From Reefs Magazine

By Rich Ross

Honest conversation about contentious issues has always been a mainstay in my personal and professional life. I have prided myself on hitting those conversations head on…until about 2 years ago when some people involved in the marine aquarium world tried to hurt me professionally and personally over something that had nothing to do with aquarium keeping. As a result, I pulled back from head-on kinds of conversations. I am not going to go into the details here because they aren’t important – though I did, in the process, watch a few bridges burn, which is something I normally avoid, but which felt surprisingly good in this context.

The entire experience made me keenly aware of the fact that, though I pride myself on direct communication, I was vulnerable to the potential repercussions of honesty. So I pulled back a bit, all the while wondering, what I would say if I really wasn’t worried about repercussions? What would I say if I was truly free to say what I really wanted to say? What I would write to the reef keeping world if I were dying and had nothing to lose? More »

By Rich Ross

From ReefsMagazine

Swimming through a coral spawn is a peak experience if you are a coral nut like me. I know some find the idea swimming through clouds of coral sperm and eggs to be super icky, but to me, it’s a dream come true. I have been watching film of this phenomenon since I was a wide-eyed little kid, wishing I would get the chance to see it first hand, but figured it would never happen. I was wrong. I experienced coral sex in the wild for the first time while in the field in the Philippines collecting corals for the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences. I will never forget swimming along in the dark with Matt Wandell and Bart Shepherd, seeing some stuff in the water, the three of us realizing what was happening, and then screaming at each other under water. A peak experience for sure for that wide-eyed little kid. Since then, I have been fortunate to work on coral sexual reproduction in a more rigorous way through the my work, and an ongoing program run by the Florida Aquarium, Conservation Of Reef Life, or CORL. 

Rick Klobuchar monitors coral sperm/egg bundles filling up a collection container. Photo by Rich Ross.

Rick Klobuchar monitors coral sperm and egg bundles filling up a collection container. Photo by Rich Ross.

For the past 8 years aquarium biologists from multiple institutions have been trekking to Tavernier in the Florida Keys every August to work on the sexual reproduction and restoration of the endangered Staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis. This years event was filled with worry, excitement, boredom and joy – the best fieldwork is like that, and below, I will go into detail about each emotion. The program was started after Ryan Czaja of the Florida Aquarium attended a SECORE workshop (SExual COral REproduction – a fantastic organization). Ryan brought what he learned back to Florida, and partnered with the Coral Restoration Foundation to do a Florida based workshop. When the program started it consisted of just a few people doing all the work which was incredibly fun, exciting and exhausting. This year the project grew to just under 50 people from 15 different organizations (including Seaworld and the Georgia Aquarium) doing everything from collection, fertilization trials, development trials, settlement trials to cryo preservation of coral sperm.  More »

From ReefsMagazine

by Richard Ross

In the last nine installments of Skeptical Reefkeeping we have looked at varied topics from phosphate to marketing to fallacious lines of reasoning to communication. One of the through lines all along has been the idea of anecdote, and generally, why it isn’t to be trusted. In this installment of Skeptical Reefkeeping, we are going to take another look at anecdote, try to understand why we are dependent upon anecdote in our hobby, and discuss some of its power and how to make it more useful. 

A Brief Reminder to Set the Scene

Skepticism is a method, not a position. It can be defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. As a Skeptical Reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking, not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe. The goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself while developing your saltwater expertise in the face of sometimes overwhelming, conflicting advice.

These two Dr. Seuss fish have not yet jumped out of their tank, but that doesn’t seem like a reason to jump to the conclusion that these fish aren’t jumpers.

What is Anecdote Anyway?

From Skeptical Reefkeeping – Are you sure that that thing is true, or did someone just tell it to you? (1) Merriam-Webster defines anecdote as “a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.” More hardcore, Ron Shimek says, “Anecdote is unsubstantiated or unverified observation generally made by an unqualified observer who often really doesn’t know what they are looking at.” Essentially, an anecdote is someone telling you what they think happened. The problem with most anecdotes, besides the observation and conclusion being suspect, is how quickly, with no real support, they can be converted to facts. This conversion can have a real and detrimental cost in both animal’s lives and your money.

More »

Ret Talbot and Richard Ross

From Reef Hobbyist Magaizine
From Ret Talbots blog – 
My latest article, co-authored with friend and colleague biologist Richard Ross of the Steinhart Aquarium, published yesterday in Reef Hobbyist Magazine. In some ways, it represents a departure from my regular beat, and I thank editor Jim Adelberg for the concept and invitation to write the piece.


From Reefs Magazine

by Rich Ross and Chris Jury

The Editors Note: In Skeptical Reefkeeping IX, Rich Ross is joined by our old friend Chris Jury as they try to come to terms with the “impossible” yet confirmed PO4 readings in Rich’s gorgeous reef. The analysis is thorough, thought- provoking, grounded in science and suggestive of a far more complex picture regarding PO4 and its role in our aquariums.

There are many standard parameters in the reefkeeping world that aquarists strive to match in their home reefs – water quality, light spectrum and intensity, and water flow, just to name a few. Rarely do we stop to think where these standard parameters come from, and even more rarely do we consider calling into question the utility of these parameters. This can lead to aquarists ‘chasing numbers’; tweaking water parameters to hit a standard goal. Often times, people think that hitting a magic number will inherently result in a better, healthier tank. In the past few years, dealing with phosphate in saltwater aquariums has become one of the most talked about ‘must control at all costs’ parameter, and in this installment of Skeptical Reefkeeping, we will look at some evidence which calls into question the reliability of testing, the generally accepted target phosphate concentration, and general control of phosphate in reef aquariums.

Rich’s 150 gallon display, on a 300 gallon system, is running a phosphate level of 1.24 ppm, a level at 24.8 times higher than the often recommended .05 ppm. Photo by Richard Ross.

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From and written by Animal World

October 5, 2013 by 

Tenting a Staghorn Coral Acropora cervicornis All Photos included here courtesy Richard Ross California Academy of Sciences

The Octo Mom pales in comparison to the Florida Keys Coral Spawn

An event that happens just once a year yet results in hundreds of thousands of babies. Imagine have just one such happening to produce all the offspring you could ever want! That’s the annual spawning of Elkhorn, Staghorn and other corals off the Florida Keys.

For just a short period of time each year, by a phase of the moon, thirty thousand coral colonies or more are synced-up and driven to reproduce. This happens in August or September, usually just a few days after a full moon.

Now that type of baby making is enough to stir the envy of any mom, Octo or otherwise! Granted, there’s not the same type of physical interaction mammals have, making babies in the animal world. There’s no dating or marriage, nor ongoing obligations. More »

From Reefs Magazine
Richard Ross and Kevin Erickson

here are many terms in the marine aquarium hobby that are used in multiple ways by different people, which can cause a great deal of confusion. This is especially true as it pertains to the origins and sustainability of animals – it is possible to purchase an animal thinking you know its background, lineage, where it comes from and how it was raised/collected, only to find out that you and the person you bought it from have a different understanding of what certain terms actually mean. Normally, as discussed in Skeptical Reefkeeping III, we would advise people to be aware of the different ways various people and businesses use or misuse terms, and to ask clarifying questions before you risk animals lives or your hard earned money. However, during the February 2012 MASNA Live panel discussion regarding, “Tank Bred vs Captive Raised” (Erickson, 2012), it became clear that there exist a suite of terms concerning the background and origin of marine aquarium organisms that are ambiguous. Even worse, there has yet to be any real effort to try to standardize these terms. If this situation is allowed to continue, the confusion and misuse, whether intentional or not, will continue, and skeptical reefkeepers will continue to shake their heads and say ‘I wish someone would do something about this.’ So, what follows is our attempt to take action. 

Designer clownfish are nearly all captive bred and as such are good for beginning hobbyists because wild reefs are not impacted by the learning curve. Photo by Sanjay Joshi.

Designer clownfish are nearly all captive bred and as such are good for beginning hobbyists because wild reefs are not impacted by the learning curve. Photo by Sanjay Joshi.

We have touched on this topic in the past, but in this installment of Skeptical Reefkeeping, we are going to explore some of these definitions as well as offer streamlined versions of terms which we think will help get everyone on the same page, avoid confusion, and help the hobby and industry communicate more easily and accurately about the animals in our care. 

A Brief Reminder to Set the Scene Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it can be defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. As a Skeptical Reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking: not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself while developing your saltwater expertise in the face of sometimes overwhelming conflicting advice. 

Our Goal and Process One thing that became clear during the MASNA Live panel discussion is that people have different ideas of how these terms should be defined, and trying to get a group of reefkeepers to agree on this kind of terminology is a bit like wanting people to agree on the best way to run a reef tank. We hope that the definitions offered below will at least reflect the underlying ideas of many different people. Our goal in this endeavor is to keep the definitions of terms simple and free of jargon, so that they are meaningful and easy to understand. Our hope is that anyone involved in any level of reefkeeping (or for that matter anyone not involved in reefkeeping) can easily understand what the terms actually and practically mean. Long, involved definitions are not only cumbersome, but seem to foster misuse and loopholes – which is exactly what we want to get away from. 

Captive bred Crested Oyster Gobies at home aquarium size, bred at the University of Florida. Photo by Matt Wittenrich.

Captive bred Crested Oyster Gobies at home aquarium size, bred at the University of Florida. Photo by Matt Wittenrich.

That said, in some cases it is important to have some ambiguity. Words like ‘grown’, ‘visible’, and ‘recently’ are useful because they avoid any kind of restrictive timeline which might be impossible or impractical to track or enforce. The term ‘captive-conditioned’ is a good example of this. In an effort to make the terms more consistent, we use the term ‘organism’ instead of a specific like ‘fish’ or ‘coral’ or ‘plant’ which allows for one set of terms instead of several for each class of creature. T

he Definitions:Wild Collected / Caught / Harvested

Organisms collected from the wild.

  This is one of the most straightforward terms, and there doesn’t seem to be any contention regarding its definition or use. The organism is taken directly from the wild and put in an aquarium. Such organisms may need conditioning to aquarium life and aquarium feeds, and should be quarantined, observed, and treated, if necessary, before being added to any existing population to avoid spreading infection and parasites. This currently seems to refer to the bulk of the animals in our hobby (Rhyne et al., 2012). 

A fish collector in Kwajalein prepares to wild harvest some fish for the aquarium trade. Such collectors work hard and dive deep so that we can have a steady supply of quality animals for our aquariums. Photo by Richard Ross.

A fish collector in Kwajalein prepares to wild harvest some fish for the aquarium trade. Such collectors work hard and dive deep so that we can have a steady supply of quality animals for our aquariums. Photo by Richard Ross.

Tank Raised / Captive Raised

Eggs or pre-settlement larvae collected in the wild, then grown or raised in tanks in facilities on land.

  This term refers to life stages of wild collected organisms that are generally not yet ready for aquarium life due to difficulty keeping them through the early, fragile stages of development. These organisms may be collected before they would normally settle (recruitment) out of the water column and become more like adult organisms. Some estimate that there is almost 55% mortality of new recruits; so removing organisms from the wild before this life stage to raise them in tanks may not impact wild populations in any meaningful way (Almany GR, Webster, 2005). Organisms removed after recruitment have a greater impact on wild populations; such animals, though they may be considered juveniles, should be considered Wild Collected / caught / harvested. Benefits of tank raised organisms include conditioning to aquarium life and foods, as well as having little or no impact on wild, adult breeding populations. Even though these animals have spent some time in captivity, they should be quarantined, observed, and treated, if necessary, before being added to any existing population to avoid spreading infection and parasites. Tank

Conditioned / Captive Conditioned

Wild collected organisms kept in tanks, conditioned to eat commercial aquarium foods, and accustomed to tank conditions.

  This appears to be the most easily misused of our terms. Often, organisms are labeled as being tank / captive conditioned when they still haven’t acclimated to captivity, or when they have only been in aquaria for a limited amount of time, which doesn’t provide the benefits of captive conditioning. Organisms that have been properly captive conditioned provide a host of benefits over wild caught animals. Besides being accustomed to aquarium life and foods, these animals have often gone through a quarantine and treatment regimen resulting in healthy animals with good body weight. Still, it is recommended that these animals be quarantined by their owners to further staunch any possible spread of disease. 

This baby H. zosterae is captive bred. It was born after its parents were observed spawning after months of being captive conditioned. Had it been born just after the adults were wild collected, it would be tank raised instead of captive bred. Photo by Richard Ross.

This baby H. zosterae is captive bred. It was born after its parents were observed spawning after months of being captive conditioned. Had it been born just after the adults were wild collected, it would be tank raised instead of captive bred. Photo by Richard Ross.

It is important to note that a tank raised organism is a tank conditioned organism but a tank conditioned organism is not necessarily a tank raised organism. This distinction can be confusing and could be used to mislead consumers. 

Tank Bred / Captive Bred

Organisms that were spawned and raised in tanks / captivity in facilities on land.

  These organisms were not born in the wild, but instead were born in aquaria, or emerged from their parents in aquaria. They are accustomed to commercial food, are well acclimated to life in artificial environments, and typically are well suited for life in your tank simply because they have never lived in any other environment. It is recommended that these animals be quarantined by to further stop any possible spread of disease. 

Developmental progress of Crested Oyster Gobies captive bred at the University of Florida. Research like this really highlights the difference between what goes into a true captive bred animal. Photo by Matt Wittenrich.

Developmental progress of Crested Oyster Gobies captive bred at the University of Florida. Research like this really highlights the difference between what goes into a true captive bred animal. Photo by Matt Wittenrich.

Tank Bred / Captive Bred organisms are often thought to be the holy grail of animal acquisition as they have virtually no direct impact on wild populations. However, it is important to realize that in the bigger picture, wild collected organisms serve an important role in preserving wild habitats by giving local peoples an economic incentive to care for those environments. 

February 2012 MASNA Live episode: LSMAC, New BOD, "Tank Bred" panel, & Ret Talbot. Image care of MASNA.

February 2012 MASNA Live episode: LSMAC, New BOD, “Tank Bred” panel, & Ret Talbot. Image care of MASNA.

Maricultured / Aquacultured / Farmed / Cultured / Pen Raised / Net Raised

Catch-all phrases for organisms ‘grown on purpose.’

  We have lumped all these together because the differences between the terms don’t seem to matter practically. Sure there may be technical differences between the terms, but the overarching similarity they all share is that the organisms were grown on purpose. All of these organisms should be quarantined and treated if necessary before introduction to captive populations to prevent the transmission of disease or parasites. 

A technician at a Tongan Coral Farm places coral in concrete troughs for the long process of grow out. Such systems use pumped, unfiltered ocean water which is one of the factors that leads us to lump Maricultured / Aquacultured / Farmed / Cultured / Pen Raised / Net Raised organisms together in one category. Photo by Richard Ross.

A technician at a Tongan Coral Farm places coral in concrete troughs for the long process of grow out. Such systems use pumped, unfiltered ocean water which is one of the factors that leads us to lump Maricultured / Aquacultured / Farmed / Cultured / Pen Raised / Net Raised organisms together in one category. Photo by Richard Ross.

Coral-centric Terms:Freshly Fragged

Recently cut fragments of organisms.

  Freshly Fragged organisms can be either wild collected or Captive grown. Freshly Fragged organisms may not do well due to stress from fragmentation and gluing. This practice has sometimes been referred to derogatorily as ‘chop shopping’ – wild colonies are chopped up, glued down and sold to customers who often believe that the corals have been in captivity for a significant amount of time. Both wild and captive grown freshly fragged organisms may suffer from the stress of fragmentation and gluing, while wild collected freshly fragged organisms have that stress compounded by the move from wild conditions to captive conditions. It is recommended that these organisms be quarantined and treated if necessary before being added to established systems. It is often possible to tell if a fragment has been freshly fragged by looking for exposed skeleton from where the coral was cut, or by the lack of encrustation onto the substrate to which the coral is glued. 

Freshly fragging of a wild collected coral with a hammer and large flathead screw driver. Photo by Kevin Erickson.

Freshly fragging of a wild collected coral with a hammer and large flathead screw driver. Photo by Kevin Erickson.

Healed Frags

Wild fragments of organisms that are fully healed prior to sale.

