the fish died, you understand why. Know what water changes are and how to do them, understand what "cycling a tank" is, and research your supplies, parts, and food sources well before you acquire any seahorses.
Be Prepared for the Expense of Saltwater --Marine tanks are more difficult to keep, and require more in the way of supplies. While dwarf tanks do not require the big fancy skimmers, chillers, and lighting that reef style tanks do, there are some things you always need to have on hand that will be new to fresh water keepers. You will need to be buying a constant supply of aquarium salt made for creating marine water. I would hope this goes without saying, but NO --you can NOT use the same salt you'd use in the kitchen. Iodized salt is toxic to fish and does not provide the same mineral benefits that a salt made for making marine water, like Instant Ocean, puts in the water.
Be Willing and Able to Hatch and Administer LIVE food EVERY DAY --Dwarf seahorses are ridiculously tiny, and thus need ridiculously tiny food. The most plentiful and accessible is live baby brine shrimp (often referred to as bbs). You will need to hatch these yourself, because live food this small is rarely offered in pet stores. Hatching them is not difficult, but does require dedication to a daily ritual you can NOT skip. You'll also need to occasionally enrich the bbs with a supplement, to help ensure the seahorses are getting a good nutritive value.
Be Willing to Have a Seahorse ONLY tank --Regular seahorses are slow and have specific needs that make very few other fish suitable roommates. Due to their size, dwarves have even fewer compatible tank mates. For success with your first dwarf seahorses, I STRONGLY suggest keeping ONLY dwarf seahorses in your tank. If you think you'll get bored and want something faster, wigglier or with more variety, then this is not the right hobby for you.
Have a Plan for Babies --If kept in proper conditions that keep them happy, dwarf seahorses WILL breed. I repeat: WILL BREED! I've read several different ranges for how many young to expect per batch, and it seems like between 4-15 is a good ball park. My own dwarves had 7, 9, and 4 (different dads on different weekends of the same month). What will you do if your seahorses breed and start to overpopulate the tank? Are you willing to set up a second tank? Willing to establish a relationship with a local fish store to sell them stock? Willing to be picky enough with private re-homings that you don't just let any jerk off CL have some that they'll probably kill in days? Mull over the eventual baby scenario and see how you feel. If you're not sure, you may wish to purchase all females as you start up and learn. They are just as entertaining and still come in fun colors.
Step 2: What to Expect From Dwarf Seahorses
Dwarf seahorses only have a life expectancy of about 1yr, though there are some reports flying around online that say up to 2yrs is possible in captivity. Given this short life span, it is nice to have a little breeding in your tank to replenish your stock naturally over time. If babies sound like too much for you to deal with, you can, of course, just purchase new horses when yours have lived out their expectancies.
They are TINY-- only about 1.5 inch tall max, maybe 2 inches with tail fully extended. When babies are first born from the father's pouch they barely seem larger than a fish turd with eyes, but they grow quickly in their first weeks.
Both adults and babies require tiny food, but can eat the same food (no further specialization required for babies). Freshly hatched brine shrimp is good for any age of dwarf seahorse.
They are mostly slow moving, but are very active and fun to watch. You'll see a lot of fun behavior first thing in the morning when you turn on your tank light. Dwarves are eager for the morning feeding and this is also prime time for couples to do mating dances (and maybe even "do the deed").
They have personalities. If you're observing them consistently you will see that some have definite quirks. I have some who are very proactive eaters, some who seem more lazy, and some who seem to like hanging out around the babies. You'll see who likes to hang out with each other --and on rare occasion-- who doesn't like each other. While dwarf seahorses aren't 100% monogamous like some other species, you will see some consistency in the couples holding tails and doing mating dances. I've noticed some males have a preference for a particular color of girlfriend. A dwarf tank is an adorable little soap opera if you're sitting in front of it long enough to watch.
They come in many colors, and can shift colors. Some retailers will let you request colors and others won't, saying "seahorses change colors so we can't guarantee anything". Well, yes and no. Every seahorse has a "base" color that they are most of the time, but most are capable of shifting to a few other shades within a range. I have a guy who is usually pale yellow but can also go sandy brown or near white. I have a female who is pearl white most of the time but can also get gray patches or swing a little mossy green. Black seahorses are mostly just black, though my male does lighten his body when doing a mating dance, to show off some brown stripes he has. Ordering your first batch of dwarf seahorses is kind of like a blind box toy experience; even if you requested colors, you never know quite what you'll receive and often get some pleasant surprises.
