Freshwater pipefish are becoming more common in the aquarium hobby as new imports are discovered and brought to you from distant shores!
These fish range from rather plain in appearance to almost as vibrantly colorful as their saltwater cousins! Pipefish and their close relatives the seahorses are also very specialized animals adapted to inches few fish ever live in!
Pipefish are strange in many ways. Their care is complicated for one. But these fish require a lot of research if you are going to try keeping them alive for very long. What do you need to understand in order to care for freshwater pipefish and seahorses?
Are there Freshwater Pipe Fish?
Yes; while nearly all syngnathids are found in the ocean, a few have found their way into freshwater rivers and streams, exploring new niches over millions of years. Freshwater pipe fish are found only in a few places in the world, including the Gulf Coast of the United States,
Are there Freshwater Seahorses?
Seahorses are syngnathids that are only found in the ocean; unfortunately there are no freshwater species (which would be immensely popular). The only freshwater seahorses out there are freshwater pipefish since the two animals are very close relatives in the family Syngnathidae!
How Much Does a Seahorse Cost?
If you are looking for a pet seahorse they can cost anywhere from $50 to $150 for some of the more commonly available species like the Braziliero Red Seahorse (Hippocampus reidi). However many of the rarer species can cost $300 to $400, like the Spiny Seahorse (Hippocampus barbouri)!
Saltwater pipefish are not too expensive despite being rare and difficult to keep. For example, the Dragonface or Dragon Pipefish are as inexpensive as $40. Even the stunning Rainbow Belly Pipefish (Microphis deocata) rarely goes for more than $100. And Gulf Pipefish are free if you live along the Gulf Coast of North America!
These low prices are likely because saltwater pipefish are simply not in high demand; the fish are too difficult for most aquarists to keep. They are shy, picky eaters, and prone to dying in captivity.
Freshwater seahorses (freshwater pipefish) are also uncommon and inexpensive; there are fewer species but they all tend to be $25 to $50 when seen in stores. The most common is the Longsnouted Pipefish (Doryichthys martensii) from Southeast Asia and Indonesia.
These fish usually cost around $30 to $40 apiece; pricey for a freshwater seahorse but not as high as many other fish out there.
Caring for Pipefish
Caring for pipefish requires some specialized knowledge, making them best for intermediate to advanced level fishkeepers!
Pipe Fish and Seahorse Tank Size
Freshwater seahorses and marine seahorses do not need an especially large aquarium because they are not very active fish. Dwarf seahorses like Hippocampus zosterae can live in a tank as small as 5 gallons while others need 10 to 30 gallons of space at most.
Pipefish are a little more active and longer bodies. So you will need a 20 gallon long to 40 gallon tank for one or several pipe fish to live together!
Planted tanks are the best homes for freshwater pipefish because they thrive on eating tiny invertebrates. A planted tank with little to no filtration, such as a soil-based Walstad aquarium, is the best home for these fish.
Walstad tanks have a dirt substrate and no filter, allowing worms, water fleas, and other tiny animals to live and reproduce naturally. These animals provide plenty of food for your pipefish to eat when you aren’t around.
The marine equivalent of this would be setting up a refugium! A refugium provides a place for gammarus and other saltwater crustaceans to reproduce, which can then be harvested to feed your seahorses!
Decorations are also essential for these fish. Seahorses need coral and other thin pieces of decor to cling to using their tails. Pipefish will loosely cling to bottom decorations sometimes but they tend to free swim much more often than seahorses do.
Water Conditions for Freshwater Pipefish
Freshwater seahorses are neither overly hardy nor sensitive to poor water quality. Since the majority of them are wild caught fish, you should err on the side of caution and only add them to fully mature, established aquariums with good biological filtration capacity.
While they should be kept in well filtered tanks you also need to be careful about the strength of the outflow; pipefish and seahorses are not very strong swimmers. A gentle filter in an uncrowded aquarium is best, especially a tank with live plants, which will absorb any excess ammonia, nitrite, or nitrate.
The water chemistry should be neutral to slightly acidic (pH 6.0-7.0) with very slight alkalinity also tolerated; no higher than pH 7.3. Look into the specific requirements of the species in question because these fish are found all over the world, which means some will have different needs from others.
All freshwater seahorses are temperate and tropical species, though. Water temperatures of 73-78℉ are what they prefer!
Marine Pipefish Water Conditions
Marine pipefish are similar to their freshwater cousins in being not too sensitive nor hardy when it comes to poor water quality. They and seahorses both thrive in typical marine aquarium water conditions, with a specific gravity (salinity) or around 1.020 to 1.025 and temperatures of 73-78℉.