  These organisms, wild collected or not, are fragmented, but are allowed to stabilize, recover and grow resulting in corals that seem to adapt better to having their environment changed when they are moved to a new system. Though these organisms appear healthy, it is still important to quarantine and treat if necessary to prevent the spread of any coral diseases or parasites. 

Are these corals freshly fragged or healed? Only careful inspection of their attachment points for encrusting new growth will reveal the truth. Photo by Richard Ross.

Are these corals freshly fragged or healed? Only careful inspection of their attachment points for encrusting new growth will reveal the truth. Photo by Richard Ross.

Captive Grown

Organisms which contain no tissue / skeleton that was collected from the wild.

  These are typically frags of new growth from captive colonies (frags of frags) whose original origin was from the wild. These corals typically do very well as they have been conditioned to tank life for a long time. And, as with every other definition in this article, these organisms should be quarantined and treated if necessary before being added to an established system. 

Quarantined (QT) 

You might also notice that the idea of quarantine is discussed in many of the definitions above. We could have had one general paragraph about quarantine, but we feel the issue is important enough to mention it over and over again. A common thought in the hobby is that captive bred or tank raised organisms are somehow disease or parasite free, but this is a dangerous viewpoint to embrace, and, like most ‘easy’ and erroneous beliefs in this complicated hobby, it can cost lives and money. It is possible for animals kept en masse even in the cleanest of holding facilities to harbor unseen diseases and parasites despite the best efforts to eradicate them…and shipping stress caused by even the gentlest and most thoughtful shipping practices negatively impacts the organism’s immune system which makes it susceptible to diseases and pests. Even dormant and previously unseen pests and diseases carried by healthy-seeming organisms can manifest as a result of shipping stress. The short version of all of this: Regardless of where your animals come from, quarantine, and treatment if necessary, is mandatory before releasing organisms into their new home. 

Quarantine is important. This QT system at the Steinhart Aquarium is used for larger shipments of reef fish where all incoming fish are given a 30 day minimum QT regardless of their source. The rock island helps calm fish quickly and induces naturalistic behaviors making observation to determine if any treatment is needed much easier. QT set ups need not be this involved. Photo by Richard Ross.

Quarantine is important. This QT system at the Steinhart Aquarium is used for larger shipments of reef fish where all incoming fish are given a 30 day minimum QT regardless of their source. The rock island helps calm fish quickly and induces naturalistic behaviors making observation to determine if any treatment is needed much easier. QT set ups need not be this involved. Photo by Richard Ross.

When are these Definitions Useful? 

These definitions come into play when obtaining, selling or trading organisms, whether in person or online. Standardized terminology helps ensures that you are buying what you are truly after and that you will be as successful as possible. Keep the skeptical method of thinking in mind when observing and inspecting the organisms and do not be afraid to ask questions. Ask yourself, “What would Scooby-Doo ask?” Are the organisms really tank conditioned? What evidence supports that idea? If so, what types of food does it eat and is your tank appropriate for that particular organism at that stage in its acclimation to life in captivity? I

n Conclusion Remember, the goal of these articles is to help you make the useful decisions for yourself while developing your saltwater expertise in the face of sometimes overwhelmingly conflicting advice. By understanding these definitions yourself and confirming common definitions when speaking about organisms in captivity, we can work towards a set of universally accepted definitions. Remember, your animal’s lives and your money are at stake, be as informed as possible. It is important to note that we are not so full of ourselves as to think that we have nailed these definitions, and that everyone will agree on them. We will be happy if this discussion moves all of us towards universal definitions, whichever those end up being. Special Thanks to Ret Talbot, Tal Sweet, Andrew Rhyne, Jim Adelberg, Dale Pritchard, Matt Carberry, Chris Turnier, Matt Pedersen, Dan Navin, and Adam Youngblood for the discussion, both MASNA Live and personal communication, that inspired this article.

References Erickson, KP. 2012. LSMAC, New BOD, “Tank Bred” panel, & Ret Talbot. MASNA Live, February 29 (audio recording: MP3).

 Rhyne AL, Tlusty MF, Schofield PJ, Kaufman L, Morris JA Jr, Bruckner AW. (2012) Revealing the appetite of the marine aquarium fish trade: the volume and biodiversity of fish imported into the United States.

PLoS ONE 7:e35808–e35808. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035808 Almany GR, Webster MS (2005) The predation gauntlet: early post-settlement mortality in reef fishes.

Coral Reefs 25:19–22. doi: 10.1007/s00338-005-0044-y Coral Reefs
March 2006, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 19-22 

Possible Continued Reading 

Snyder, Noel F.R.; Derrickson, Scott R., Beissinger, Steven R., Wiley, James W., Smith, Thomas B., Toone, William D., Miller, Brian (1 April 1996). “Limitations of Captive Breeding in Endangered Species Recovery”. Conservation Biology 10 (2): 338–348. doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.1996.10020338.x…f-tank-raised/…moorish-idols/

From Reef Hobbyist Magaizine

[scribd id=153669980 key=key-oc9sy765jcekueic7l2 mode=scroll]

From Reefs Magazine

By Richard Ross

Ethical discussion about almost every area of reefkeeping has been a part of the hobby for as long as the hobby has existed – What size tank do I need to meet my animals’ needs? Are some animals better left in the ocean? Do I really need a separate tank to treat a sick fish? Can we justify the resources we use for our aquariums?The discussion of ethics in our hobby is both comprehensive and esoteric, having the potential to evoke extreme emotion as people argue for what they feel is some sort of moral high ground. Lately, some parts of the ethical discussion have heated up due to anti-aquarium groups working to curtail or even shut down wild collection for the hobby. As always, some of the anti-hobby positions are valid, andshould make us examine and change our husbandry practices, while others are based on emotional, poorly constructed arguments. But, ethics are not as simple as people who want you to support their position often make them out to be. We need to be prepared to counter such ethical misstatements, both in others and ourselves. This starts with understanding and refining our own ethical stances s, since the better we will be able to understand and communicate our positions to others, the better the hobby can move forward.

There is lots and lots of life on wild reefs. Is it ethical to collect it and ship it halfway around to put in peoples living rooms? Perhaps the answer depends on how much suffering is caused to the creatures in the process. (Photo by Richard Ross.)

There is lots and lots of life on wild reefs. Is it ethical to collect it and ship it halfway around the world to put in peoples living rooms? Perhaps the answer depends on how much suffering is caused to the creatures in the process. (Photo by Richard Ross.)

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From Drum and Croaker


From CORAL Magazine

From Reef Hobbyist Magazine

The Internet makes information instantly available for Reefkeepers all around the world, but that information can be clouded in inaccurate fog, anecdote, baseless opinion and unsubstantiated arguments from authority. To keep the inaccurate fog at a minimum in an effort to save money and save animals lives, you need to be able to get the information you want as well as share information that others want by communicating well with people and enticing others to communicate well in return. Since communication is one of the keystones of Skeptical Methodology and critical to success in reefkeeping, in this installment of Skeptical Reefkeeping Lives and Money, we will look at strategies for getting and sharing useful information about our boxes of live animals.

A brief reminder to set the scene

Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it can be defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence or presented with weak supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a Skeptical Reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking: not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself while developing your saltwater thumb in the face of sometimes overwhelming conflicting advice. Communication as a Skeptical Reefkeeper is critical, because it is through communication that we refine our saltwater thumbs.

image from

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From Reef Hobbyist Magazine

Link to build thread on
Link to original build thread that was accidentally deleted on




From ReefsMagazine

Collecting, Getting Stuff Home and New Discoveries

Link to Part 1

This video from the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition give you a good idea why the Verde Island Passage has been called ‘the center of the center of marine biodiversity’.

Researchers from the California Academy of Sciences have been visiting the Verde Island Passage area off the coast of Batangas Province on Luzon Island, Philippines for almost 20 years. Research by scientists during this period has suggested that this area may be the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity, and perhaps home to more documented species than any other marine habitat on Earth; there can be more species of soft corals at just one dive site than in all of the Caribbean.

Funded by a generous gift from Margaret and Will Hearst, the 2011 expedition was not only the most comprehensive scientific survey effort ever conducted in the Philippines, but also the largest expedition in the history of the California Academy of Sciences.  Over eighty scientists from the Academy, the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, the Philippines National Museum,  and the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources came with a mission to survey and document various aspects of the various ecosystems in the area.  A further team of Academy educators attended with a mission to share the expedition’s findings with local community and conservation groups as the Expedition was happening. As part of the expedition’s shallow water team based at the renowned Club Ocellaris, Bart Shepherd, Matt Wandell and I focused upon the underwater sites that served as the inspiration for the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences 212,000 gallon Philippine Coral Reef exhibit.

In part one of this series, we covered getting the the Philippines, the realities of being on an expedition and our lucky observation of hard coral spawning. In part two we’ll look at how we collected octopus and corals, how we shipped those animals back home, and more.

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From Reefhobbyst Magazine

Planning, Science and Surreality

From Reefs Magazine

by Richard Ross

Researchers from the California Academy of Sciences have been visiting an area called the Verde Island Passage off the coast of Batangas Province on Luzon Island, Philippines for almost 20 years. Research by scientists during that period suggested that this area is the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity, and perhaps home to more documented species than any other marine habitat on Earth; there can be more species of soft corals at just one dive site in this area than in all of the Caribbean. Thus it was only natural that when the Steinhart’s 212,000 gallon reef tank was designed, the Academy decided to represent the reefs of Luzon. Ever since, Steinhart biologists have traveled to this area in small groups with the objective of acquiring first hand knowledge of the environments they hope to recreate in San Francisco.

The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition, however, was a trip of a completely different magnitude: the largest expedition in the Academy’s history covering both land and sea. Consisting of a Shallow Water team, Deep Water team and a Terrestrial/Fresh Water team, the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity expedition, funded by by a generous gift from Margaret and Will Hearst, was the most comprehensive scientific survey effort ever conducted in the Philippines. Joining the expedition were over eighty scientists from the Academy, the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, the Philippines National Museum and the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, as well as a team of Academy educators whose mission was to share the expedition’s findings with local community and conservation groups as the Expedition was happening.

Embedly Powered

This video by Bart Shepherd show some of the reefscapes we encountered on the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition

As part of the Shallow Water team Bart Shepherd, Matt Wandell and I surveyed and further documented the underwater sites that served as the inspiration for the Steinhart’s Philippine Coral Reef exhibit. We also responsibly collected coral, cephalopods and other invertebrates for captive propagation, research and display at our Golden Gate Park facility. As the only public aquarium permitted to collect stony corals in the Philippines, we were to obtain these unique species for study, captive culture research, distribution to other institutions as well for display at the aquarium.


On previous trips to the Philippines, Steinhart biologists had been given special permission to collect and export small numbers of small coral fragments, most of them collected as ‘found frags’. The 2011 Expedition would continue this tradition, albeit with some modifications. In order to reduce stress on the organisms, we planned to adopt Ken Nedimyer’s work with the Coral Restoration Foundation ( to create a system for holding our coral fragments offshore until transport. We mocked up the system using materials that we could travel easily with, or that we could find in the field – silicone airline tubing, zip ties, dive weights and empty plastic water bottles as floats (after all, you can sadly find empty plastic water bottles on just about any beach in the world). The mock up went into our big reef tank for testing and was immediately dubbed ‘the coral clothesline’ by the aquariums docents.

The 'Coral Clothesline', inspired by the Coral Restoration Foundation, in action about 50 meters offshore

In addition to our clothesline supplies, we packed everything else we could think that we might possibly need. Some highlights: six large, low style plastic tanks that could be weighted and sunk offshore for holding larger fish and other inverts, as well as smaller plastic tanks that could be hung from the Clothesline to hold small fish and other inverts. A backpack kit for harvesting jelly gonads (as removing the gonads doesn’t impact the jellies long term and the gonads ship better than adult jellies). Fiberglass window screen to make lids for impromptu holding containers, as well as the rubber bands to hold those lids on. Dozens of tubes of super glue and rolls of duct tape. LCD microscope just in case we needed to look at something close up. Sharpies for note taking. Scissors for cutting everything. Needle nose pliers for coral fragmenting. Plastic rulers for scale in photographs. Deli cups for transport, collection and shipping or animals. All this stuff and more went into one fish shipping box and filled every empty space in our luggage.

After flying all night to Manila, all this gear, along with some very tired biologists, hit the ground running at 5am, finding our checked items, finding our ride and driving 3 hours to Club Ocellaris, a world renowned SCUBA resort, which would be the base of operations for the shallow water team.

Science was everywhere

Rich Mooi and Bob Bob Van Syoc stand surrounded by the science that took over Club Ocellaris

When we arrived at Club Ocellaris, we found it had already been completely taken over by the Expedition. Science was everywhere. Across the resort, any flat space had already become some sort of makeshift lab, with equipment and apparatus piled all over the place.  Every electrical outlet had a computer, camera, light or batteries charging. Containers of every conceivable kind from plastic bags, to lidded jars, to 5 gallon buckets waited everywhere to be filled with hunks of science. While all of that was exciting, we really wanted to get in the water. Within an hour of arriving our Diving Safety Officer, Elliott Jessup, got us suited up and on a boat for our first dive of the trip –  we saw sea snake, corals and fish galore. After our afternoon dive, we assembled our offshore holding about 50 meters offshore so we would be ready for whatever collecting we would do the next day. When we were done, we were treated to the most spectacular sunset I have seen in a long time. Not a bad way to start off the expedition.

Sunset our first night a Club Ocellaris

The overall dive plan for the Steinhart Biologists was to dive and collect for 6 days, then drive the animals we had obtained back to Manila for ship out on our ‘dry day’ (to give our bodies a chance to off gas Nitrogen in our tissues from diving), drive right back to Club Ocellaris for another 6 days of diving and collecting, then back to Manila for packing and shipping then fly home the next day. The daily schedule of activities would be a grueling marathon, but we couldn’t wait to get started.

Life in the expedition

Every morning, we woke at around 6 am for coffee and Skype video calls to home and work where it was 2 pm the previous day. Breakfast (ummm, mango shakes) and our dive briefing started at 7 am. With up to five dive boats going out each day, coming to agreement on where we would be diving was no small act of coordination. After breakfast we would collect and test our NITROX tanks for the day, get our cameras and collecting gear ready, and assemble & check our dive gear and load it onto the boats. Then we would suit up and zoom out to a good place to get under the wanter.

On each dive, we not only collected animals, but also completed multiple steps designed to track each specimen – every coral fragment was photographed and assigned a number that provided information on when it was collected, from what dive site and depth it was harvested, as well as the name of the biologist who collected it. Each coral got at tag attached to it so we would, in theory, be able to ID it later. The tagging was a learning experience and morphed over time, so much so, that next year we will most likely use heat stamped numbered zip ties as tracking id’s, but attach those zip ties to the coral with 20 gauge coated wire the tips of which are sealed with a rubberized plastic dip because the wire will be easier to manipulate and create less waste than other methods we tried.

A red Juncella sp, tagged and ready to be placed on the Coral Clothsline

A red Juncella sp, tagged and ready to be placed on the Coral Clothsline. This coral is now on display in the Steinhart's Philippine Coral Reef Exhibit

After the second dive, we would head back to land and offload our animals.  From the dock, we would change our scuba equipment for snorkels, and then swim our new specimens to the off shore holding facility, often making multiple trips. Then we would eat ravenously, then turn around and repeat the same process for the afternoon dives.

We would finally climb out of the water at 6pm for dinner… unless we were doing a night dive.   On night dive days, dinner and dry-off  was often as late as 10 pm.

Matt Wandell swimming a plastic tank filled with collected animals out to our offshore holding site

After dinner, there was more sciencing to be done.  The spreadsheet detailing what we had collected needed to be brought up to date, the Coral ID software needed to be consulted to identify each SPS coral to species.  Paperwork for permits for export, and shipment/arrival details needed to be initiated and updated. When that was done, we were often drafted to help the researchers on other teams process specimens they had collected, take pictures, be all around helpful, and tend to whatever animals we were keeping onshore. Sometimes we even had a moment to geek out with Philippine scientists, or have a drink of the local rum (which I still think also contained Formalin). We were lucky if we fell into bed by 11:30.