Their poop is weird. I started seeing these little red clumps on the tank floor and thought they were dead copepods (food) or paint flaking off my decorations. Then I saw one of these clumps coming out of somebody and it all clicked: Poop! The reddish color is totally normal and is a product of the color of brine shrimp. These little red lumps are what you'll want to vacuum up multiple times a week so the waste doesn't build up in your water.
They are work. You are in charge of a tiny world that needs to stay very clean and very safe. If you like routine and meditative tasks, they may be a good fit for you.If you aren't a routine or commitment person, go with freshwater guppies! Just as colorful, just as many babies, but way more forgiving and low maintenance.
Step 3: Where to Buy
Wild Caught vs Tank Raised:
My understanding is that it is difficult to find these guys outside the U.S., since this is where they are native and dwarf keeping is not a massively popular hobby. Within the U.S. it is unlikely you'll find dwarves in your local aquarium store unless you live in the Gulf of Mexico region. Mail order --while I don't love doing that with living things-- is the way to acquire dwarves.
While you'll find captive bred/tank raised to be more expensive, it is important to be mindful of where our pet fish come from. Healthy oceans need to become a much bigger global priority than they are right now, and one step you can take as an individual is supporting captive bred fish industries over irresponsible harvesting from the ocean. Wild caught specimens also carry some risk of disease or illness, simply because you don't know where they've been. If an online retailer does not declare that their stock is "captive bred" or "tank raised", chances are they aren't, but you can always email and ask!
Make sure to deal only with sellers who use overnight mail for shipping, and who offer cold or heat packs, depending on your time of year. Be mindful of the delivery windows to make sure you are home for the arrival of the parcel. Many companies will not ship past Wednesday to eliminate any chance that the box gets hung up in a shipping facility over a weekend. This is ultimately a very responsible thing to do, but may not be as convenient for you as a weekend delivery. I had to plan to arrive late to work to receive a Tuesday morning delivery of new stock.
Buying from a source who cares about the animals' comfort during transit is important. Sometimes you can find unboxing videos on YouTube for a company you're considering, to get an idea of what you can expect and the level of care they put into transporting live stock. Online product reviews can also tell you a lot about shipping practices and vendor communication.
Retailers I am personally familiar with:
Foxy Saltwater Tropicals--Located in Florida. Very nice to deal with, lots of care taken to ensure the seahorses are safe and well during travel. Their site allows you to make color requests when ordering males and they try their best to send what you're looking for. I was very impressed with the bold colors I received and all dwarves purchased from him are still doing great. Shipping/packaging was excellent. I have a feeling Foxy's dwarves may be wild caught, or only a few generations tank raised, simply because he is local to where they can be found and his prices are the lowest. Despite the liklihood that these dwarves are wild caught, everything else about Foxy's leads me to believe they are a responsible small business who truly care about the ocean.
Alyssa's SeaHorse Savvy--Located in Maryland. If you're looking for captive bred in the U.S., this may be among the best. The photos of her dwarf stock are simply amazing; tons of cirri and very chubby! This isn't just a fish store, this is a seahorse specific farm/retailer, so you know she knows her stuff. The owner is active in a forum I visit and very helpful. Her dwarves are more expensive than some other sites, but you are assured that everything is 100% healthy and ethically on the up and up. A fantastic indy business to support.
Step 4: My Herd
Just for fun, an introduction to my herd:
I have a herd of a dozen adults and several batches of growing babies. The adults all have names since I can tell them apart easily. Even though sometimes colors fluctuate, you can identify seahorses by other features like size, body shape, and any distinctive "cirri" (the little bristly points some of them have). I have nice variety of colors in my community, including black, tan, white, yellow, reddish, green, and 2 "piebald" gold with brown spots.
Cleo, Big Bertha, Queenie, Pearl, Snork, Daria, Woody
Neener, Preggo, Terry Crews, Red Velvet, Adam
Step 5: The Tank: Think Small
Tank Size --You can feasibly keep a few pairs of dwarves in a set up as small as 2 gallons, but this is not recommended as a long term solution, especially because they WILL breed and you'll have more soon. Most keepers suggest a tank 5-10gallons, but NO larger than 10!The main reason is food density.
Seahorses move slowly and do not chase down food. Ideally, you want a tank situation where food can just rain down straight on their heads and they can snap it up easily. Think like if you went outside and opened your mouth, trying to catch snowflakes on your tongue. Each seahorse needs to catch enough snowflakes in their mouth to get a full belly at least twice daily, and that's way easier to do in a small tank vs. an expansive one. Bbs are also attracted to light and tend to congregate at the surface when your tank light is on. If you have a big tank with seahorses hitched to decor at the bottom and all your bbs way up top, never the two shall meet and everyone starves.
