Beginners beware. Pipefish are cute and unassuming fish, but they can be quite difficult to keep in an aquarium. They are mostly wild caught (though some hobby breeders have seen some success and there is hope that this might change in the future).
Because of their need for regular feedings and very fragile immune systems, they are at risk of both malnourishment and bacterial infections brought on by the stress capture and transport.
Often times fish will look healthy at the store only to take a sudden turn within days or weeks of being introduced into the tank.
Even with their reputation for being hard to keep there are many reasons to want them.
For one, they come in many colors and with their unique mouths and look they are just an interesting visual element to add to your tank. They also tend to be fairly active, drifting along in the current in the tank or hanging around upside down in caves and vegetation.
The two most common types of pipefish in the aquarium trade are dragonfaced and flagtail. Both come in a variety of species and there are some differences in care and compatibility between the two types.
Scientific name and common names
Pipefish are members of the Syngathidae family. The other member of the family is the seahorse. The two most common varieties in fish stores are dragonfaced (Corythoichthys sp.) and flagtail (Doryrhamphus sp. and Dunckerocampus sp).
Common varieties of dragonfaced pipefish include Messmate (Corythoichthys haematopterus), Network Dragonface (Corythoichthys flavofasciatus) and Scribbled Dragonface (Corythoichthys instinalis).
Common varieties of Doryrhampus include Bluestripe (Doryrhamphus excisis) and Janss (Doryrhamphus janssi).
Common varieties of Dunckerocampus include Yellow Banded Pipefish (Dunckerocampus pessuliferus) and Multibar (Dunckerocampus multiannulatus).
Pipefish come from the tropic and subtropic regions of most of the world’s oceans, most are marine with a few species being freshwater only and others living happily in brackish waters. Their natural habitat consists primarily of coral reefs and with seagrasses.
Because of their poor swimming abilities (they only have a dorsal fin and in most species, this is small and not very effective for locomotion) they tend to drift around on currents using seagrass for cover and camouflage to avoid predation.
Pipefish care and feeding
Pipefish (like many wild-caught aquarium specimens) may be difficult to care for in an aquarium and have a hard time transitioning from eating live food to a frozen diet. Many sources say they can be weaned onto frozen food, but there is also a lot of failures, which is a good reason to use caution before buying one of these species.
Flagtails are reported to be more likely to learn to take frozen food.
For dragonfaced, it is less likely that they will adapt to frozen foods, so if you plan to bring one into your home, you should be ready to commit to a full diet of live foods.
Because of their size, shape and armored appearance, it is hard to know if your pipefish care has been sufficient.
An individual could be malnourished and it would be difficult to notice until the problem is completely out of control. As such, it is important to properly feed them and watch their eating habits closely to ensure they are getting enough nutrition
Dragonfaced will prefer freshly hatched brine shrimp while flagtails will be more satisfied with adults.
It is unsafe to assume that your aquarium is producing enough food naturally for your fish.
Raising your own copepods is a viable option. Also, keeping a variety of reproducing clean-up crew species can help add “food” to your tank. Pipefish will happily snack on shrimp, crab, snail and worm larva floating around in the tank. Safe frozen options include frozen mysis and frozen cyclop-eeze. Frozen food should be provided once a day if you are able to ween the fish over.
Their picky eating habits coupled with how easy it is to accidentally starve them is one of the main reasons they are considered “expert only” fish by many hobbyists. Their food requirements effect most of the aspects of their care.
Placement in the tank
A well-established tank with lots of living rock and a healthy microfauna population is a minimum requirement for your pipefish.
Thirty gallons of water per individual is the lowest recommended tank-size is recommended.
Because they are poor swimmers they need a tank with gentle currents for them to get around on. Fantails are considered to be the best of the pipefish in regard to swimming because of their large fantail, but they are still at the mercy of the current.
They are shy and require a lot of places to hide. Because they are good at camouflage they will hang out upside down in the tank with lots of seagrasses mimicking their surroundings. Their need for hiding spaces can also cause some issues with pumps and overflows.
It’s best to cover every opening in the tank, but if one goes missing, checking the sump and overflow is always a good place to start.
There are some compatibility rules that are true for all pipefish. In general, they are best kept in a species tank of pipefish and seahorses. Their slow movement makes them generally incompatible faster moving and aggressive fish.
They are not compatible with fish that eat the same things as them either because they will get whatever food is leftover in the tank at it will likely not be enough to sustain them.
Tank compatibility can differ greatly between species of pipefish. However, it seems that species in the pipefish genus have a definitive amount of aggression and it just gets more concentrated as they get smaller.
The most aggressive species of pipefish are the tiny bluestripe. At just three inches in length, they are also the most likely to fight to the death. Their size and speed make them hard to catch and separate. Keeping 2 bluestripes is only recommended if they are of the opposite sex and similar in size (females have been known to kill males that they deem too small to mate with).
The Janss pipefish is slightly more laid back but is still more prone to aggression, including interspecies. They are not a good mix with others, particularly yellow-banded and multibar, and again should only be kept in breeding pairs.
Yellow banded and multibar pipefish have been reported to be able to live in groups of 2 or more in large enough tanks, but also have the occasional violent outburst.
Breaking up the fights and relocating the offenders is easier in this case, but a loss is still possible from their aggression and something to keep an eye out for.
Dragonfaced pipefish of all types are larger and tend to be more docile. They can be kept in pairs or groups with relative ease as long as the food supply will sustain them.
Reproduction and propagation
Some kinds of pipefish can be easily sexed while others are harder and in some cases nearly impossible to tell the difference.
Because of their tendency to hide and the fact that a lot of their defining sex traits are on their bellies, transferring them into small specimen tanks to have a look at their undercarriages (and or attempting to photograph them in their larger tank) is often necessary. Compatibility issues can make knowing the sex of your fantail pipefish particularly necessary and checking before you leave the fish store is definitely suggested.
As far as breeding pipefish goes, it is important to remember that, similar to their seahorse cousins, the male fish is the one that keeps the eggs. The female will lay her eggs into the pouch on his underbelly, and he will hold on to them until they hatch.
At least one online breeder (Jim Welsh), has had success breeding bluestripes in captivity. His system involved catching the fry as soon as they hatched and raising them on live copepods and other plankton until they were full grown before forcing them to switch to frozen food. His success came in part because a clutch of bluestripe eggs seem to hatch all at once.
His other tests were with Redstripe (which are hard for hobbyists to get a hold of and not otherwise mentioned in this article). He observed that their eggs do not all hatch at the same time, making the fry harder to catch consistently.
Pipefish are not easy to keep in an aquarium setting. They often arrive in rough shape and are hard to bring back from the brink.
The yellow-banded pipefish is readily available but only suggested for expert hobbyists, zoos and research facilities because of this difficulty. Weening them to easily acquired frozen food isn’t always guaranteed and they have a long list of incompatible fish and coral.
However, if you have the space to devote to a species tank, a willingness to find the right food supply and a keen eye for spotting problems that may arise, these colorful snake-like fish, with their distinctive snoots and wide range behaviors could make a charming addition to your aquarium hobby.
What are your thoughts?
What are your thoughts about keeping the pipefish? Have you had any personal experiences?
This research was enough to keep this one off my shopping list, how about you?