Even when bad weather kept us from diving, instead of relaxing, we were still science geeky. This is a time lapse shot of lightning and Matt Wandell writing CAS (California Academy of Sciences) in the air with a dive light

The second night

Our first night dive was something special. The moon was full and the dive site wascalled Dead Palm. We hit the water just after the sun set to swim over stands of Acropora of all different kinds and Turbinaria colonies as large as a car. It was an SPS lover’s dream dive. About halfway through the dive the particulate in the water started to gradually become noticeably thicker, and virtually at the same time the three of us looked at each other and yelled SPAWN through our regulators.

Many corals reproduce in coordinated mass orgies where they release millions of gametes into the water. None of us had ever seen a coral spawn in the wild, and it really is as cool as it looks in the documentaries.  We traced the spawn to a huge thicket of Acropora nobilis, and watched in amazement as each egg/sperm bundle emerged from the branches and floated towards the surface where fertilization takes place. Within a few days the fertilized eggs change into a coral planula, coral larvae, which swim around (yes, swim!), until they find a suitable place to settle and develop into a mature coral.

Coral spawning is one of the new frontiers in captive coral reproduction, because collecting spawn instead of coral fragments can yield many more corals in captivity in an incredibly sustainable collection method. A group of public aquarists and coral scientists formed SECORE (SExual COral REproduction – and they have been holding workshops in the Caribbean for the last several years to perfect spawning, fertilization and settling procedures. Building on the success of the Caribbean workshops the Steinhart Aquarium hopes to hold a SECORE workshop in the Philippines in the next few years. The most important part of such a workshop is of course timing it with the coral spawn. There is not much information on the timing of Philippine coral spawns, and none of the previous trips to the area had ever come across one, so actually observing coral spawning in the Philippines is a good and necessary start to bringing SECORE to the area.

We, along with some of the other California Academy of Sciences researchers and a Philippine television crew, returned to Dead Palm the next night where the coral spawn was in full swing yet again.  We were able to find a colony of Acropora willisae when it was beginning to release gametes and set up around the coral to both collect some of the spawn and to document the event. I’ll never forget filming Matt collecting gametes in a plastic bag  while the television crew was filming me film him. We were able to collect several hundred sperm and egg bundles, and though completely unprepared for the labor intensive process of fertilization and settlement, were gave it a go.


Embedly Powered

via Vimeo

My video of the coral spawn and the gamete collection

A surreal night

After years of having the privilege of diving around the world practicing no impact diving, after collecting for the trade practicing and teaching having as little impact as possible, and after planning to take ‘found frags’ when possible, watching a scientific survey on the move takes a bit of getting used to.  The researchers were collecting everything – worms,  urchins, fish, nudibranchs – and just about every dive on the Expedition yielded at least one animal that seemed to be undescribed by science. The animals were being collected and preserved for scientific description, genetic analysis and as a way to be comprehensive in the survey, and being in the midst of a full on scientific survey lead to the Steinhart biologists to try to take advantage of the situation, and alter our plan regarding what we would try to bring back to San Francisco for our living collection.

On the third evening of our diving, Dr. Healy Hamilton showed us some ghost pipefish, Solenostomus cyanopterus, and some pygmy seahorses, Hippocampus bargibanti, that had been collected that day. These animals were going to be sacrificed for their genetic material. I know some people have a visceral reaction to that idea, but as Dr. Gerald Allen once said during a MACNA talk “It’s a necessary part of science”. Of course when we saw the ghost pipefish, a species that we had always wanted to work with but hadn’t because of their dismal record of surviving collection and shipping through the trade, we immediately suggested that we try to keep them alive and that we try to ship them home and put them on display – if they didn’t make it, we would still have their genetic material available for science. Though we weren’t prepared for holding these kinds of animals, Bart, Matt and I had been trained in the ultimate McGyver proving ground – the reefkeeping hobby. We got to work setting up buckets aerated by scuba tanks, faux gargonian hitching posts for the seahorses made from zip ties, and prepared ourselves to do water changes as often as needed by slogging 5 gallon buckets up and down 2 flights of stairs.

Of course, the third night of diving was also the night we collected coral spawn, so while we were preparing to try to keep these amazing fish alive, we were also preparing to attempt to keep the coral spawn healthy and fertilized which included ‘stirring’ the gametes every hour or two. This led to the most surreal night of the trip. We had coral out on the clothesline, ghost pipefish in the offshore holding tanks, trays of coral eggs and sperm, and a bucket with two pygmy seahorses next to our beds. Throughout the night we kept waking up and tending to these animals –  a strange, wonderful and exhausting time.

In the end, we were successful keeping the ghost pipefish alive, and getting them home to the aquarium in Golden Gate Park. Sometime in the night we noticed that the pygmy seahorses were no longer living, and we preserved them. The coral spawn failed to thrive, and it seems that we were simply too unprepared and understaffed to have succeeded in that labor intensive realm. We learned a lot and helped move science forward. Of course, we plan that for next year’s trip, we will be much more prepared for new surprises and opportunities.

In the next installment – coral collecting, octopus wrangling, shipping & packing for the trip home, and 300-500 new species discovered.

Special thanks to Bart Shepherd, Matt Wandell and Elizabeth Palomeque



From Reefs Magazine

by Allison Petty

Photos by Christopher Paparo, Video by Richard Ross

The Holy Grail

As a professional aquarist, my career has presented me with the opportunity to work with a variety of remarkable marine life. Working with animals from sharks to mammals, and electric eels to reptiles has been very rewarding, but none compare to the experience of working with cephalopods. At Atlantis Marine World, I care for our two cephalopod exhibits, the giant pacific octopus and cuttlefish. They are two of the most popular exhibits at the aquarium. Their unique, almost alien-like appearance, combined with their ability to change color and shape in an instant, keeps visitors mesmerized in front of the exhibits all day. Sadly, the specimens kept in these two exhibits are not with us for long. All cephalopods have a very short life span, some lasting less than a year. They hatch, grow quickly, and die shortly after reproduction. Fortunately though, this short life means they reach sexual maturity in a reasonable amount of time, making captive breeding of many cephalopod species possible. Typically, we keep Sepia officinalis or Sepia pharaonis, and I have been fortunate enough to raise both species. Recently, however, a twist of fate has afforded me the opportunity of a lifetime.

This journey started almost a year ago when a marine life wholesaler in California called to tell us that he had some Metasepia pfefferi (flamboyant cuttlefish) coming in and asked if we were interested. Since it is considered the holy grail of cephalopods and probably the coolest animal on the planet, what could we say?

The M. pfefferi was being sent next day via FedEx, which meant there was little time to prepare. Swinging into high gear we quickly set up a home for it, which ended up being a 24-gallon Via-Aqua tank with a shallow bed of live sand. The cuttlefish arrived the very next day. We acclimated it to its new home, and I immediately fell in love. Since I have never taken care of a flamboyant cuttlefish before, I contacted Richard Ross, the “cephalopod guru”, to ask for any useful information. He told me that it is common for flamboyant cuttlefish to mate before being collected. He explained that they prefer to lay their eggs under ledges and he recommended adding coconut shell halves in the tank, just in case by some miracle we received a gravid female. It seemed like a long shot that this cuttlefish could have reached sexual maturity and mated already, as it was only 2.5 inches in length.

After giving the cuttlefish some time to settle in, we offered it a live shore shrimp (Palaemonetes pugio), which it immediately stalked and devoured. The flamboyant is like no other cuttlefish I’ve encountered before. Most cuttlefish are masters of camouflage, having the ability to blend in quite well with their surroundings by changing the texture as well as the color of their skin quickly. Flamboyant cuttlefish share this ability to blend, but can also take their appearance to the other extreme with their stunning coloration. When they feel threatened they show a remarkable rippling display of colors down their body from bright yellows and whites, to bold purples and reds, making them stand out vibrantly. This show of colors is also a way to broadcast to potential predators that it is poisonous. It is said to be as lethal as a blue-ringed octopus, making the flamboyant cuttlefish the most toxic of the cuttlefish species. Another odd behavior of the flamboyant is that unlike other cuttlefish that are usually shy and spook easily, flamboyant cuttlefish are courageous. They will stand their ground instead of jetting off into the background of their tank. These behaviors make them very intriguing and guaranteed to hypnotize anyone. Needless to say, none of us got much work done for the rest of the day.

As the flamboyant was settling in and getting comfortable in its home, I added it into my routine of daily feedings and water changes. Being that Atlantis Marine World is located on a tidal river, it is very convenient to get endless amounts of shore shrimp and killifish. These shrimp and killifish are enriched with Cyclops and salt-water mysis before they are fed out. Using live food helped maintain good water quality since any uneaten food would be alive and not foul the water. However, being that it was a new system and cycling, I did a 15% water change, 3 times a week in order to keep the ammonia, nitrates and nitrites as close to zero as possible. I kept the salinity around 33 ppt, the pH between 7.8 and 8.0 and the temperature close to 73 degrees Fahrenheit. This combination seems to keep the flamboyant happy and healthy.

After about 3 weeks of giving this flamboyant a lot of special attention the unthinkable happened: she laid eggs! The morning of July 4th was a memorable one to say the least. On my morning rounds, I stopped to say good morning to her and to my surprise there were about 20 perfect white eggs in one of the coconut halves. Ecstatic beyond belief, I needed to find someone to share my excitement and that someone happened to be Senior Aquarist, Chris Paparo. He told me not to get too worked up because he thought there was a high chance that they were infertile. However, I had a strong feeling otherwise and was excited to watch them develop.

With the exception of marine mammals and a few other taxa (damsels, cardinals, crustaceans, etc.), maternal instincts are lacking in the marine world. Most marine organisms release egg and sperm into the water, and hope for the best. The flamboyant cuttlefish is one of those exceptions. Most of the day she spent tending to the eggs, keeping them clear of detritus and other fouling agents, and guarding them from possible predation. Even though she was alone in the tank and there was no predation threat, she would still “pace” back and forth in front of the shells using her tentacles and two leg-like appendages that looked as if they were molded from the bottom of her mantle. Instead of swimming, flamboyant cuttlefish spend most of their time literally walking around on the substrate. This benthic behavior is due to their smaller than normal cuttlebone. All cuttlefish have a cuttlebone, which is made up of calcium carbonate. It is divided into chambers and depending on the buoyancy that a cuttlefish needs, it can either empty or fill these chambers with gas. Since the flamboyant cuttlefish has a small cuttlebone, they have a harder time with their buoyancy and cannot swim for long periods of time without sinking.

On August 10th, approximately a month after the first egg was laid the unimaginable happened and possibly the most important day of my career had come. While giving out her first feed of the day, I noticed the most beautiful, tiny baby cuttlefish hanging out on the wall of her tank. Not believing my eyes, standing there in shock and awe, fellow Aquarist Todd Gardner rounded the corner and asked what I was looking at. As I showed him the 1 cm long carbon copy of the adult flamboyant we stared in silence together, then celebrated for about 5 minutes before starting to think about setting up a tank for Junior.

Here at Atlantis Marine World, we believe in keeping things simple. So for Junior’s tank we used a 10-gallon tank with a hang on the back Aqua Clear mini filter and some live aragonite as substrate. After the new system was running and ready for its first occupant, I carefully scooped up the tiny baby in a deli cup and gently transferred it into its new home. Now for the hard part, what to feed this little guy? After doing some research, I found that newly hatched mysid shrimp were needed to feed Junior. I located a company in Florida, Marinco Bioassay Laboratory, which cultures mysids. After making a call, I ordered the smallest possible mysids they could ship me, which were 7 days old, and hoped it would be suitable. To my relief they were and it didn’t take long for Junior to track them down and consume them. Keeping the water parameters of the tank as close as possible to its mothers was easy enough; it was keeping the right amount of food in the tank that was more difficult. Too few mysids made catching one more difficult, but too many would stress Junior.

Over the next two months ten babies hatched. Unfortunately, two of these hatched prematurely. The two preemies had buoyancy issues and one still had a yolk sac. Needless to say, they did not survive. Keeping all eight hatchlings in the same tank worked at first, but started to become an issue when it came to feeding. Since there was a 2-month difference from the oldest to the youngest, the oldest seemed to be over powering the little ones and eating a majority of the food. At 2 months, the oldest was big enough to eat something more substantial than mysids, so I searched through the shore shrimp tank to find the smallest shore shrimp possible. At about a quarter of an inch long, I broke off the rostrum of the grass shrimp and dropped it in the tank in front of the oldest baby. To my delight he ate it right up. The feeding process started to get tedious and time consuming. It was a real challenge to make sure that all of the babies were getting enough food, so more tanks needed to be set up.

The 10-gallon set up was working just fine, so I set up two more 10-gallon tanks and another 24-gallon Via-Aqua. I size sorted the babies and split them between the four tanks. This seemed to work out well, especially when it came to feeding. Being able to see how much they were eating and weaning them from mysids to grass shrimp was easier and less stressful. Although feedings were simpler, I increased my maintenance workload by three-fold. I was still water changing their mothers’ tank 3 times a week, and now having to do the same for the four baby tanks was repetitive yet necessary to keep up with the proper parameters for these guys to grow and be healthy.

All the work I’ve been putting in with these guys was challenging and monotonous at times but it was beyond worth it. When the oldest babies reached ages of about 4-5 months, they were big enough to be displayed. Getting the “o.k.” to redo the existing cuttlefish exhibit, I replaced all the substrate and décor and revamped the overflow so the smaller cuttlefish would not get stuck to it. Once finished, I moved 6 flamboyant cuttlefish to the 500 gallon half circle exhibit. They got along for the most part. Surprisingly it was the smallest one that caused some trouble. He would get up in the others’ faces, follow them around, and threaten them. Basically it was like he had Napoleon complex and was trying to prove himself. This lasted for about 2 weeks before they all settled down, made peace with each other and made excellent display animals.

Meanwhile, back behind the scenes, their mother was still going strong. She continued to lay hundreds of eggs and took great care of them. There were no more fertile eggs by this point, but she still acted as if there were by guarding and cleaning them. She continued to eat very well until mid-January. Her eye sight started to go and she was missing her food. Like all Cephalopods when it is their time to go it is very sad to watch as they slowly perish. By my calculations she was at least 14 months old, and knowing cephalopods are short lived, I figured she had lived a long, fruitful, and what I hope was a happy life. January 27th was a sad day for me as my first and yet very successful Flamboyant cuttlefish had passed. With all that I have learned from her, I hope I get the chance to repeat this process. All I can do now is wait and see if her legacy will live on with the hope that the courtship I am seeing with the new generation will be equally bountiful.

UPDATE: As of this writing, Allison’s hopes for the second generation have been realized as evidenced by the photos and video below. Several captive bred specimens have now been reared and sent to other aquariums for further study. Congratulations on yet another stunning achievement!

From Reefs Magazine

In the previous installments we talked about skeptical methodology and how it can be used to sort through the overwhelming amount of reefkeeping information that is now at the virtual fingertips of reef hobbyists. We also discussed how skeptical thinking has impacted the idea of sustainable reefkeeping, scientific terminology, magic products and more. In this installment we’ll take a look how to decide which expert to listen to and the most important tool in the skeptical reefkeepers toolbox.

A brief reminder to set the scene

Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a skeptical reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking: not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself while developing your saltwater thumb in the face of sometimes overwhelming conflicting advice.


In any endeavor, it is always great to be able to consult with someone who has more experience than you do. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and avoiding avoidable mistakes can save you time and money, as well as lives of animals. However, there are ‘experts’ everywhere you turn, and it can be difficult to know who’s expert advice is worth listening to and who is just spouting opinion or perpetuating something they heard somewhere under the guise of being an expert. More »

In the previous installments we talked about skeptical methodology and how it can be used to sort through the overwhelming amount of reefkeeping information and products available. We also discussed how skeptical thinking has impacted the idea of sustainable reefkeeping. In this installment we’ll take a look at some of the terminology that is used in reefkeeping and see if the terms make sense or are misleading (potentially, accidentally, or purposefully).
A brief reminder to set the scene

Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a skeptical reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking: not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself in the face of sometimes overwhelming conflicting advice.

Words words words

This is a photo of and elephant seal and has nothing to do with this article.