So why not go as small as possible then? The reason is water quality and ensuring your seahorses never experience any shock during water changes. Many keepers say that a 10 gallon is easiest for maintaining safe water parameters while still balancing the need to stay "small". Tanks under 5 gallons do create a scenario in which any change can feel like a BIG change, and sudden changes can be shocking to seahorses and cause them to die.
I personally keep a 5 gallon and have been very happy with it. I avoid shocking water changes by keeping them small, and throughout the week. More on water changes later.
Lighting-- Dwarf seahorses do not require any special type of lighting. The lights that come in the hood of most aquarium kits will be fine. I got a tank with an LED strip in the hood because I didn't want the light generating excess heat. It also had some cool color options I can toggle between, which I thought might be neat for faking dusk in the tank before lights out.
You do want your seahorses to get 10-12 hours of light each day, especially if you want to encourage breeding. If they get a nice 12 hour "day" they'll feel like it is summer and breeding season.
Step 6: Tank Decorations: Fake It! (Mostly..)
Reef tanks are beautiful, but they don't mix with dwarf seahorses. If you love that look, consider doing a regular marine tank instead!
NO Live Rock/Sand/Coral --Small organisms in live rock and live sand can be harmful to them. In particular, small stinging creatures called hydroids are very pesky and should be avoided at all costs, and eliminated if you see them. Parasites can also come in on this stuff. Even if live rock or sand has been dry for a while, creatures like this can reinvigorate when placed in saltwater again. To avoid having to combat all sorts of micro-foes, it is best to keep live rock and sand out of your dwarf seahorse situation.
Corals can not only sting (some varieties) but also require very specific care all their own to thrive. Some people keep tanks ONLY of amazing corals and invertebrates for this reason. They're awesome, but they just don't mix with seahorses safely.
Fake Decor is Best -- The absolute safest thing to use for dwarves is artificial decor. They don't mind one bit --seahorses will hitch to anything they can get a tail around! Choose fake plants with long stems and skinny leaves that will be easy for them to grab. Remember that their natural habitat is in fields of sea grass. Fake sea fans or fake corals with skinny bits are great too. Choose items that are different heights so your dwarves can choose to hitch low, middle, or high in the tank. Having different levels allows them a variety of options for feeding and social hitching, and also makes it easer for you to view them.
I've personally bent the fake rule just slightly:
The "real" items in my tank are an old dried sea fan and some small pieces of dried coral. Again, small skinny branches easy to hitch to are key. I felt ok putting these in the tank because I have personally owned them for over 20yrs and know for a fact they've been dry for a long time. The likelihood of any creepy crawlies coming out them is pretty much 0%. Natural shells can be ok too, but the seahorses almost never hitch to them and they just become something you have to shove around while cleaning.
Pro Tip:I keep a set of plastic tweezers near the tank in case I have a reason I need to move a plant, or if I see a big fat hair in the tank (which is often since I have 3 cats and long hair myself). As with any aquarium, you don't want to put your fingers in the water if there's any chance you have soap residue or lotion on your skin. Those substances can ruin your water and kill fish quickly. Using tweezers instead of my fingers reduces the chances that I'll put a foreign substance in the mix.
Macro Algae -- One dwarf safe live thing you can put in the tank is macro algae. But isn't algae a bad thing in a tank? Well, usually, but this is a different sort of plant life. Macro Algaes are leafy or grassy, and feed on the waste nutrients produced in your tank. By doing this, they can help keep your water cleaner and they tend to outcompete regular nuisance algae (the type on your glass) so that a lot less of that ever forms. I purchased some very finger-like red macro algae and have found that it is a great for babies to hang on to. Just know that if it really does well and grows, you might have to trim it back to a size you like.
Bare Floors-- Many keepers suggest a bare tank floor simply because it is easier to clean. Dwarves need tank maintenance several times a week, and having to shove around gravel is a pain for you and a big scary disruption for them. Using a small modified gravel vac to skim waste off the bare floor is quick and easy.
Bare floors also make it so much easier to see baby seahorses. You'd feel awful if you accidentally sucked one up in the gravel vac or clobbered it while moving decorations. With bare floors, you can see where everyone is and not run the risk.
"Vacuuming" -- Bare floors allow you to spot clean the poo and debris simply. Traditional syphoning and gravel vacs are pretty risky with something as small as dwarf seahorses, so I built a mini safety vac based on another keeper's design I saw in a forum.
1 clean drinking straw, 1 length of airline tubing, 1 plastic milkshake spoon,
1 piece of clean kitchen sponge (no added chemicals or abrasive materials!), 3 rubber bands.