Feeding Pipefish and Seahorses
Feeding marine and freshwater seahorses is the hardest part of keeping them alive. These animals are extremely picky and are very slow eaters as well. So once you find a food that they will even accept, any tank mates they have may simply eat all of it before they get a chance to feed.
Pipefish and seahorses need to be fed exclusively live food. Even frozen food is very likely to be ignored. The motions of live food are what catches their attention – dead food simply doesn’t trigger a feeding response in them. And since these fish need to eat small amounts of food constantly they are prone to starving in captivity.
But you can’t feed just any sort of live food; it needs to be small enough to fit inside their tiny, pipe-like mouths. Baby brine shrimp, daphnia, and micro worms are popular options for feeding seahorses and pipefish.
Larger species can also eat adult brine shrimp, blood worms, and tubifex worms. Variety is the key here – while brine shrimp are very affordable and easy to get they aren’t nutritionally complete. You may want to raise live food of your own since your local store might run out, putting you in a tight spot.
Eventually you may be able to get your pipefish eating frozen food, assuming they start responding to live food! The best way to do so is to start first with live food. Then, once they are eating reliably, start mixing in frozen food with the live food. Eventually, they should start going for dead food just as often as live food, at which point you can slow down and stop feeding the live items entirely.
Pipe Fish and Seahorse Tank Mates
Pipefish and seahorse tank mates are hard to come by because these fish are very sensitive and specialized. They are slow swimmers and are extremely peaceful. Pipe fish and seahorses also have a very slow feeding response, which makes choosing seahorse tank mates almost impossible.
Most seahorse and pipefish keepers decide to keep them alone. This way they can ensure the animals aren’t being bullied or starved of food. Watch how slowly your pipe fish eat even when you offer them live food. They investigate each morsel to see if it is moving and of the right type. Only then do they snap it up. In the time it takes a pipefish to investigate a bit of plankton your other fish will have eaten half of what you’ve offered!
But if you really want to try keeping freshwater pipefish with other fish then choose small, peaceful tank mates. Tetras, Dwarf Gouramis, and Livebearers are all fish that will eat the same food as pipefish.
You do still need to be careful about making sure that your pipefish get enough to eat since these fish are all very eager eaters. One strategy is to feed the other fish on one side of the tank while feeding your pipefish with an eye dropper; it is a lot of work but these are very complicated fish to care for! So don’t say you weren’t warned!
Marine Pipefish Tank Mates
For instance, your Banded Pipefish (Doryrhamphus dactyliophorus) is best kept with other slow moving, slow-eating fish species. Mandarin Gobies are great tank mates for pipefish and seahorses because they also slowly scoot around looking for live food.
Firefish, gobies, dragonets, and seahorses are your best options for fish that will work well with pipefish. They do get along with corals as well, though you need to be very careful in maintaining good water quality given the broadcast nature of feeding them. Excess food can eventually rot, elevating ammonia levels to dangerous concentrations to corals.
Most marine invertebrate tank mates need to be carefully chosen as well. Pipefish and seahorses are in danger of being eaten by crabs and even shrimp with large claws like Banded Coral Shrimp. Sea anemones and many LPS (large polyp stony) corals may also consume one if it blunders into their tentacles or is forced into its reach by a strong current.
Breeding Pipefish and Seahorses
Breeding freshwater pipefish and seahorses is a very difficult affair. But assuming you are already providing them with the right living conditions and several possible mates you may be rewarded for your efforts!
Sygnathid fish are world-famous for their sex role reversal strategy! The male receives the female’s eggs and then broods them in a special pouch. The fry are eventually released once they grow large enough to feed and fend for themselves.
Since these fish are social you will need to have a colony of 6 to 12 for them to be willing enough to try choosing a mate. Eventually you may see a male and female start hanging out together all the time; many pipefish and seahorses mate for life!
The baby pipefish look like miniature adults by the time they are allowed to leave the pouch and fend for themselves. They also feed on tiny invertebrates they find in the water, so you will need to stock up on even more live food than you already have! Micro worms, daphnia, copepods, and baby brine shrimp are what most aquarists find baby pipefish and seahorses will eat!
Frequently Asked Questions About Freshwater Pipefish
Yes, they can. But only species that are purely freshwater to begin with. Saltwater pipefish can’t be transitioned over to freshwater; they can only live in marine aquariums. There may be a few brackish water species that can live in both environments but few to none of them ever enter the aquarium trade.
Most species of freshwater pipefish grow between 6 and 10 inches long when fully grown.
There are no freshwater seahorses, unfortunately. All true seahorses live only in the ocean.
Freshwater pipefish are an intermediate to difficult fish to care for. They require very slow moving yet well filtered water. They prefer either very peaceful tank mates or none at all except other pipefish. And they tend to eat only live food. Fortunately, this guide breaks down everything you need to know about freshwater pipe fish care!