Our hobby is constantly evolving, and the terms we use to communicate ideas to one another change and morph over time and these changes can lead to confusion. For instance, the term refugium initially referred to an area of a system that small animals could use as a refuge from predation, but now refugium also refers to an area of the system used to grow algae for nutrient export or simply a small tank plumbed into a larger system. The ideas can overlap, but they don’t necessarily, so when someone asks for information on setting up a ‘fuge, it becomes important to know what the term means to them in order to help them with information relevant to their needs. More »

From Drum and Croaker 2010 Issue

Display, Husbandry and Breeding of Dwarf Cuttle, Sepia bandensis, at the California Academy of Sciences

Richard Ross, Aquatic Biologist, Steinhart Aquarium, California Academy of Sciences,

55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA, 94118 USA

Cuttles seem to always be on the want list for public aquarium displays; however, the species generally available, Sepia officinalis and Sepia pharaonis, require large exhibits which can be a major commitment in both husbandry and cost. It can also be difficult to justify the commitment of show space and resources to such short-lived animals (the life span of most cuttles is typically between 1 and 2 years). However, the dwarf cuttle, Sepia bandensis, is a species that can be housed in a much smaller exhibit than its larger cousins making it an attractive first step into public cuttle displays. Sepia bandensis perform all the exciting and interesting behaviors that make cuttles popular, and can even mate and lay eggs while on display. Even better, S. bandensis are not prone to damaging themselves by jetting into the sides of aquaria. At the California Academy of Sciences, we have been displaying S. bandensis for almost a year, the animals have successfully bred on display and we are well into raising our second generation.

Figure 1: A young Sepia bandensis lounges among the tentacles of a Sarcophyton on display at the Steinhart Aquarium.

Procurement of animals, hatching of wild eggs, and housing of hatchlings

Sepia bandensis eggs are commonly available twice a year, around March and October, from marine wholesalers. In April 2009, the Aquarium received 3 egg clusters of approximately 20 eggs each, from Quality Marine in Los Angeles. The eggs were housed in a 5 gallon critter keeper sitting in a weir box of one of our back of house coral grow out systems. Water quality was coral compatible; temp 26C (78F), salinity 33-35 ppt, pH 8-8.4, calcium 380-400 ppm, alkalinity 7-9 dKH, ammonia 0, nitrate 0-10 ppm (NO3), PO4 0.05 ppm or below.

Water was supplied to the critter keeper by a Maxi Jet 1200 power head in the sump of the system, with the flow rate controlled by a ball valve. The water gravity drained through the slotted lid into the weir box. There was enough flow to gently keep the eggs ‘swaying’ and there were several cupfuls of fine sand on the bottom. By the end of April roughly 50 of the eggs had hatched and the hatchlings were kept as a group in the critter keeper. At this point the water flow was increased in order to keep any food items moving because cuttles hunt moving prey. Traditionally, it seems that hatchling cuttles have been kept in low flow environments, but it seems they do very well in higher flow captive environments as well. Since the hatchlings spend most of their time on the substrate, there was never had a problem with animals getting trapped against the lid as the water overflowed back into the system weir box.

Figure 2: A hatchling S. bandensis among its unhatched siblings 4 days after hatching.

Feeding hatchlings

The biggest challenge raising S. bandensis from eggs is feeding the hatchlings. The challenge is twofold – appropriately sized food and getting enough of it. As the hatchlings grow, the size of the prey item offered needs to increase, and getting enough of any appropriate prey items can be costly. The Aquarium was able to supplement purchased food items with locally caught amphipods, locally caught freshwater mysids, and when the cuttles were larger, locally caught shore crabs of various species.  It is also possible to wean juvenile cuttles onto thawed frozen foods, but this should be supplementary to live foods – more on this later.

Two quick notes on feeding hatchling S. bandensis: 1) Sometimes, hatchlings don’t appear to eat for the first week or so after hatching. It may be the case that they are actually not eating and may still be feeding on the remnants of their yolk sack; it may be that they are eating after lights out; or they may be eating small amphipods or copepods already present in the aquarium. In any event, they seem to come out of it and begin eating voraciously. 2) Enough people have anecdotally tried and failed to raise hatchling S. bandensis on enriched Artemia that I don’t think anyone need to try it again (although a study might be informative).

For the first few weeks after hatching, the hatchlings were fed twice a day with live mysids from Aquatic Biosystems and Aquatic Indictors.  Mysid shrimp were gut loaded with newly hatched Artemia . Live mysids seem to be a perfect food because they are easily caught by the hatchling cuttles. After several weeks, amphipods were introduced into the diet. There seems to be a learning curve to the hunting ability of hatchling S. bandensis; amphipods are strong and when introduced too early in S. bandensis development, they are able to easily escape from the hungry cuttles possibly causing damage.

Around week 4, locally collected fresh water mysids were introduced into the diet, which the cuttles were able to catch and consume before the shock of being placed into saltwater stunned them into no longer moving.

Around week 6 we began to introduce thawed and rinsed frozen Piscine Energetics (PE) mysids into the diet. Initially, these were placed into the aquarium along with live mysids.  Because of the decent flow rate, the cuttles would strike at the PE mysids as they was blown around in the water column. Within a week, one of the daily feedings became solely thawed PE mysids.

Around week 8, our hatchlings were between 1.2 cm (½ inch) and 2.5 cm (1 inch) in mantle length, and larger foods became necessary both from a nutritional and cost perspective. Fresh water ghost shrimp were available from a local wholesaler, however, keeping these alive long term became challenging. Marine ‘janitors’, Palamontes vulgaris, from were purchased and easily housed long term in a 20 gallon tank with an air driven sponge filter.  These shrimp were approximately the same length as the cuttles and were readily consumed.

Feeding adolescents and adults

Once the S. bandensis were larger than 2.5 cm (1 inch long), saltwater grass shrimp, Cragnon spp. were purchased from a local bait shop and introduced into the diet. The Cragnon were kept in an auxiliary aquarium on a coldwater system kept at 11C (52F). Purchases of Cragnon include shrimp of different sizes, so it is easy to pick out the best size for the S. bandensis – even though at this size the cuttles can easily take prey larger than themselves. From time to time, they are also fed thawed silversides for variety, and have also been fed live saltwater mollies.

Feeding can be done by hand – the adults swim right to the surface at feeding and will eagerly take live or thawed frozen shrimp out of from your fingers, sometimes squirting you in the face with water from their funnels in the process. A feeding stick (a piece of rigid tubing with a 7.5 cm (3 inch) lengths of 80 pound test fishing line glued to it) can also be used to make sure that individual animals are getting food. For enrichment, the cuttlefish get appropriately sized live crabs or live shrimp introduced quietly into the tank to allow the cuttles to stumble upon them and hunt them at their leisure.


Figure 3: Sepia bandensis can be hand fed. They can be tenacious and can even learn to strike above the surface of the water.

The display tank

When the hatchlings were around twelve weeks old they were ready to be put on display. A tank of approximately 450 L (120 gallons US) with dimensions of 122 cm x 61 cm x 61 cm (48”x24”x24”) that shared a common sump with three other tanks containing fish, inverts and corals was prepared for the cuttles by adding a mix of substrates, river rock, live rock, four large Sarcophyton sp., nine Acanthophyllia deshayesiana, and three Protoreastor sp. sea stars for clean up of uneaten cuttle food.  Two 175 Watt MH pendants containing 20,000K bulbs were added to support the needs of the corals.  A rigid airline tube bubbles air near the surface, and produces aesthetically pleasing glitter lines. The total system volume is approximately 1,165 L (300 gallons US).  Filtration includes various filter socks on the tank returns, a small fluidized reactor containing granular ferric oxide media and activated carbon, and an ASM G4+ protein skimmer. A remote deep sand bed for natural nitrate reduction is planned for the near future. As a result, water quality is maintained near the parameters described above.

Figure 4: Sepia bandensis display at the Steinhart Aquarium.

Initially, thirty juvenile S. bandensis, approximately 2.5 cm (1 inch) in mantle length, were introduced to the display. Since the animals were so small, and so good at camouflage, the idea was to saturate the exhibit with cuttles to make it easier for guests to see them. A graphic of a small cuttle on the substrate was also added to give the guests an idea of what to look for. The plan was to remove animals from the display as they got bigger and began to show sexual characteristics and possible aggression. It seems cuttles can tell the sex of other cuttles on sight, but aquarists can only tell the difference through dominance postures (which aren’t always accurate) or by directly observing mating.

Over the next several months, that strategy worked out well. The S. bandensis ate and grew and the males began to show themselves by facing of with each other, stretching and widening their bodies while darkening their patterns in a presumed effort to assert sexual dominance. There were a few losses, noticeable by the discovery of cuttlebones with beak bites missing from them: looking like a surfboard after a shark attack. It is unclear if the losses were due to natural aggression or cannibalism resulting from inadequate quantities of food or frequency of feedings.

As the animals matured, some were removed from the display to holding tanks behind the scenes, leaving a population of six S. bandensis on display: four females, one large male and one smaller male. Since the males are generally the aggressors in this species, the larger/smaller relationship was settled on in order to curtail dominance fighting.

Figure 5: A juvenile male S. bandensis displaying the color and posture that can be used to differentiate the sexes. Note the roundish mark on the mantle – this seems to be a bite mark from dominance behaviors.


Like other cuttles, S. bandensis mate ‘fact to face’, intertwining arms for several minutes. Mating was observed in the animals on display at around sixteen weeks. Interestingly enough, while the larger male would be facing off with his reflection in the acrylic, the smaller male would be mating.  As soon as the larger male noticed, the smaller male would stop, or be prevented from mating by the larger male.


Even though mating had been witnessed for approximately four weeks, eggs weren’t discovered in the exhibit until the S. bandensis were about twenty weeks old. Eggs were laid one at a time, with a bit of ink incorporated into the ‘skin’ of the egg. Each egg took between two and five minutes to be laid and placed into the egg cluster, which is often attached to a rock in the exhibit. Clusters can be built up over several days and can range in size from a few eggs to 40 or 50 eggs. There does seem to be some post-laying parental interest in the eggs, with both the female and dominant male jetting water over the eggs from time to time for a few days after laying. It is unclear if clusters are laid by only one female at a time, or if several females can build clusters at the same time.


Figure 6: A female S. bandensis about to add an egg to an existing clutch. The male is below the clutch.

As the eggs developed and swelled they were moved off display and back into the critter keeper behind the scenes where we raised the parents. The eggs hatched in approximately one month.

Before working at the Steinhart Aquarium the author had bred S. bandensis several times in his home cephalopod breeding system.  Although many eggs were laid the hatch rate was very low.  In contrast, the amount of eggs laid at the Steinhart Aquarium was surprising, as was the number of eggs that hatched. Between August and November, approximately 600 eggs were laid on display, with the majority of them being viable. Over 300 eggs and hatchlings have been sent to other institutions. Egg laying didn’t end in December, but it did slow down noticeably. It will be interesting to see if fecundity drops off as the breeding group gets older. The author believes much of this breeding success is attributable to the amount of live food always available at the Steinhart Aquarium. The author’s home setup, didn’t allow for the housing of Cragnon spp., so there were frozen and fed out as needed. However, at the Aquarium frozen food was only kept as an emergency backup, and feed live food was fed twice a day instead. Further study is needed to determine the relationship between fresh and frozen food on fecundity of S. bandensis.

Preparing for the next group

With the success of the S. bandensis breeding on display, we replaced the critter keeper in back of house with a cube system plumbed into the same coral grow out system. There are now three cubes 30 cm x 25 cm x 25 cm (12”x10”x10”), fed by the same Maxijet 1200 power head, and gravity draining into the same sump that were used before.  At the time of writing there are approximately thirty three-month-old cuttles, approximately eighty one-month-old cuttles along with several clutches of eggs both behind the scenes and on display. There are also several three-month-old S. bandensis that were purchased as eggs in September for genetic diversity when it appeared we would be successful with our breeding program.


Figure 7: Lots of hatchlings and unhatched S. bandensis. Feeding them all can be an expensive endeavor.

Final thoughts

The refined group of S. bandensis on display has been remarkably stable with very little fighting over time.

The amount of water flow in the display is fast enough for the Sarcophyton to visibly sway back and forth. S. bandensis don’t seem to care if the flow is fast or slow, and don’t seem to be working very hard to stay in position in the areas of higher flow.

The display of S. bandensis has been very successful from a husbandry standpoint and a guest experience standpoint – the cuttles are very popular with both docents and guests. Feeding time is especially popular!

We look forward to breeding more of these animals and sharing both display and breeding stock with other institutions.


The author would like to thank:

Matt Wandell, J. Charles Delbeek, Seth Wolters, Nancy Levine, April Devitt and Pam Montbach for helping to feed and care for these animals. Bart Shepherd for approving and supporting the display and breeding program of dwarf cuttlefish. J. Charles Delbeek, Bart Shepherd, Chris Andrews and Laura Kormos for their input on this article. Chris Maupin and Dr. James Wood for their help when beginning to keep and breed S. bandensis, and all of the members of for their help and support over the years.


Ross, R. “Sepia bandensis; Husbandry and breeding.” Tropical Fish Hobbyist, August 2009: (pp102-106)

Internet References

Ross, R. “Keeping and breeding the dwarf cuttlefish Sepia bandensis.” Advanced Aquarist, September 2005: Republished on TheCephalopodPage May 2007:



In the previous two installments of Skeptical Reefkeeping, we talked about how applying skeptical thinking to reefkeeping can help you make decisions about what methodology to follow or which products to use. In this installment, we’ll spend less time exploring the skeptical method, and instead examine how skeptical reefkeeping has impacted, and continues to impact one particular aspect of our hobby: making our hobby more environmentally sustainable.

A brief reminder
Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as “a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment.” A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a skeptical reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking.
That sounds like work! Just tell me what to do!

Sorry, I can’t just tell you what to do. I wish I could, but there is that whole Biblical quote “Tell someone what to do and their fish and corals die, get them to understand the bigger complex picture and their fish and corals live”. This hobby is not simple and there are as many opinions about how to keep our glass boxes thriving as there are people with glass boxes. The goal of this series of articles is not to necessarily provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself in the face of conflicting advice.

The drama of ‘juicing’ fish

The early 80’s was a time of glam rock, hardy elegance corals, and DIY sumps filled with hair curlers for bio media. Back then, rocks covered with hair algae were lovely, panther groupers were the hot fish, and aiptasia were considered fabu. Hardly anyone stopped to think about where animals for our reef tanks were coming from…we were all too busy just trying to keep them alive for more than a month. Fish would come into the LFS; some would make it, and some would slowly waste away despite eating well. Most of us figured we were making some husbandry mistake that resulted in the death of the fish. However, some began to apply skeptical methodology to the problem and hypothesized that the issue might have something to do with the way the fish were being handled somewhere along the way to the LFS.

Cyanide fishing kills fish and corals – which hardly seems to justify the lower prices the practice can create.

It turned out that they were right. Investigation revealed that cyanide, often called ‘juice’ was used to ‘knock out’ fish to make them easier to collect. Sounds good right? Easier to collect means cheaper, cooler animals, and everyone wants cheaper animals. However, the monkey wrench here is that cyanide is a poison that doesn’t necessarily kill the fish outright. Often, the fish seems to recover from the initial shock. It can make it all the way through the chain of custody from the collector to the exporter to the importer to the LFS to the hobbyist tank before it begins to go down hill. We now know that the cyanide can damage the fish’s ability to adsorb food; it can eat like a pig, but get little of the nutrition it needs to live. Eventually, the animal can starve to death. More »

From Reefhobbyst Magazine

From Advanced Aquarist Online and Reef Life Magazine.

The Flamboyant cuttle is one of the most amazing animals I have encountered in the wild or in captivity. They are beautiful, masterful predators that live fast and die young. It is my hope that one day they will be bred in captivity and readily available for all cephalopod enthusiasts.

Cuttlefish are the artists of the sea. . They float through the water like oceanic ballet dancers. Their feeding tentacles shoot forward with a speed, accuracy and control that would make a martial artist weep.  One minute they have the color and texture of a smooth rock; the next they flash complex three dimensional patterns and suddenly resemble a monster out of Greek myth. While all cuttlefish share these abilities, there is one species that takes these arts to an apex, making the rest look like dull amateurs – the aptly named Flamboyant Cuttlefish.

Hatchling Metasepia with a mysid shrimp in the background for scale. The ‘rocks’ are grains of sand.