The sponge at the mouth of the vacuum prevents anything unexpected, like a baby seahorse, from slipping into the straws suction. The milkshake spoon's function is simply a little added structure and area to grip.
Step 7: Filter and Air: Go Low Flow
Traditional aquarium filters are often too strong for these guys. The flow will knock them all around the tank, and the intakes tend to take the bbs away too soon and can also suck up babies! No bueno.
There are things you can do to make a traditional filters safer and reduce the flow. Cover w pantyhose or baffle with sponges. I still found food taken away too soon and didnt feel like the trickle of flow I had dialed down to was providing enough oxygen exchange.
The safest, simplest, and perhaps cheapest option is a Sponge Filter. They're kind of ugly, but are normally used for fish fry tanks and thus have the safety of tiny things in mind. Running a regular air pump line into a sponge filter creates a very, very gentle suction to catch debris on the sponge and also ensures you're getting plenty of oxygen exchange.
Rinsing the filter -- At every major cleaning you may wish to rinse the excess surface debris from your sponge filter. Mine tends to be covered in tiny poo and also the many cat hairs that manage to sneak into the tank. After you remove some water for a water change, swish your sponge in the wastewater to loosen debris. Do NOT squeeze the sponge or rinse under hot tap water. Doing so can mean losing a lot of the beneficial bacteria in your filter, which are doing the invisible work of ammonia and nitrite breakdown.
I liked this mini air pump called the Hygger for its size and virtually silent operation. The bubbles in your water will make sound, but there isn't any additional vibrating from the pump. There was no need to use an air stone with this set up. In fact, larger bubbles are safer for your dwarves than ultra tiny ones, which can cause gas related illness.
If the airflow from your pump still seems a bit strong, you can install a bleed valve in your line so that you can customize the flow up or down without building pressure that pushes back on your pump. Just interrupt your airline with an air control valve you can buy at any PetCo. Dialing the bleed valve to allow air to escape the line reduces your flow to the tank and makes bubbles more gentle on your dwarves.
Step 8: Heating: Tropical Vacation Waters
Dwarf seahorses are native to Gulf Coast waters (south eastern US/Mexico) and enjoy warmer temperatures. You'll want to keep your tank around 75 degrees consistently, certainly no lower than 70 degrees. Unless you live somewhere that is always hot, you'll want to purchase an in tank heater to keep this consistent.
Get a heater that allows you to choose the temperature on a dial.That way it will automatically shut off when the water reaches the desired temperature and you can be assured you never start boiling your fish. Most will come with some kind of suction cup to attach to the wall of the tank.
Have a thermometer. The adhesive kind that sticks to the tank wall is fine, but for more precise reading you can get a a true thermometer with mercury. Mine is a combination thermometer and hydrometer, so I can check salt level and temp in one go.
If you live somewhere that gets hot in the summer, you can test unplugging your heater for those months and monitoring water temperature to see where it settles. If room temp falls within the acceptable range, no need to add to the power bill.
Hot Times in the Seahorse Tank:
Some keepers dial their heat up to 78 degrees to encourage breeding. This temp. fakes the summer breeding season dwarves would experience in the wild. While this trick is not a guarantee of offspring, it seems to work for a lot of keepers. Do NOT do this unless you are prepared for more babies (have the space, adequate food supply, etc).
Step 9: Water Quality and H2 Uh-Ohs
Do I need special water for seahorses?
Aquarists who want to be certain that there are no harmful impurities may choose to purchase "RO" (reverse osmosis) water to mix with salt for their tank. RO water is also a great pH for aquariums. This can often be purchased at local fish stores, or at the growing number of water stores that carry special drinking water for humans. I found one of these places simply by Yelping "RO water".
One can also use distilled or purified jugs from the grocery store, and prepare as directed.
Petco sells pre-mixed salt water in a 5 gallon box, under their Imagitarium brand. It was great when I needed something in a pinch, but awfully expensive at $15. The store employee also admitted that "there's no way this is real ocean water, no matter what it says on the box".
In my personal experience, my treated tap water is fine provided you live somewhere with drinkable tap water, but I will spring for RO or distilled stuff if I think to stop by the water store while I'm out.
Obviously, you do need salt water since seahorses are marine fish. Their range of salinity tolerance is just like that of other salt tanks, so simply follow the preparation instructions provided on commercially available salt mixes. Use a Hydrometer to make sure you've achieved salinity within the accepted range.
*When mixing your water, always use a bucket or jug dedicated to this task. Never use a container that has been exposed to detergents, soaps, or foods. It isn't worth the risk of cross contamination. If you involve a funnel in your process, same goes for the funnel.