The Flamboyant cuttlefish, Metasepia pfefferi, is an astonishing little animal found primarily in muck habitats. These vast, rolling underwater plains of settled silt and mud appear desolate at first glance, but are in fact populated by an unexpectedly large number of strange animals including frogfish, ghost pipefish and a stunning array of nudibranchs. Fitting right in with these odd neighbors, the Flamboyant is normally a master of camouflage blending in completely with the grey substrate. When startled, however, those previously subdued colors change to bright purples, reds, yellows and whites. The colors shine out in coruscating patterns along the animal’s body.

Flamboyants are incredibly bold, even when startled, and will hold their ground while putting on their color show for an amazingly long time. These fantastic displays have helped make ‘muck’ diving popular, have put Flamboyant cuttlefish on the top of underwater photographer/videographers “must shoot list” and have made them a pined-for-but-rarely-obtained aquarium specimen.

Hatchling Metasepia on sand, with all the coloration that adults have.

What’s in a name?

The ‘Flamboyant’ part of the common name is easy to understand, but the ‘cuttle’ or the ‘fish’ part might be a little less straightforward.

The origins of the word ‘cuttlefish’ or ‘cuttle’ have not been been nailed down. According  to cephalopod researcher John W Forsythe, “The name Cuttlefish originally came about as the best guess of how to spell or pronounce the Dutch or perhaps Norwegian name for these beasts. It is derived from something like ‘codele-fische’ or ‘kodle-fische’. In German today, cuttlefish and squids are called tintenfische, meaning ‘ink-fish’. I’ve been told that the term fische actually refers to any creature that lives in the sea or are caught in nets when fishing, not just fishes. Anyway, that’s what I understand the derivation of name to be.”

Adult Metasepia.

Recently there has been a movement, at least in public aquariums, to make the names of certain animals more ‘correct’ to avoid confusion. For instance, neither Jellyfish nor Starfish are fish, thus they are now referred to as Jellies and Sea Stars respectively. Perhaps it is time to refer to cuttlefish as cuttles, because they aren’t fish at all. Cephalopod researcher Dr. James Wood sums it up clearly; “Octopuses, squids, cuttlefish and the chambered nautilus belong to class Cephalopoda, which means ‘head foot’. Cephalopods are a class in the phylum Mollusca which also contains bivalves (scallops, oysters, clams), gastropods (snails, slugs, nudibranchs), scaphopods (tusk shells) and polyplacophorans (chitons)”, however unlike their relatives, cephalopods move much faster, actively hunt their food, and seem to be quite intelligent.”

Nuts and bolts

There are actually two species in the Metasepia genus, Metasepia pfefferi, the Flamboyant cuttlefish, sometimes referred to as Pfeffer’s Flamboyant cuttlefish, found from the Indonesia to northern Australia to Papua New Guinea, and Metasepia tullbergi, the Paint pot cuttlefish, found from Hong Kong to southern Japan. Both species are small, having a mantle length of 6-8 centimeters, with the females’ being larger than males. Distinguishing the species visually is difficult, and telling them apart relies on subtle differences in the animals’ cuttlebones.

Metasepia, like all cephalopods, have three hearts (two branchial or gill hearts, and systemic heart that pumps blood through the rest of the body), a ring shaped brain, and blue, copper based blood. They have 8 arms, with two rows of suckers along each arm, and two feeding tentacles tipped with a tentecular club. The shafts of the feeding tentacles are smooth, while the grasping face of the club is covered with suckers, some of which are proportionally huge. The tentacles and tentecular club shoot forward to snare prey and pull it back to the arms. Once gripped by the arms, the preyis manipulated to a beak-like mouth and a wire brush like tongue called a radula, both of which help reduce the prey to appropriate size to be eaten.  Reducing the food size is critical because the esophagus actually runs through the middle of the cuttle’sring shaped brain; swallowing something too big might damage the brain.

The Flamboyant’s striking color changes are accomplished by organs in the skin called chromatophores The chromatophores are neurally controlled and allow for instant color changes over the entire skin of the cuttlefish by triggering muscles to change the amount of pigment that is displayed. The skin patterns aren’t necessarily static either, they can move, like animation on a TV screen, and are thought to aid in communication, hunting and camouflage. This is evidenced on the dorsal surface of the mantle where violet stripes can often be seen pulsing across the white areas Metasepia.


In addition, to evade predators or hide from prey, Flamboyants can also change the shape of their skin by manipulating papillae across their bodies to break up their body outline. The larger papillae on the top side of the Flamboyant cuttlefish’s mantle don’t change at all.

Flamboyants use a three-tiered approach for movement. They have a fin that girds their mantle that allows for fine movement, and they can use jet propulsion via water pumped over the gills and through their funnel, which allows for surprisingly fast movement. Most amusingly, Flamboyant cuttles often amble or walk across the substrate using their outside pair of arms and two lobes on the underside of their mantle as ‘legs’. In my experience, Metasepia prefer this walking to swimming and only leave the substrate when extremely threatened or are overly harassed by groups of divers overzealously trying to get the perfect photo.

One of the most well known features of cuttles is the cuttle bone, which is often used by pet owners to provide calcium for caged birds. Cuttlefish use this multi chambered internal calcified ‘shell’ to change buoyancy by quickly filling or emptying the chambers with gas. Interestingly, while the cuttle bone of most cuttles is as long as the animal’s mantle, the diamond shaped cuttlebone of the Flamboyant is disproportionately small, thin, and only 2/3 to ¾ of the mantle length. The small size of the cuttlebone may make swimming difficult and may accounts for the Flamboyants preference to ‘walk’ along the bottom.


Like other cephalopods, Flamboyant cuttles can also produce copious amounts of ink if startled. It is thought that the ink acts as a smokescreen to allow the cuttlefish to escape predation, but most of the Metasepiainking events I have seen have been more along the lines of ‘pseudomorphs’, or blobs of ink that are thought to further aid in escape from predation by presenting the predator with multiple targets.


Recent research by cephalopod researcher Mark Norman, as reported in the episode of the television series NOVA – Kings of Camouflage, takes a step at explaining the weird colors, the fearlessness, and walking behaviors of the of the flamboyant cuttlefish.

According to Norman “Well, it turns out the flamboyant cuttlefish is toxic. It’s as toxic as blue-ringed octopuses. And blue-ringed octopuses have killed humans from their bites, so we’ve got the first deadly cuttlefish in the world. And it’s amazing on a couple of levels. First of all, it’s actually poisonous flesh, the muscles themselves are poisonous. So this is the first time that flesh that is deadly has been reported in any of these groups of animals. And secondly, the toxin itself is not known. It’s some completely different class of toxins. And toxins like those could be the key to whole new discoveries for lots of human medical conditions… This is a fantastic result, because it makes sense of what we’re seeing in the wild. And this toxicity, this poisonousness is probably what’s underpinning the whole weird behavior of the animal. And the fact that a group of animals that normally swim around or spend a lot of time trying to be camouflaged, have become so obvious, have given up swimming, are walking everywhere, it’s like a major step towards a whole new line in the evolution of these animals.”

It is also possible the bite and ink of the Flamboyant contains toxins, so any handling of these animals should be taken with a good deal of caution and forethought.


Metasepia begin life as tiny eggs laid in crevices or under overhangs or sometimes hidden inside a sunken coconut husk. The eggs are laid individually, and are approximately 8 mm in diameter. Unlike some cuttlefish species, the female does not incorporate ink into the egg mass, so the egg appears to be white or translucent.  This makes it easy to see the developing cuttle inside., Hatchlings are roughly 6mm in length at hatching and are miniature versions of adults. These are instant predators ready to get out into the world and start changing colors and eating a diet of mostly small crustaceans, stomatopods and sometimes fish.

A 2 day old hatchling Metasepia. Note the coin is under the container holding the animal.

Like all cephalopods, Metasepia grow very quickly and can reach adult size somewhere between 4 and 6 months after hatching.Adult female Metasepia are larger than males, reaching 8 centimeters in mantle length while males top off at less than 4-6 centimeters in mantle length; this may account for the size discrepancy in descriptions of these animals. Like most cuttles, Metasepia mate by coupling head to head. The male deposits a packet of sperm called a spermatophore, via a groved arm called a hectocotylus into a pouch in the female’s mantle.  The mating is very fast, the male darting in, making his deposit, and darting away, perhaps due to the threatening size difference of the mates.

Metasepia have a lifespan of about a year, and the end can be ugly as the animal enters into what is known as senescence. Motor control begins to fail, lesions can appear on the skin, and the cephalopod seems not to care about anything, including food or having arm tips eaten by bristleworms or hermit crabs.

Keeping Metasepia: Ethical considerations

The idea of keeping the more exotic cephs – Wunderpus photogenicus, Thaumoctopus mimicus, and bothMetasepia spp – has generated much discussion in cephalopod circles, mostly because the size and health of their wild populations is unknown. Even the sharing of information, photos or video of these animals in captivity can be controversial. Some fear that detailed information and attractive photos may encourage inexperienced saltwater aquarists to obtain specimens and encourage over-collection, perhaps impacting the ability of wild populations to recover.

Personally, believe that the admiration of a species can be of benefit to its preservation in the wild rather than its detriment. Experienced cephalopod keepers can and have made positive additions to the overall knowledge about these animals. My hope is that the open sharing of information empowers aquarists to make sound, rational decisions regarding the advisability of keeping these animals.

Keeping Metasepia is not something that should be entered into on a whim and even experienced cephalopod keepers with mature tanks should think long and hard before obtaining this species. Their needs are resource intensive, specific, and not yet fully understood, so if you do decide to take give it a go, take your time and please document your efforts so others can learn from your successes and mistakes.

Getting an animal

The biggest drawback to keeping any cephalopod in aquaria is getting one. Cephalopods are notoriously terrible shippers, often arriving at their destination dead in a bag of ink-filled water. This may have to do with an inherent inability of the animal to deal with the stress of shipping, or it may be because the time and effort needed to ship these animals successfully is not well understood. Either way, currently importers are wary of ordering these animals because of their poor survival rate through the chain of custody.

The aquarium trade does not distinguish between the Metasepia species, and if you are lucky enough to find one, and willing to pay between 300 and 800 dollars US per animal, you really can’t be sure which species you have. I do think that most of the animals that make it into the trade are actually Metasepia tullbergi from Japan where they have been tank raised. Metasepia pfefferi, to be best of my knowledge, have not tank been tank raised anywhere.

What’s even worse about trying to obtain one of these animals for your aquarium is the idea that most of the animals imported are single adult males, which means they may only live for weeks or months and there is no possibility of eggs or breeding. Over the past 7 years I have been able to obtain 3 live Metasepiaspecimens, once driving from San Francisco to Los Angles and back in the same day to give the animal every chance to survive. All were adult males and lived between 2 and 4 months.


A mature aquarium with stable reef like water quality is necessary for housing Metasepia. Water temperature should be approx 78f (25.5c), salinity 33.5-34.5 ppt, pH 8.1-8.4, with ammonia, nitrite and nitrate as close to 0 as possible.  Ammonia seems to be particularly problematic for cephalopods so regular testing and an ‘ammonia alert’ card are useful to determine the frequency of needed water changes.

Metasepia and the authors wife in Lembah, Suliwesi.

A good skimmer is necessary to provide oxygen and nutrient export as well as to provide “insurance” for any inking events. Carbon, along with mixed and heated saltwater for water changes is good to have on hand as well for any inking. A good amount of live rock and/or macro algae is a good “bonus” for filtration and shelter.

A substrate area of at least 36×12 inches (standard 30 gallon breeder aquarium) is recommended to provide enough ‘walking’ room for a single animal. I prefer to use a muck substrate substitute like Carib-Sea mineral mud, in combination with 4×6 inch sections of any of the ‘mud’ products available, but since Metasepia don’t dig, a fine sand bottom will also work adequately.

Simple fluorescent lighting is enough for the Metasepia, though something more powerful may be necessary if keeping macro algae or simple non-stinging (DiscosomaNeptheaXenia etc) corals along with the cephalopod. High intensity lighting should be fine as these animals are diurnal.

When possible, I like to keep my cephalopod tanks plumbed into a larger reef system. This allows for a larger overall water volume, more stable water conditions and alleviates the need for extra equipment. SinceMetasepia don’t escape from aquariums like their octopus cousins, a tight fitting lid isn’t needed and plumbing into an existing system is easy. Best of all, a tank plumbed into a larger system can be taken off line and put on line very quickly given the availability of Metasepia.

I prefer to not keep any other fish or ceph with the Metasepia. Either the Metasepia will eat the fish or the fish will harass the Metasepia. In reality, these animals are so rare in the trade that I am an advocate of anything that gives them a better chance at survival… which means avoiding annoying tank mates. Clean up crew animals such as snails, hermit crabs in moderation, and bristle worms won’t be eaten by the Metasepia, and will help clean up any uneaten food.

If the Flamboyant arrives in good condition, it may start eating right away – the three I have been able to obtain over the years have eaten within minutes of being released into the aquarium. Metasepia seem to need to eat more than other cuttles, and I suggest feeding them at least 3 times a day. If the animal doesn’t get enough food, it may begin to float at the surface and not be able to fully submerge; it seems lack of food may be related to poor buoyancy control. I have heard accounts of the backs of under-fed Metasepia actually drying out from the animal not being able to get away from the water’s surface.

Almost any live shrimp will be eaten with gusto. I have used live and frozen saltwater ghost shrimp(Palaemontes Vulgaris) and local San Francisco bay bait shrimp (Cragnon spp) with great success. Start with live and then experiment with thawed frozen because one of the most important things you want from a newly imported Metesepia is to get the cuttle eating. Live crabs seem less interesting to Metasepia than to other cephalopods, and thawed frozen krill has been flatly ignored.

Late Breaking News

After 8 years of fruitless effort, I was able to obtain a group of Metasepia for captive breeding at the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences. While the group suffered 80% loss in the first week, 90% in the first month,  we were able to mate one male with several females which then laid eggs. Some of the eggs have developed, and at the time of writing, we have two hatchling Metasepia and several more eggs developing. This is a good, but baby step on the road to being able to keep and breed these animals in captivity. I am working hard to keep the hatchlings alive.

What this experience tells me is that even with all the resources of a Public Aquarium, wild caught, adult Metasepia are difficult to keep alive for any length of time. However, the small success means there is hope on the horizon for studying, appreciating, and breeding this amazing cephalopod in captivity.


The Flamboyant cuttle is one of the most amazing animals I have encountered in the wild or in captivity. They are beautiful, masterful predators that live fast and die young. It is my hope that one day they will be bred in captivity and readily available for all cephalopod enthusiasts.

If you are interested in keeping cephalopods, there are several species that are easily available, better understood and make better starter cephs than Metasepia. Please do some reading on www.TONMO.combefore purchasing any cephalopod.

References and other sources of Information

Hard Copy:

  1. Dunlop, C and King, N. 2008. Cephalopods: Octopuses and Cuttlefish for the Home Aquarium. TFH Publications. 269 pages
  2. Hanlon, RT and Messenger. 1996. Cephalopod Behaviour. Cambridge University Press. 232 pages
  3. Jereb, P. and Roper, C.F.E. (editors). 2005. Cephalopods of the world. Issue 4, Volume 1, FAO. PP 60-62
  4. Norman, Mark. 2000. ‘Cephalopods a world guide’. ConchBooks : pp.86-89
  5. Nesis, KN. 1987. Cephalopods of the World. TFH publications. 351 pages


  1. Nova, Kings of Camouflage;
  2. Wood, J and Jackson, K, How Cephalopods Change Color;
  3. CephBase;

From Advanced Aquarist Online and Reef Life Magazine

(With special thanks to Dr. Roy Caldwell)
Octopus chierchiae is an amazing little animal and  is clearly worth further study.
Without a doubt, octopuses are intriguing animals. Eight sucker covered arms, three hearts, copper based blood, defensive ink, a bird like beak, phenomenal carnivorous prey-stalking abilities, color-changing skin, eyes with an intelligent gleam and the apparent intelligence to escape the aquarium to explore all make keeping octopus a thrilling and fascinating endeavor.

In recent years there has been much public interest in the so-called ‘zebra’ octopuses – Wunderpus photogenicus and Thaumoctopus mimicus. And with good reason, as these animals can be stunning in coloration, patterning and displays. As their common moniker implies, these octopus can display distinctive black and white stripes over their mantle and arms. But there is another ‘zebra’ octopus that is rarely seen which may turn out to be even more fascinating than its better known cousins – the pygmy octopusOctopus chierchiae.