Step1-- No matter what type of water you use, treat with a dose of dechlorination drops to be safe. Many of these drops will also include helpful enzymes that stimulate your fish's natural body defenses.
Step 2-- Measure your aquarium salt per gallons of water you are mixing. To achieve ideal marine salinity, the brand Instant Ocean instructs you to mix 1/2 cup salt per gallon of water.
Step 3-- The salt will initially make your water cloudy. Stir in the salt using a clean instrument you use ONLY for aquarium work (no kitchen utensils that would ever have been exposed to cleaners or soaps). Stir until clear-ish. Water should settle and become entirely clear within 20 minutes.
Step 4-- Store your remaining salt in a way where it will not be exposed to moisture. Roll and clip the plastic bag like you might chips. If salt absorbs moisture from the atmosphere it will turn into a big block that is a pain to break apart and use, and you'll also get some calcium residue sitting at the bottom of your water next time you mix. This usually only happens if salt is stored unused for a while, and is unlikely to be a problem if you're consistently using up boxes of salt.
Step 5-- Store your mixed water in jugs to keep it spill proof and clean, and at the ready for your mid week water changes. This is especially important for me, because my cats would definitely play in the bucket if left out.
Some aquarists like to let their water cure overnight before use. I have never found it imperative to do this, but your water is often clearer when the salt has even more time to dissolve evenly.
**Expect to do multiple water changes throughout the week, especially if using a sponge filter! Since a dwarf tank will not have the high powered filter of a normal aquarium at work, you will need work harder to keep your water quality up. Different keepers have different opinions on water change frequency. Some people do a 50% change every day to maintain ideal low ammonia and nitrite levels. I do a 20% every other day and a 50% on the weekend.
Testing Your Water
A test kit is needed to be able to know where you stand with nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, and pH --all things that can kill your fish if they get out of whack. For freshwater tanks I've always used the less expensive and super easy dip test strips, but for salt water tanks you want to level up to the liquid kits that test for more things, and test more precisely. API makes a good one, and little has changed about it since my mom used it for her business 20yrs ago. The instructions for measuring each substance are different, but by following the instructions in the kit booklet you can see where your water stands in about 10 min. An easy color comparison chart shows you what's good and bad. If any of these substances tests in the "bad" range, you'll want to do a partial water change to reduce harmful substances. These liquid tests are MUCH more specific than the quick dip strips, and worth the investment for salt water.
In my demo photos, you'll see that my current tank water has excellent nitrite and ammonia levels, which was a big relief considering I've had the most trouble getting those under control. My pH, however, is low and on the brink of being acceptable. While the seahorses are tolerating it ok, this tells me it is time for me to get some RO water for my next water change. RO is more likely to be a true 8.0 and will help balance out my 7.4 tap when introduced via gradual water changes. I find this a safer way to adjust than using pH powders or drops, because those can adjust way more than you intend even if used as directed.
If you notice your seahorses acting strangely --lethargic, not swimming properly, rubbing on tank items as though they itch -- test your water to help find out what's going on. Chances are something bad is spiking. The itching behavior is a strong indicator of high ammonia and they are being burned!
Dwarf seahorses are sensitive to ammonia and nitrites. These levels must be kept down or you will experience loss. Levels can be lowered by performing a 50% water change. Additionally, you can use ammonia/nitrite neutralizing drops to render the substances harmless for a period of time. This is not a long term strategy --more of a band-aid in case you can't perform a water change that moment. Always follow dosage instructions on the bottle and be aware that this stuff stinks (don't spill it)!
If you see concerning behavior or your water tests very poorly, I would also suggest removing seahorses from the tank and placing them in a container of brand new prepared water. After a pH flux killed some of my seahorses, I now keep a "Panic Jar" of totally brand new salt water near the tank for emergency use. The seahorses who I removed and placed in a simple mason jar of clean saltwater were the ones who survived the crash.
Before I add new water to the tank, I like to test it to be sure everything is all good. Freshly mixed water should not contain any ammonia or nitrates. I also make sure that the pH of the water I'm about to add in either matches or is slightly better than the pH currently in the tank. Sudden changes in pH, even changes in a favorable direction, can crash dwarf seahorses. Be VERY careful about using pH adjuster drops available in stores. I would suggest never adding these direct to the tank, but rather add them to a new batch of water which you'll TEST and introduce to the tank incrementally during your next water changes.
Words of wisdom from the admin of my favorite dwarf forum: "Don't be a pH chaser. Even if it isn't "ideal", if the seahorses look fine and act fine --they're FINE."
Step 10: Feeding the Beasts
To keep dwarf seahorses you MUST hatch live baby brine shrimp every week. This is not negotiable. Some keepers have luck getting seahorses to eat frozen foods over time, but I would never bank on your whole group converting. Live food moves in a way that catches the eye and ignites a feeding instinct, and your dwarves need to eat a lot to thrive.
Expect to administer at least 2 feedings per day, 3 if you happen to be home. After you dump in the bbs you want the tank to look like a snow globe for a bit. This ensures there is plenty of food for a whole herd and that seahorses do not have to look far for a bite. This is important, as seahorses are not typically proactive hunters. Even if you think you dumped in a lot, they will eventually snatch up all the shrimp over a day. Seahorses have a very simple digestive system and need to be able to pick up snacks throughout the day since it is a constant "in one end, out the other".
BBS are attracted to light, so provide tank decor at a variety of heights so that seahorses can capture food as it gathers toward the top near your tank light. Just for fun, you can put a mini flashlight near any corner of your tank to draw the bbs over, and any nearby seahorses can enjoy shooting fish in a barrel, as it were.
Your BBS Hatchery:
There are several different hatchery methods, and none terribly expensive. This type uses recycled 2 liter soda bottles and an air pump to hatch a lot at once. I opted for this low maintenance, covered hatchery because its easy use fit well with my busy lifestyle and I was worried my cats might knock over the more elaborate set ups. Your choice of hatchery depends mostly on the space you can dedicate to a hatchery as well as how many mouths you need to feed.Some keepers use a combination method; soda bottles to hatch a lot more bbs, but using the dishes to easily separate bbs from waste.
In the photos I have a provided a step by step guide of preparing a hatch in the type that I own.
BBS hatches in about 24hrs at room temp. Knowing that, it is wise to start your bbs hatching about 2 days before you obtain your dwarves, just in case there's any delay.
I suggest running 2 hatcheries, slightly offset from each other. If one day something goes wrong and you don't get a good hatch or no hatch at all, hopefully the other dish will provide enough to get by. I start my second hatchery when the first is 3 days in, for a constant supply with no low days.
DO NOT dump the brine shrimp egg shells in the seahorse tank! You need to separate the live shrimp from the waste/shells before feeding. Egg shells can get stuck in seahorse snouts if inhaled, and also the waste leftover from hatching is just garbage that will mess with water cleanliness. The hatchery I use separates everything automatically (another great selling point) by trapping eggs on an outer rim and requiring the bbs to swim toward the center to access daylight (remember, they are attracted to light). Hatchery methods that use the recycled soda bottle model can also make use of tricking the shrimp with light to herd them to a desired area for harvest. This video is a great example wherein the user sucks up the bbs with a turkey baster, leaving the egg shell waste behind.
On good hatch days, put excess in a jar in the fridge. You'll know a strong hatch when you see one, when the the density of shrimp gives a strong pink/orange color. If using the dish, you'll know it is time to start a fresh batch when you are no longer getting the volume and color of a good day. I find by the 4th day the dish is low, hence the need for a secondary hatchery.
Add Selcon enricher to your fridge supply to gut load them with essential vitamins and healthy fats the seahorses would otherwise not get. In addition to regular supplementation, this jar can serve as an emergency stash if you experience a poor hatching, what you have a pet sitter use if you're away for a weekend. **BBS only stays reliably alive in the fridge a few days, so use up your enriched food regularly.If the stuff in the jar looks like a bunch of floating fuzz, they're dead and should be thrown out.
Failure to enrich your brine risks the seahorses eventually dying of malnutrition, even though they're eating. Make enrichment part of your regular process.
Copedpods are another suitable food for dwarf seahorses, and these naturally contain the healthy fats your Selcon enrichment bestows on bbs. Pods look and move like sea fleas -very jumpy and jerky-- and are sometimes bright red/brown. The color is a reflection of their DHA omega fats. Pods can be purchased in marine aquarium stores or ordered through online vendors like Algae Barn, but they are expensive and not something you'll be thrilled about buying every week. If you have the space to do so, consider culturing your own copepods to have save money and have a steady supply. I'm in the process of trying this, but am still waiting to see if I can get pods to maturity.
No matter what organisms you feed to the dwarves, ideally you want to put them through a fine mesh strainer so you're only dumping the food into the tank without bringing a bunch of nasty waste water with them. Once you smell the bbs hatching dish you'll understand why you don't want this funk in your tank. My hatchery dish came with micro mesh ladles for this purpose. If you build a different type of hatchery, you can purchase mesh sieves for copepods and bbs. Some keepers sift away the excess water and give an additional rinse under tap water as well.