Richard Ross: The first Octopus chierchiae during acclimation.

Nuts and bolts

Octopus chierchiae is a striking, small octopus. The skin of the adult is usually a creamy color with dark bands bordered by white all over the body and arms. At times, the same individual bands can fade so the whole animal appears creamy with creamy stripes. At other times, that same specimen may become translucent, revealing the branchial, or gill, hearts beating in the animal’s pointed mantle. Finally, that same specimen might a uniform, dark brown. The skin itself alternates between a smooth and a bumpy texture, and there are star shaped papillae around each eye as well as prominent papillae towards the tip of the mantle.

Octopus chierchiae occurs along the pacific coast of Panama and Nicaragua, living in the low inter-tidal zone where they may be periodically exposed to air and may survive in water that collects in rock cavities between tides. Being from this zone, it may be that this species is tolerant of a wide range of temperatures and salinities. Although they have been described in one of the few scientific papers about them as ‘common’, they may not be, or they may simply only be common at certain times of year. We simply don’t know because the science hasn’t been done. One expedition to collect these animals for research was unable to obtain a single specimen. If these octopuses are indeed not common, negative impact on wild populations due to collection is a very real possibility, as these animals are recognizable, andeasy to collect due to the environment they live in.

The lifespan of Octopus chierchiae is currently unknown, but thought to be roughly a year. The longest lived wild caught animal was kept alive for approximately 8 months.

One of the most astonishing features of this species is the female’s ability to lay multiple clutches of eggs over its lifetime. The reproductive strategy for most octopuses is semelparous, laying many small eggs at once and then dying. The small eggs almost always hatch as planktonic paralarvae and are essentially impossible to raise in captivity (although there has recently been some small success in that area). Octopus chierchiaehowever, is iteroparous, and it lays several, smaller clutches of eggs before dying. What makes Octopus chierchiae even more attractive from a breeding standpoint is that the eggs are large, and the hatchlings emerge essentially as miniature adults which makes raising the hatchlings possible in captive environments.

Females are larger than males, reaching a dorsal mantle length of 25mm and 18 mm respectively. The males have a hectocotylus, or grove, on the third right hand arm when the animal is viewed from above that is used to pass sperm packets to the female. It also appears that the males have ‘fringing’ along the tips of the arms that is absent in females.

It is also possible these animals are toxic in some way – their striking coloring and patterning seems very much like warning to would be predators. However, whether the bite is toxic or the flesh is toxic is a question that will have to wait for further research.


Octopus chierchiae was first briefly described by G Jatta in 1889. Most of what we know about their lifecycle and behavior comes from a paper written in 1984 by Arcadio F. Rodaniche, along with some first hand observations by cephalopod researcher Dr Roy Caldwell. In the early 1970’s Dr. Caldwell collected severalOctopuschierchiae while doing stomatopod research in Panama, and treated them as a curiosity. This experience was partly responsible for Dr. Caldwell becoming interested in studying pygmy octopuses. It was he who later returned to Panama to collect Octopus chierchiae and was unable to find a single specimen.

Since then, Dr Caldwell has obtained specimens of Octopus chierchiae sporadically, and they have leaked into the pet trade from time to time. The issue with getting them is there are few marine ornamental collectors in that part of South America, and they don’t collect and ship in a consistent manner for any animals, never mind a ‘specialty’ animal like a cephalopod. Dr. Caldwell wrote about them once (the online source for all things ceph related), but since they were so rare in the trade and in research, I never imagined I would be able to work with them.

As luck would have it…

In early April 2008, I received an email from a supplier asking if I was interested in some zebra octopus they had received from Indonesia. One was a Wunderpus, but the other was clearly something different. It looked like Octopus chierchiae. Later discussion revealed that the specimen did not come from Indonesia, but rather arrived as a stow away in a gastropod shell in a shipment from Nicaragua. I asked for the animal to be shipped to me and went about modifying part of my cuttle system into an octopus system in anticipation of its arrival.

Richard Ross: A male swimming in the water column. Note the ‘fringing’ on the arm tips and the hectocotlys is visable on the arm under the mantle

Roy Caldwell; Octopus chierchiae mating, male on top.

Richard Ross; Female in her barnacle den with eggs getting ready to hatch

Octopus are escape artists, inter-tidal octopus like Octopus chierchiae even more so because they are used to crawling around in areas without much water. They can also be cannibalistic, so keeping them separate is imperative. Luckily, the modifications were fast and straightforward because the system was mature, with Carib-Sea ‘mineral mud’ substrate. All that was needed was some ‘octo proofing’ of part of my cuttle breeding system. The cuttle system was a cube system with the cubes divided by slotted acrylic that an octopus could easily fit though, so I bought some small pored commercially-available aquarium divider material, cut it to size and super glued it in place over the slots while the tank was still full of water. Even though I didn’t think it would be possible for the octopus to escape through the return plumbed into each cube, I also covered the return… the chance simply wasn’t worth taking. I also purchased some large glass tiles to place over each cube and the system was ready to go.

The octopus arrived, was acclimated and introduced into its new home. Its mantle was about 15 mm across, and all of its arms were intact and looked healthy.

I wanted some kind of den or hiding place for the octopus, but wanted to be able to easily check on the animal’s health – and to be sure it hadn’t escaped or died. Some dwarf octopus live in gastropod shells, but such dens would have made it difficult to keep track of the animals because they could easily disappear deep down into the spiral of the shell.. My initial offering, a piece of large vinyl tubing, was ignored, so I replaced it with large individual barnacle shells and the Octopus chierchiae quickly took up residence.

I offered live shore shrimp (Palaemontes v ulgaris) but they were ignored for the first few days, as were local San Francisco bay bait shrimp (Cragnon spp). I collected some local shore crabs (hemigrapsis spp), which were taken with gusto, although that might have been because the octopus were hungry rather than due to a preference for crabs. The crabs stopped struggling within seconds of being bitten which may point to possible toxicity of Octopus chierchiae.

Cephalopood researcher Dr Christine Huffard came byto take a look at the animal and confirm the identification. She alsodetermined that the animal was female. I immediately followed up with the initial supplier, as well as others, asking if they could get more specimens.. If we could get more, not only would we could learn more about them, but we could perhaps establish a breeding population which could benefit both research and hobbyists.

An online retailer had one Octopus chierchiae listed, which I quickly bought. He also told me that they had seen 4 more individuals at their supplier. I immediately sent them more money, but in a heartbreaking turn of events, it turned out that they had escaped into the wholesalers live rock holding tanks… never to be seen again. Fortuitously, when the second Octopus chierchiae arrived it turned out to be a male andDr Caldwell, Dr Huffard and I set up a date the next week to attempt to mate them

I’ll never forget that night, the three of us crowed around a 3 gallon tank, in the dark, with multiple still and video cameras ready to document the cephalopod pornography. When we put the male and female together, they copulated within minutes. The smaller male sized up the female and then quickly jumped on her, inserting his hectocotylized arm into her mantle. The mating lasted several minutes and the animals were then returned to their individual homes. It was like cephalopod Christmas morning.

Here be hatchlings

Two weeks later, a second male arrived, thanks to a donation by a generous and selfless hobbyist. Dr. Caldwell came over to mate the second male to the female. When I went to move the female to the photography tank I discovered a clutch of eggs in her barnacle den.

Richard Ross; 2 day old Octopus chierchiae hatchling over US dime (approx 18mm) for size reference. Coins can contain metals that are deadly to cephalopods, so the coin was actually under the container that contained the octopus.

Richard Ross; Octopus chierchiae at day 85.

Roy Caldwell: 4 day old Octopus chierchiae hatchling with chromatophores developing.

Roy Caldwell; 30 day old Octopus chierchiae hatchling on calcarious worm tube used as dens.

Over the next few days, she tipped her den opening down and would walk around her tank as if she were trying to de-evolve back into a snail. If disturbed, she would use her arms inside the barnacle and against the bottom of the tank to ‘suck’ the barnacle to the bottom of the tank. I gently tried to pull up the den to see what was going on inside, but stopped because it was going to take a great deal of effort to separate it from the tank and I didn’t want to risk damaging her or the eggs.

Over the next several weeks I eagerly awaited hatchlings. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the female would sneak an arm out from under the barnacle to take freshly killed shrimp; according to Rodaniche the females don’t eat during brooding. While waiting for the eggs to hatch, I prepared for hatchlings.

I built a water table to house individual octopus hatchling containers. I took small, clear plastic containers, cut a slot in their sides and glued netting from a commercially available net breeder over the slots. I drilled a hole in each lid and glued a piece of rigid tubing into the hole. I then attached airline tubing to a valved manifold fed by a small power head. I drilled a second hole in the top of each container for feeding. This set up was inexpensive, allowed me to add containers as necessary, allowed me to control the amount of water in each container, and gave me easy access and easy viewing to each container with minimal stress to the hatchling during feeding.

Finally the first hatchlings arrived. I discovered in them one morning, and found them to be an amazing orange color, very different from the adult coloration. They swam in the water column bouncing up and down like fishing bobbers. Over the next 20 days I discovered hatchlings in 1s and 2s, for a total of 23 hatchlings from the first clutch. I fed them small amphipods collected from the aquarium glass elsewhere in the system, and gave them black airline tubing to use as dens – which they ignored. About half of the hatchlings went to Dr. Caldwell’s lab, where they were kept in glass jars with netting over the mouth to prevent escape in a larger aquarium, and were given calcareous tube worm tubes as dens – which they immediately took to.

Richard Ross: Octopus chierchiae hatchling eating an amphipod bigger than itself.

Roy Caldwell: Octopus chierchiae hatchling in an 'arms up' defensive post

As the hatchlings grew they were given larger amphipods both cultured and collected from around the San Francisco Bay. As mentioned earlier, everyone knows that octopuses are amazing predators, but there is something phenomenal about watching a 5 mm long animal hunt, capture and eat a 7 mm long amphipod.

The extended Cephalopod community

For several years now, Octopus chierchiae have been’s most wanted octopus, so the obtaining of specimens and the successful breeding of these animals made for excitement among cephalopod enthusiasts. As it happened, a few more Octopus chierchiae had turned up across the country. Since broodstock is a traditional stumbling block to getting captive cephalopod breeding populations established, I asked all three of the people who had an Octopus chierchiae, to send them to me, letting them know that Dr. Caldwell and I would gladly pay for them. If our breeding project was successful, we would send them hatchlings as replacements. We were able to get two more males from generous hobbyists. There was one hobbyist that had a female and ended up with hatchlings, but wasn’t able to get them into the effort. This was unfortunate because we needed the genetic diversity. The hunt for more animals went on for months, but none were to be found and the South American supplier had ceased shipping.

Some Final Details

  • Two of the hatchlings climbed up the side of their containers, and met a grisly, dried out death. Several more of the hatchlings were lost due to an unfortunate ammonia spike, while others were lost to unfortunate salinity drops. Others were lost for unknown reasons.
  • The hatchling wet weight at 3 days was 22.3 mg, while at day 123, the wet weight was 330 mg.
  • The female was mated to 3 males, resulting in 3 clutches laid and 46 discovered hatchlings (some may have undetected on hatching and escaped into the larger system).
  • There were more male hatchlings than females. The longest lived male survived for 340 days, while the longest-lived female lasted 326 days. Both of these far exceed the lifespan of any wild-caught specimen on record.
  • Any attempted sibling or oedipal matings resulted in no eggs being laid.
  • We were not able to obtain any more specimens, so the effort ended after all the animals died.

In conclusion

Octopus chierchiae is an amazing little animal and is clearly worth further study. Every time I speak to a supplier I ask about getting more from South America, but a year and a half has passed without further specimens. It is my hope that someday we’ll succeed in establishing a viable breeding program, and in the process learn more about this fascinating little ‘zebra’ octopus.

References and Resources

Hard Copy

  1. Boyle, PR and Rodhouse, P. 2005. Cephalopods: ecology and fisheries. Wiley-Blackwell, 452 pages
  2. Dunlop, C and King, N. 2008. Cephalopods: Octopuses and Cuttlefish for the Home Aquarium. TFH Publications. 269 pages
  3. Hanlon, RT and Messenger. 1996. Cephalopod Behaviour. Cambridge University Press. 232 pages
  4. Rodaniche AF (1984) Iteroparity in the Lesser Pacific Striped Octopus, Octopus chierchiae. (Jatta, 1889). Bull Mar Sci 35:99–104
  5. Caldwell, Roy. Private communication.


  1. Octopus chierchiae mating video:



…or this?

In the last installment we talked about the role anecdotal evidence and logical misunderstandings play in how we make decisions about reefkeeping. In this installment, we’ll look at how and why manufacturers make claims about their products, why you might want to be skeptical about them, as well as some practical advice for determining the validity of those claims.It seems you can’t turn around in the reefkeeping world without bumping into another new product that you must have to keep your reef healthy. The claims are usually the same, always some version of one of these:-This product will unlock your reefs potential.
-Cure any and all disease in a reef environment.
-This will change the way you keep your reef.
-You’ll see colors and animal health that you have never before experienced.
And my personal favorite:-YOU’LL NEVER HAVE TO DO REGULAR MAINTENANCE ON YOUR TANK AGAIN!The ads are very clear in a roundabout way; Without THIS product your reef sucks.

Honestly, sometimes a new product does work. A lot of them don’t.
Even widely used products occasionally don’t do what they claim but in spite of this, somehow they’ve caught on.

I’m going to tell you the one thing you can learn to do for your reef that will improve it’s condition, and your sanity, from day one: Skeptical Thinking.

What is Skeptical Thinking, Rich?

I’m glad you asked. First, it’s not being a grump. For some people the idea of being a “skeptic” has a negative connotation, but do Shaggy and Scooby Do seem like grumps? They’re skeptics. Think about their show. At the end there never is a monster or a ghost, it’s always, as Tim Minchin would say, “the dude who runs the water slide.” More »

From Reefhobbyst Magazine

 From Reefs Magazine

 “Are you sure that that thing is true, or did someone just tell it to you?” – They Might Be Giants

Is this the tank of your dreams? A healthy dose of skepticism might help you get there. Photo by Sanjay Joshi

Reefkeeping is as much an art as it is a science. There is so much that we don’t understand about what actually goes on inside our boxes of water that we must rely on cultivating a ‘saltwater thumb’ for success over time. Building that saltwater thumb, however, can be a daunting task. There are a million opinions on every aspect of reef keeping, and the modern reefkeeper can access those opinions thru websites, online forums, or those big heavy things on the shelves at home (Books? I think that’s what they’re called). Essentially, you can find support for every aspect of the hobby regardless of how ‘fringe’ it may be – the question is, how do you sift through all those opinions to make decisions about what to do with your reef tank? My answer – be a skeptic. In the next few issues of Reefs Magazine, we’ll look at critical and skeptical thinking, how they relate to reefkeeping, and how they can help you wade through the flood of good and bad information available to the modern reefkeeper.

Be a Skeptic

The idea of being a skeptic seems to have a negative connotation, as if somehow being skeptical means saying no for the sake of saying no. That’s not quite right. Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as “a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment.” A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt, and following up to get a handle on why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. This boils down to the one adage about reefkeeping that almost every experienced reefer agrees with, namely, be patient. Taking your time in your decision making is just as important as taking your time stocking your reef because, as they say, “nothing good happens quickly in a reef tank”. So, when that shiny new idea about reefkeeping shows up, with many people being very excited – slow down and think. More »

It’s every reefkeepers worst nightmare: opening the front door to the house and smelling the pungent smell of the shore that the Yucatecans call ‘lodo’. While pleasant near the ocean, that smell in your house means something has probably gone wrong with your reef. As you rush through the house to the tank you hope you won’t find the milky mess of death that your nose is telling you you will find. Sometimes you are lucky, and the smell is a container of frozen shrimp or macro algae that you left on top of the tank to fester easy-bake-oven-style under your metal halide lamps. Sometimes it is worse – much worse. Last December, I came home to that smell, and it wasn’t light baked shrimp or algae; it was the much worse.

BEF (Before Epic Fail)

First a little backgroundI have a 150 gallon show tank in my living room, mixed reef, but primarily SPS. I love it, and it contains several personally collected pieces. It was a featured aquarium in Advanced Aquarist in 2004. In late 2005 I took it down for a month while we had some work done on the house giving me the opportunity to make it into a in-wall tank with a mini fish room (really just storage) behind it.