Frozen and Refrigerated Foods -- Don't bank on these becoming a staple, but you can try them. Adults used to a live diet are not likely to convert but there's a chance your own tank raised babies might catch on. It is important to have live food on hand at all times in case your food experiment doesn't work. Larger seahorse species are much more likely to adapt to frozen foods.
Some keepers report that frozen bbs or frozen baby mysis have been accepted, as well as frozen cyclopods. I have not tried frozen, but I do keep the refrigerated bbs and mix it with the live feeding once in a while to try and introduce it to the babies. It drifts through the water nicely and seems like a reasonable fake, but I think the seahorses notice the lack of twitching and are less stimulated by it. I only have one adult who will readily "snick" it out of the water, and anyone else who eats it only does so out of desperation if my live hatch was too thin that day. The lack of success is what motivated me to start a second hatchery so I never come up short on the good stuff.
Step 11: Roommates Wanted?
A question I see being asked often is "What other fish can I keep with dwarf seahorses?"
If you want to succeed...NONE.
Dwarf care is so specific that they are not compatible with most other marine life. Other fish who are faster will easily steal all their food, or may pick on them over territory. Baby seahorses are also bite sized snacks to other fish.
If you think the slow moving life of seahorses will not be exciting enough for you in the long run, or you're attracted to vibrant saltwater fish like tangs, damsels, clownfish, angels, etc., you may want to set up a reef tank instead.
Some experienced keepers have housed dwarves with dwarf pipefish, since pipefish are perhaps most similar to seahorses, however I would not suggest this for your first dwarf tank.
A completely SAFE and functional roommate for dwarves are simple snails. They can do some clean up duty and can't harm the seahorses in any way. In fact, you might see some fun interactions like the dwarves hitching to the snail for a ride.
Step 12: Courtship: "Heey Guuurrrrllll"
If you keep males and females, and all basic care needs are being met, you will witness courtship behavior and very likely pregnancy/babies. It is lots of fun to watch these rituals! As I stressed earlier, please make sure you are capable of providing for an increased population before getting to this point. If you aren't so sure, purchase all males or all females to start your community.
You can tell the genders apart visually.Females have an abdomen that juts in, making a "P" shaped body.Males have a more gradual slope due to their pouch, which you could say is a "D" shape. I am seeing these shapes apparent in young as early as 6 weeks old.
Many species of seahorses are monogamous, but that's not 100% of what I'm seeing with my dwarves.
I have noticed that my breeding age dwarves each have a preferred partner they'll accept regular advances from, but also once in a while will entertain a rando or 2 if they're in the mood. Males, unsurprisingly, are less picky than females and will sometimes try to butt in on someone else's dance.
If you observe your dwarves regularly, you will see who is cuddling up to whom, and may notice some preferences. I have one male who only hits on pearly white females. I have another who seems so attracted to bright banana yellow, that if Cleo (yellow female) rejects him, he'll go try to dance for Neener (the yellow male who looks a lot like her).
Biologically, males should be most attracted to the plump, mature females. They are plump because they are producing eggs. While I do see my curvy girls getting the most attention, that doesn't seem to be the single law of attraction. Neener will only try to court Daria, who is very thin and possibly too young to produce eggs yet. I haven't figured out why he likes only her in particular, other than perhaps she is very identifiable as my only green seahorse.
The Courtship Dance -- This usually happens first thing in the morning when the tank lights come on. A male approaches a female and usually tries to hold tails with her. He will then begin to vibrate back and forth in short bursts, trying to get her to reciprocate. The male may change colors (I usually see my darker ones flux to be lighter than normal) and may fill their pouch with water, as if to say 'Hey Gurrrrrl...Those eggs look heavy. Want me to carry them for you in this big awesome pouch I have?"
If the female starts to vibrate back to him, things just got official. A couple will parade around the tank with their tails linked, hopping from spot to spot doing this vibrating dance. They do this several days in a row before any actual mating happens. See my video of female Cleo and male Adam. Don't be discouraged if after a while one of them (usually the female) loses interest and just departs the ritual. Chances are they'll be back at it tomorrow.
If you see the female nodding her head up toward the surface, that's the cue you might be in for some real mating. That his her signal to the male. They rise up into the open water away from decorations to do the transfer. The male opens his pouch up and the female uses her ovipositor (it is super weird and just seems to extend out of nowhere) to pour eggs into the pouch. I witnessed this one time but didn't have my camera to film, so if you want to see a transfer check out this video of much larger seahorses gettin' it on.
Not every physical coupling will result in babies. According to my favorite forum, seahorses will engage in this behavior even just for bonding, so if you don't see any eggs exchanged it was just a fun romp.