The 200 gallons of sumps/coral farms are under the house in a 40 inch crawl space, that, while annoying to move around in, keeps the noise, mess and humidity out of the house. Also, because the crawlspace is cool in the summer, my need for a chiller is very much lessened. The crawl space also gives me room to store all my reef ‘junk’ and allows me to keep 150 gallons of mixed saltwater on hand at all times, which always seemed like a good idea to me.

The rigged out uber-redundant crawl space

In 2006 I got nailed by monti eating nudies, which meant pulling all the giant monties and either dipping them or throwing them away. In 2007 I got the brunt of the AEFW plague when dealing with the wee beasts meant pulling all your corals and dipping them or throwing them away (now its easy to live with them). All this rigmarole meant that I was constantly wishing the tank was 6 months more along so that it could make another appearance as a featured aquarium in Advanced Aquarist. Last November, I started talking about how the tank was finally maturing, how I was removing smaller colonies to get rid of that fruit stand look that tanks go through when stocked with frags and mini colonies. A video Jake Adams took of my tank was posted on youtube. I started fragging to shape the colonies and to stop them from growing together. Then, December came and along with it, the Epic Fail.

A little more background

I love basic automation and redundancy. I don’t run a controller because I don’t like the idea of a single point of failure. There are 4 circuits going to my reef system with lights and pumps and heaters distributed over the different circuits. There are Penn Plax air pumps that come on in a power outage for oxygen and circulation. There is one Vortech with a battery backup. There is a modded maxi jet on a UPS. DI water collects in a 10 gallon reservoir to limit the amount available for possible overdosing, and then is pumped into the Kalk reactor by a pump triggered by a float switch (not valve), and the float switch has a second float switch just above it in case the first float switch fails. The effluent from the Kalk reactor gravity feeds into the sump. The skimmer’s external collection bucket has a float switch on it that controls the skimmer so if the skimmer goes nuts it can only pump out 5 gallons from the tank before shutting off. I also have a pump in that external collection bucket so I don’t have to lug around nasty water – I flip a switch and away it goes.

All in all, I feel my system is pretty sound and able to handle almost anything that isn’t a major disaster or power failure (and yes I have a generator and a power inverter). We get minor power outages sometimes (as I write this, there was one last week) and thus far everything works just fine. Usually the only way I know there was an outage is by the blinking clocks – the tank just chugs along.

It has been important that my system takes care of itself for the most part because my wife’s major hobby is exotic vacations, which means we can be away from the tank for 3 weeks or more at a time. I used to fret about being away for so long, even though I had done pretty much everything I could to automate daily tasks, and had a posse of reefing friends checking in to make sure all was well. I still fretted until my wife gave me the best piece of reekeeping advice ever – ‘assume that you are going to come home to coral soup’. So, every time I leave the tank I make sure my corals are backed up in other people’s tanks, I say good bye to everything, and I go enjoy my vacation and don’t think about the tank. I believe that this advice had the effect of prepping me for coming home to coral soup at any time, and when I finally did, I was able to function and try to control the damage.

Every reefers nightmare

The horror, the horror

I got home Saturday evening, and smelled the smell of the sea. I rushed to my reef but couldn’t see very far into the tank. Some of the fish I could see were being blown around but not moving on their own. Going through my head were lists of dead animals…the double headed Scoli I got at Midwest Frag Fest…the S. wilsoni I got at MACNA…the Picasso Clowns…the Radiant wrasse…colonies that were finally ‘big’. For a minute I stood there frozen in grief. I put all that aside when I saw my pH monitor – 10.5. I knew regardless of what had caused the crash, if I was going to save anything I needed to get that pH down immediately.

I took 150 gallons of water out of the system, put 150 gallons of new water right in, and started filling the container with RO so I could mix more saltwater. That 150 gallon container I keep filled with mixed saltwater had been helpful before, but at that moment it was critical. Sadly, the pH barely moved. I remembered that vinegar would bring down pH. I had a little vinegar in the house, and it brought the pH down, but not enough, so I rushed out to the store to by more. I believe all in all I added a full gallon of vinegar to the system before the pH dropped to 8.6, and some of the fish looked less dying than they had before. I then added new carbon, a nu clear canister filter with a pleated micron cartridge and diatomaceous earth (DE) and ozone. I finally went to bed fully expecting everything to be dead in the morning, and decided to take no rash action, removing nothing from the tank for at least few days to give everything the best possible chance of recovery.

1 day AEF (after Epic Fail)

I woke up, and still couldn’t tell what was going on in the tank because it was still cloudy, but a little less stinky. All that vinegar was probably causing a massive bacterial bloom. Once another 150 gallons of water was ready I did another water change, changed the carbon, rinsed the pleated cartridge and put in fresh DE, posted my tale of woe on a couple forums, and tried to ignore the tank for the rest of the day.

2 days AEF

The next day the tank had cleared enough that I got a decent look at what was going on inside. The ‘true undata’ seemed to look ok, but all the other SPS were white – it was like looking at a show tank from 1982. Some of the fish that I would have sworn were dead were actually alive. Most of the LPS were still sucked tight to their skeletons, so I had no idea what was going to survive.

3 days AEF

The water cleared enough after another 150 gallon water change to take some photos that didn’t look like a tank of milk. More of the fish seemed to be gone and I was braced for a gradual die off of everything else.

4 days AEF

The water clarity was almost back to normal, and it looked like most of the fish made it. One clown, 3 chromis, a hybrid PBT and a mandarin had died, but the Picassos, the radiant wrasse, the flame wrasse, the swales basslet, the remaining pair of mandarins, a home-made banggai cardinal, the cleaner shrimp and the harlequin shrimp pair all were alive and seemed fine. I even fed them and they all ate. I had no idea what to think about the corals.

7 days AEF

As it turned out, every acro was dead as were most montis, poccis, the duncans and I was prepped to lose all the chalices as well. Hanging on were the undata, the double headed scoly, the dendro, some acans, and cespitularia (it had actually grown in the days AEF). I grabbed a 5 gallon bucket and filled it with acro skeletons, but left everything that didn’t have algae growing on it in the tank. My wife pointed out that the tank didn’t really look that bad as tanks go, and that it indeed could have been worse.

24 days AEF

About two weeks later I did a water test and everything came out normal, so I bought a yellow tang to help with any sneaking algae problems. About a week after that I added some ‘canary’ acro frags and they did well. Some of the corals I thought were goners, but that I didn’t remove, came back – most notably the S. wilsoni. Some of the chalices were down to 1 mouth but hanging on.

7 months AEF

The reefing community was nothing but supportive and two months AEF I started adding corals en masse. I got two great boxes of mini colonies from, and tons of frags from local friends. Never was I happier that the attitude of my local reefing community is one of giving your corals away. After 7 months, the tank was a healthy fruit stand again, and about a year later I have to prune colonies back so they don’t fight and I am starting to think about removing corals just to make room.

So, what happened?

Even redundancy in design won't prevent human error

It was all my fault.

I did several stupid things at the same time. First and foremost, I worked on the tank when I was in a hurry (even though I know better). Instead of going to see Mitch Carl speak at Bay Area Reefers, I was going to a production of ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ with my wife and daughter. We were running late, and just before we left, I added fresh Kalk powder to the Kalk reactor, then I raised the float switch on the auto top off to bring the salinity down a little, and, because I was in a hurry, I left the pump that drains the skimmers external collection bucket on. Then, I left for 7 hours. So, 2 cups of brand spanking new Kalk powder were washed into the tank by the auto top off, and, as if that isn’t enough, any Kalk powder that would have been left was pumped into the tank because once the skimmer started going crazy there was nothing to stop it because the drain pump was on. Had I not been in a hurry, I would have thought those three stupid actions through and not done them. All of this was preventable, and a Sanjay Joshi truism is proven again – “the person running the system is the system’s single biggest point of failure”.

My family was particularly helpful on the discovery of this disaster. Essentially, they asked if they could help, were politely told no, and then got out of the way. I am so lucky to have Libby and Kalin both understand what ‘focus’ means, and to know the best thing to do when someone is focused is to leave them alone so they can get stuff done.

What changes have I made to the system?

Since the Epic Fail, I turn off the auto top off when I add Kalk to the reactor. After the powder is mixed, I turn it back on and make sure that the system doesn’t need too much top off at that time. I also have added a ‘turn past’ timer to the skimmers external collection chamber’s drain pump. When the container is full, I turn a knob that turns on the drain pump, but turns it off again in a few minutes. Of course, I know that neither of these changes are foolproof and in no way will protect my system from me doing dumb things in the future.

If proper and swift action is taken, recovery from disaster is possible

What did I learn?

Despite my overriding the precautions I put in place, my forethought served me well. I had most of what I needed to deal with the disaster on hand – mixed salt water, DI resin, salt mix, carbon, a big canister with a clean pleated cartridge and vinegar. Without those things, this disaster would have been much worse. I can’t imagine how I would have felt coming home to coral soup but not being able to do anything about it because the LFS were all closed.

I learned that fish and animals are way more resilient than we might think. I had corals I was sure were dead recover completely, but if I had tossed them, they would be gone.

Hopefully, I finally really leaned the three main rules to avoiding disaster:

1) If you are in a hurry, don’t do anything to your system.
2) If you are about to leave the house, don’t do anything to your system.
3) If you are distracted, don’t do anything to your system.

In conclusion

I hope this tale of utterly preventable disaster helps you avoid a future reef keeping disaster yourself. I thought a long time about writing this article before I actually put fingers to keys because the majority of articles on reef keeping are about success. Everyone loves pretty pictures of thriving corals and fish, but more importantly, people don’t like to dwell on failures. Failures make people feel bad. Failures make people look bad. People especially don’t like to advertise their failures. But, I think the failures are just as, if not more, instructive than the successes, and think we need more discussion of the dumb things we do so we end up doing less of them. If we own our failures, it seems everything is better for everyone.

I look forward to showing of pictures of my thriving tank in about six months when it is lush and full, unless of course, I pull another epic fail.

ScienceDaily (Nov. 12, 2009) — Anchored to an algae-covered rock in a 120-gallon tank at the California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium, a cluster of inky-colored cuttlefish eggs is beginning to swell — evidence of success for the Academy’s new captive breeding program for dwarf cuttlefish, Sepia bandensis. The program, pioneered by Academy biologist Richard Ross, is the first of its kind in a U.S. aquarium, and offers the Academy and other institutions the opportunity to study and display a species that is both captivating and — at 2-4 inches in length — less resource-intensive to keep than its larger relatives.

“By establishing a stable breeding population,” Ross explains, “our hope is to make it easier for aquariums to showcase cuttlefish and their remarkable characteristics without impacting wild populations.”

They may look like a cluster of purple grapes, but these inky balls are actually eggs from a dwarf cuttlefish, Sepia bandensis. As the eggs continue to develop, they become translucent, at which point the babies can be seen swimming inside their egg casings. To date, more than 350 dwarf cuttlefish have hatched at the California Academy of Sciences, most of which have been sent to other aquariums and research institutions. The academy is the first institution in the country to successfully breed these animals. (Credit: Richard Ross, California Academy of Sciences)

While called “cuttlefish,” these animals are actually not fish at all — they are members of the class Cephalopoda, which also includes octopus, squid, and the chambered nautilus. Perhaps best known for their highly developed brains, nervous systems, and eyes, cephalopods are a fascinating group of animals to both researchers and aquarium visitors. For scientists, cephalopods’ advanced capabilities pose a host of unanswered questions about the nature of intelligence in invertebrates and vertebrates. For everyday observers, the dwarf cuttlefish is a captivating ambassador to its Cephalopoda class, and its native Indo-Pacific region. Able to rapidly change its skin color, Sepia bandensis frequently flashes moving patterns across its skin, and can quickly blend into its surroundings — phenomena that can be seen regularly in the Steinhart Aquarium display. Beneath that ever-changing skin, the dwarf cuttlefish’s physiology is equally remarkable, with three hearts, and an esophagus that passes through its brain.

Behind the scenes at the Academy, hundreds of tiny hatchlings — exact replicas of their adult counterparts — are being hand-fed at least twice a day. In developing the breeding program, one of the most significant challenges Ross faced was identifying a successful feeding strategy for young hatchlings in the absence of existing literature. The key, he has discovered, is that young cuttlefish require live meals beginning with mysis shrimp, and increasing in size with age. Hunting with a pair of feeding tentacles, dwarf cuttlefish can devour prey the length of their own bodies.

As the eggs on display at the Academy continue to expand, they transition from an inky purple to translucent, at which point the babies can be seen swimming inside their egg casings. To date, more than 350 dwarf cuttlefish have hatched at the Academy, most of which have been sent to other aquariums and research institutions. Since North American waters do not house any native cuttlefish, only a handful of species are currently seen in zoos and aquariums in the United States. Now that these small animals are available from a sustainable captive source, Academy biologists hope that other zoos and aquariums will take advantage of the opportunity to share these intriguing animals with their visitors as well. This new captive breeding program joins several others that the Academy participates in, including those for African penguins, and golden mantella frogs, all of which are aimed at protecting populations in the wild.


 first appeared in Tropical Fish Hobbyist (TFH) Magazine in 2009

The dwarf cuttlefish, Sepia bandensis, is one of the coolest animals on the planet. It glides through the water like a little UFO, able to instantly change direction and speed. As it darts around the tank, it can change the color and texture of its skin going from static rock like camouflage to patterns flowing across the canvas of its skin in an instant. Sepia bandensis are phenomenal predators, patiently stalking a potential meal until their two feeding tentacles shoot forward like a chameleons tongue to snatch their prey. They will even come to the front glass of the tank to greet you when you walk into the room (although they may just recognize that you are the source of food). Best of all, they won’t try to climb out of the tank like their 8 armed octopus cousins. All in all, they are among the most fascinating animals I have ever had the opportunity to keep in aquaria.

Wild collected adult Sepia bandensis ship poorly with high mortality rates and, since they are adults, they may only have months or weeks left to live when they finally arrive at your home. However, in the last few years, alternatives to wild caught adults have presented themselves. Wild caught eggs appear on the market with regularity, and our understanding about how to raise the eggs and hatchlings has advanced greatly. Even more exciting is the success people have had captive breeding Sepia bandensis, and captive bred eggs and hatchling cuttles are offered for sale by breeders with increasing regularity. The means that not only is nothing is taken from the wild, but the availability of Sepia bandensis is no longer dependant on the seasonal availability of wild animals. This article will cover the basics of keeping and breeding these amazing creatures.

Cuttlefish basics

Sepia bandensis are cephalopods, related to octopus, squid and nautilus. Sepia bandensis have 8 arms, two feeding tentacles, three hearts, a ring shaped brain, a cuttle bone that helps control buoyancy, a fin that girds their mantle for fine maneuvering, a funnel that gives them ‘jet’ propulsion, superb 360 degree vision (though it appears they are color blind), copper based blood and the ability to squirt ink. They mate readily at around 5 months old, and lay clusters of ink covered eggs that resemble clusters of grapes. When the hatchlings are born they are tiny, less than a ¼ inch long, but can grow to an inch long within two months, and to about 4 inches within 6 months.

An awful truth

Sepia bandensis only live about one year. What makes this short lifespan even worse is how many cephalopods die; they go into what is called senescence. In senescence, the cephalopod essentially wastes away; they become listless, their eyesight and coordination start to fail causing them to have difficulty hunting or even accepting food placed directly into their arms. Sometimes their arms and body will begin to rot in place. I have seen hermit crabs feeding of still living Sepia bandensis while the cuttlefish does nothing, showing no signs that they are even aware of what is happening. In the wild, cuttlefish going through senescence don’t last long, quickly being eaten by other animals. In captivity, however, with careful feeding by the aquarist, it is possible for such a cuttlefish to linger for months while slowly declining. At some point during this process, some cephalopod keepers choose to euthanize senescent animals rather than watch them suffer. The best way to intentionally end the life of a suffering cuttle is still up for debate, but the two most often used methods include freezing the animal in a cup of tank water, or using one of the commercially life ending chemicals produced by aquarium companies.

I bring this up because it is important to be ready for this aspect of keeping a cuttlefish, and to drive home the point that captive breeding of these animals is important. If you captive breed them, it seems to somehow make the short life of the animal feel less tragic and more meaningful.