Sausage Party Competition -- Doesn't happen often, but I've seen some bickering among males when two are in the mood and interested in the same lady. They may try to run one another off. I have seen them snap at each other or fill their pouches with water and sort of sumo bounce battle. Nobody ever seems to get injured, since there's no real way to bite, but in the end everyone loses because all fighting seems to do is make the female want to leave. Just like people! I rarely intervene unless I happen to see one of my shy guys (Adam or Neener) getting pushed around by a known bully (Preggo and Terry Crews).
Step 13: Pregnant Dads and Birthing Babies
As with all seahorses, males are the ones who carry the babies. I have no idea why --in the course of evolution-- this one type of fish starting doing things differently, but they did and it is pretty fascinating.
People often ask me: "So if the male carries the babies...doesn't THAT actually make it the female?"
The male is still the male, because he is contributing the sperm component. The female contributes the eggs. Even though the male carries the young to term, the sex cells contributed by the respective genders has not changed.
Once an egg transfer has happened, those eggs will be fertilized internally in the male's pouch. Dwarves gestation is only 10-14 days, so they pop out of the oven quickly! You will notice the pouch growing larger over this time. Dad may even start to look downright uncomfortable.
The number of babies born will vary. Of the three fathers I've had in my care so far (Terry Crews, Preggo, and Neener), they had 7, 9, and 4, respectively.
Babies are often born early in the morning when you aren't there to see it, but I was lucky enough to notice Preggo starting his contractions and camped out to watch. The contractions will look like a painful jerking, like he's trying to invert his pouch (which he may be). The birthing process took a lot longer than I expected; about 40 minutes to get all 9 babies out. I believe part of this is because the babies can become entangled in the pouch and then can't be expelled one by one. In my video you'll see a lot of labor and then just one baby tail finally stick out of the pouch opening. A bit later, 3 spilled out at once all wrapped up like a ball of yarn. Males sometimes rub the pouch on tank decor to try and push everything out.
You'd think after all that hard labor, a male would not be eager to get pregnant again. You'd be wrong. Males can accept a new batch of eggs within hours of giving birth (there's no guarantee they WILL, but it is possible). Preggo even paused his labor to do a mating dance with his #1 girl, then went back to having those pesky kids.
When first born, the babies are ridiculously tiny. I usually describe them as "fish turds with eyes". Don't worry if you don't see them eat on their first day out. They may still have some nourishment left from their yolk. Babies will start eating baby brine shrimp the next day instinctually --no special prompting needed.
There is no need to move babies into another tank. Unlike some other fish (I'm looking at you..guppies), dwarf seahorses will not attempt to eat their young. In fact, the adults almost seem to enjoy the babies. You will definitely see them hitched near each other, and sometimes see babies wrapped around adults. There is no aggression towards kids who don't belong to them, and equally there's no indication that the birth father has any special attachment to the young that are his own. The babies can grow up among the adults with no problem as long as there is enough bbs at feeding time. The young grow amazingly in the first month, and reach breeding maturity at around 4 months.
Babies are the most sensitive, due to their size. As such, it is possible you may lose a few along the way if you experience a dip in water quality, or if one just fails to thrive. *If you notice that you have multiple babies dying, test your water immediately and move all babies to the Panic Jar. The tiny guys are essentially the canaries in the coal mine, so if you're losing them then it is a strong indicator of a problem. Check nitrite, ammonia, PH, and nitrate, and perform a partial water change.
I'm enjoying seeing the babies grow up and observing what colors they are becoming. Terry's babies are mostly black but some have strong red patches that may or may not remain into adulthood. Preggo's babies are still pretty ambiguous grays, white, and tan, also with some pinkish areas (which may transluscent and I'm just seeing their brine food). Neener had one golden baby that I hope will grow up to look similar to him, but since that one is the smallest it is pretty hard to say yet. Over the course of time, I feel like dwarf seahorses could present a pretty interesting genetic trait study.
Step 14: Happy Trails!
I hope you've enjoyed this peek into the hobby of dwarf seahorses and that perhaps this has inspired a few dedicated aquarists out there to give it a go. Always remember to do right by the fish and only get into the hobby if you can meet all care parameters and stay interested long term. If you have more questions about the keeping of dwarf seahorses, I highly recommend joining this Dwarf specific Facebook Group with keepers from all over the globe. It is a knowledgeable and supportive community that has been a great resource for me --not to mention just a wonderful time out from the rest of the internet.
If you found this Ible interesting or learned something new, consider voting for my teeny tiny dwarves in the Remix Contest. They told me they want to win some technology so they can get even better macro pics and video to start their own celebrity IG!
Happy Trails, from the dwarf herd.