General husbandry

The basic requirements for Sepia bandensis husbandry are roughly the same as for coral – clean stable water conditions that simulate natural salt water conditions. I suggest live rock for biological filtration with ammonia and nitrite levels of zero and nitrate levels as low as possible. Specific gravity should be near 34.5ppt, temperature around 78 degrees Fahrenheit, and pH should be between 8.0 and 8.5. A skimmer is a must, not only for the oxygen it puts into the water and the waste it skims out of the tank, but they also do a great job of removing any cephalopod ink from the water before it has a chance to do any damage to the animals. With the amount of waste these predators create from unconsumed food, adding a phosphate reactor with phosphate adsorbing media may also be a good idea. Finally, if nitrates become a problem, a sulfur denitrator or remote deep sand bed for natural nitrate reduction can be added.

A single Sepia bandensis can live well in a 30 gallon aquarium, and many of the ‘all in one’ aquariums on the market right can work very well as a cuttlefish tank. For two Sepia bandensis I don’t recommend anything smaller than 40 gallons, 3 Sepia bandensis have done well in a 55, and I have kept groups of 8 in 125 gallons. Groups of Sepia bandensis can be kept together as long as they are kept fed and they have enough space. Without enough space or food, the cuttlefish will fight and possibly damage or eat each other.

Sepia bandensis has no specific lighting requirements, and will thrive under simple fluorescent lights or more powerful metal halide lighting. Similarly, Sepia bandensis will thrive under different levels of water flow, but I suggest you err on the side of more flow rather than less.

The aquascaping for a cuttlefish tank is mostly up to the personal preference of the aquarist, as the cuttlefish will thrive in a wide variety of set ups. Some caves or overhangs for the cuttles to hide are good for the animals. Growing macro algae can also provide nice hiding places for the cuttles to hang out, as well as potentially up taking excess nutrients in the water. A inch or so of sand is also a nice addition to the tank as the cuttles will sometimes bury themselves in sand, but their digging may be detrimental to deeper sand beds.

Cuttlefish can be messy eaters, dropping uneaten food all over the tank, and it is important to get that food out before it begins to rot causing deteriorating water quality. Hermit crabs and snails are safe from predation by cuttlefish and can help with uneaten food. In my opinion, bristle worms make great tank janitors for cuttlefish because they breed readily, and quickly consume dropped food.

Fish as tank mates should be avoided. If we follow up most stories of cephalopods being kept successfully with fish, we find that the success only lasts a few months before the fish eats the cephalopod or the cephalopod eats the fish. Corals on the other hand, as long as they are not stinging, make great tank mates for cuttlefish. There is at least one Sepia bandensis breeder that has had great success breeding Sepia bandensis in a full blown reef tank with bright metal halide lighting and massive flow.

Nursery for Small Cuttles

Sepia bandensis start off small and get larger quickly, which means their food needs and living space needs change as they grow. While its easy to say two Sepia bandensis can live comfortably in a 40 gallon tank, the reality of the situation is that you probably don’t want to put two hatchling cuttlefish in a 40 gallon tank because you will never see them or be able to know if they are eating. Hatchling cuttles are only ¼ of an inch long and can be completely lost in a larger tank making it impossible to even know if they are feeding.

An easy way to deal for this aspect of Sepia bandensis husbandry is to keep hatchlings in some sort of nursery, such a commercially available ‘net breeder’ used most often for live bearing fish. When setting up the net, I suggest turning it inside out so the hatchlings don’t get caught up in extra netting at the seams. Hang-on tank refugiums can also be used, or small nursery aquariums plumbed into the system – although you must take precautions to ensure the hatchlings won’t be washed out of the container by water returning to the tank, such as foam filter sponge over the outflow.

I like net breeders because they are simple, inexpensive, and incredibly easy to set up. The net breeders hang on the side of the aquarium and allow water to flow freely through the net, so no extra filtration or plumbing is needed. You can easily look through the top to keep track of the health of the cuttle and track its growth. I have successfully kept 4 hatchling Sepia bandensis in net breeders for the first 2-3 months of their lives, and once they grow to about an inch in length they can be let loose in the larger tank.


Net breeders are also great because they keep hatchling cuttlefish in close proximity to their food. For at least the first 2 of weeks after hatching, Sepia bandensis will need some sort of live food, and keeping the food closer to the hatchlings makes it more likely they will be able to find it to eat it. The more they eat, the faster they will grow, and the sooner you can release them in to their permanent home.

By far, the most successful food for hatchling Sepia bandensis is live mysis shrimp. Mysis are highly nutritious and relatively easy for the hatchlings to catch. The drawback to this food is the expense and the effort. Collecting wild mysis and captive culturing mysis are both extremely labor intensive, so they can cost more than one hundred dollars for 200. I prefer cultured mysis to wild mysis, because in my experience they have better survival rates, but plenty of other cephalopod keepers have had great success with wild mysis.

It is important to note that live brine shrimp, though readily available and inexpensive, are widely considered terrible food for cephalopods. Cephalopods raised on live brine, even enriched live brine, have low survival rates and short lives.

Keeping any live food alive can be challenging, and the challenge is compounded with mysis because they can be cannibalistic. To reduce this potential issue, avoid overcrowding, and be sure to feed rotifers or other suitable food regularly. Net breeders can be utilized, or another small tank can be set up to keep the mysis until they are ready to be fed to the cuttlefish. Its also important to get a feel for how many mysis you need per week, and be able to order them before you run out so your cuttlefish don’t go starve or eat each other!

If you are lucky enough to live near the ocean, you may be able to collect your own hatchling cuttle food in the form of small amphipods. Make sure to collect from waters that are as unpolluted as possible, and make sure to check with local regulations regarding collection before beginning. Amphipods can be much more robust than mysis and they can escape from hatchling cuttlefish more easily. I recommend that you start with mysis for the first week or so, allowing your baby cuttlefish to learn hunting skills with the easier prey.

Hatchlings should be fed several times a day, and only as much as they catch in a few minutes. I recommend avoiding ‘flood feeding’, feeding a lot of live food at once, because not only can hatchling Sepia bandensis stop seeing them as prey items, but flood feeding can make the hatchlings harder to wean onto dead food.

Since live food can be expensive, its great to wean your cuttlefish onto thawed frozen food as soon as possible – frozen mysis are a good choice for size and nutrition. Since cuttlefish rely on their eyesight to hunt, often the dead prey may need to be moving to get the cuttlefish to strike. Start by introducing thawed mysis with your live food. The hatchlings, conditioned to striking when live food is dropped into their breeder net, will usually snap up the dead mysis as well. Sometimes you will have to make the dead prey look alive by gently blowing it around, just barely moving it, with a small pipette or turkey baster. Weaning onto dead prey may not work until the hatchlings have moved off small prey and onto larger prey and determining when your hatchlings are able to move off smaller food is a judgment call.

When your cuttlefish are a month old, and have had time to hone their hunting skill on weaker, smaller food, you can try feeding them larger food…even up to foods the same size as the cuttlefish. “Shore shrimp” or “marine janitors” can be ordered on line in various different sizes, and they make a great food for cuttlefish. Just like mysis, they need to be kept alive until fed to the cuttlefish, so be prepared. Once the cuttlefish are taking larger prey, the weaning process as described above works quickly and well, just instead of using dead myisis, you need to use dead, freshly killed or thawed frozen shrimp.

Another weaning method that cephalopod enthusiasts have been experimenting with is some kind of shrimp hanger or feeding station. Glue or tie a small rock to a piece of fishing line as a sinker. Tie the other end, or secure the other end, above the tank so the sinker will be a couple of inches below the bottom of the tank. In the middle of the line, tie or glue a plastic toothpick, and skewer a dead shrimp onto the toothpick. When you place this device into the tank, the current should make the shrimp on the toothpick move around, which will help attract the cuttlefish to feed. If you have multiple cuttlefish, add more toothpicks to the line for more shrimp.

Weaned or not, as the cuttlefish get bigger you will need to get them larger food items. Again, if you live near the ocean, you can collect local crabs or shrimp as needed. You can also check with local bait shops, which may have live shrimp ready to sell. If you live away from the ocean, you can order live fiddler crabs or appropriately sized shrimp from online vendors. If you have weaned your cuttles onto thawed frozen food, any live food, bought or collected, can be obtained in bulk and frozen to use when needed. Frozen bait shrimp or prawns can also be bought or ordered, and even raw, unshelled and unflavored shrimp from the grocery store can be used.

It is important to note that freshwater feeder fish are not a suitable food source for cuttlefish. Not only do they lack fatty acids of saltwater animals, but they are often treated with copper, and copper is deadly to cephalopods. There is no real consensus among cephalopod enthusiasts regarding the suitability of using freshwater crustaceans as food for saltwater animals like ghost shrimp, so I would suggest limiting their use as cuttlefish food.


Even though cuttlefish can tell each other’s sex on sight, it is very difficult for humans to accurately sex them if they aren’t actually sees mating. In general, Sepia bandensis males tend to adopt high contrast black and white patterns when faced with another male, while females tend to keep the more relaxed mottled colors that a resting cuttlefish adopts. However, males sometimes display like females and females sometimes display like males, so to be really sure, you need to see them mating.

Cuttlefish mate by coupling head to head. In this position, the male deposits a packet of sperm, called a spermatophore, into a pouch in the female’s mantle. The mating can last from 10 seconds to many minutes, and it appears that males can use their funnel to flush other male’s sperm out the females pouch. Females can lay several clutches of eggs, up to 250 over the course of their life, and can live for months after egg laying.

Mating begins around month 5, while male displays begin around month 3. It is unclear how long it takes from mating to egg laying.

In groups, Sepia bandensis will mate readily. Males will know when a female is receptive to mating, and will start to display towards each other with the black and white patterns mentioned above, as well as stretching out their arms to intimidate their rivals. The male that wins then mates with the female. Oddly enough, sometimes when several males are displaying towards each other, another male will mate with the female while the other males are occupied with each other. It is also possible for mating to occur with no preamble – the male just swims up to the female, grabs her and mates.

After a successful mating, the female will choose a place to lay eggs. She might lay her eggs on a rock, on the side of the tank, on some macro algae, or on tubing. I have had females lay eggs directly on powerheads or on egg crate tank dividers. The eggs are laid one at a time and will forum a cluster that looks like a bunch of rubbery grapes. In Sepia bandensis, the female adds a little bit of ink to each egg giving them the reddish/black color.

Healthy eggs will start off with a silght point on the end, and slowly expand over 3-4 weeks becoming thinner and more transparent, so much so that it becomes possible to see the baby cuttlefish while it is still in the egg. As the baby matures in the egg, the yolk sack, attached at the front of the cuttle where the arms are/will be, shrinks and finally disappears. The cuttle will even start to swim inside of the egg, just prior to hatching.

Fertility of eggs can range from high to low. I have had entire clusters that have frustratingly failed to develop. It is also possible for hatchlings to emerge from the egg with a yolk sack still attached. This is probably caused by some stressor, and these premature hatchlings rarely, if ever, survive longer than a week.

Assuming you have healthy eggs, I suggest leaving them in place until you start to see the yolk sac disappear. I like to use a small pair of scissors to snip the material that holds the eggs to where they have been laid, taking care to cut as far away from the egg as possible. Be gentle; the eggs can be quite fragile, and it is easy to accidentally puncture or break the egg. Usually, the cluster is held in place only at one or two points so removal is not that difficult. Once the cluster is free, use a cup with tank water, not a net, to move the eggs to their nursery area or net breeder and then leave them alone until they hatch.

It is common for hatchlings not eat for the first few days after hatching, so after a few days you can start to offer them their first live foods and be well on your way to continuing your population of Sepia bandensis.

When you’ve successfully bred your Sepia bandensis, it’s time to trade brood stock with other successful breeders. By doing this conscientiously, we can avoid inbreeding and the potential fecundity drop off that often accompanies the captive breeding of cephalopods.


I have found keeping and breeding Sepia bandensis to be fulfilling and rewarding, and I look forward to more and more people having success with these amazing little creatures.


Books – Cephalopods: Octopuses and Cuttlefish for the Home Aquarium

Online Cephalopod Information:

Live cuttlefish foods:

From Reefhobbyst Magazine

From Conscientious Aquarist and previously in C-the journal

By far, the most fascinating, challenging and fulfilling animals I have had the pleasure to keep have been cephalopods. The boneless and jointless arms, the all-seeing eyes, the color and texture changing abilities, the jet propulsion locomotion, the misdirection of inking to confuse predators, the ‘live fast and die young’ lifecycle, and the fierce ability to stalk and capture prey make me feel like I am watching aliens from another world.

Wunderpus photogenicus, living up to its Latin name in full!

For the past four years, I have bred and kept dwarf cuttlefish Sepia bandensis, incredible animals in their own right, but they pale in comparison to my most recent cephalopod adventure – the Wunderpus, Wunderpus photogenicus.


The Wunderpus, often confused with the Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus), has only recently been described by science, and very little is known about its habits and lifestyle. Wunderpus are found primarily in Indo-Malayan archipelago ‘muck’ habitats; vast, rolling underwater plains of settled silt an mud populated by an unexpectedly large amount of unique animals like the Pegasus Sea Moth, the Ghost Pipefish and a plethora of nudibranchs.
Fitting right in with its odd neighbors, the Wunderpus is a master of camouflage blending into its surroundings with ability that puts chameleons to shame. Digging itself a den in the muck, and emerging at dawn and dusk to hunt small shrimp and fish, the Wunderpus’ spectacular defensive and hunting displays may be mimicry of other poisonous animals like lionfish and sea snakes, or perhaps the displays are a declaration to would be attackers that the Wunderpus is poisonous and should be avoided.

Like all shallow water octopuses, Wunderpus photogenicus has well developed eyes which aid in hunting and escaping from predators

The fantastic displays and supposed ability to mimic the behavior of other animals have generated much attention in the media, and made the Wunderpus a favorite of photographers – which is reflected in its species name, Wunderpus photogenicus. Some local collectors caught on to the inherent beauty of this animal, and began exporting them for the aquarium trade (at retail prices exceeding $400 an animal) before science has had time to catch up. So much so that several of the specimens used to describe the animal were obtained from aquarium stores.
Keeping a Cephalopod?
In general, keeping cephalopods isn’t a project to be entered into lightly. They require the stable and clean water quality of a reef tank. They don’t live well with other marine animals, either eating them or being eaten by them. Octopus are escape artists, and if the tank isn’t properly ‘octo-proofed’ the aquarist will most likely wake up one morning to find an empty aquarium, perhaps finding the dried out husk of the animal in another room a day later.

Octopuses like swim in open water, so a properly sized tank is a must

Cephalopods not only eat voraciously, but they often only accept live foods, making them startlingly expensive animals to keep. Obtaining an animal can be difficult because there are notoriously terrible shippers, often arriving at their destination dead in a bag of ink filled water.

But the biggest downside to keeping a cephalopod is their short lifespan. Many warm water cephalopods live less than a year naturally, and since most in the trade are wild-caught adults, their lifespan in the home aquarium may be as short as a few weeks.

Keeping the Wunderpus in captivity

So far, Wunderpus have done dismally in captivity, generally living only a few days or weeks in aquaria. It is unclear if the species is more fragile than other cephalopods; if the people buying them are more interested in having the newest animal than in proper husbandry; or if the chain of custody in the aquarium industry makes it difficult to obtain a healthy, undamaged specimen.
Even knowing about all the potential pitfalls of cephalopod husbandry, keeping a Wunderpus warrants special consideration. Many cephalopod enthusiasts feel that the Wunderpus shouldn’t even be collected for the trade at least until more scientific research has been done on the species. The size of Wunderpus populations in the wild is unknown, and it is unclear what effect their collection will have on those populations.

Though obviously attractive, the Wunderpus is not easy to keep

If little is known about what they need to survive in the wild, even less is known about what they need to live well in an aquarium. After much wrestling with this issue, I urge even experienced cephalopod keepers to think long and hard before bringing one into the home aquarium. I accepted responsibility for Fontanelle because, by serendipity, I was able to obtain a healthy animal before it was tanked at an importer at a time when I had a mature, cephalopod-ready aquarium available.
Every morning as I went downstairs to my cephalopod room I expected to find my specimen, a male named Fontanelle, dead. Amazingly, I was able to keep Fontanelle alive for just over 10 months and I attribute this success to having a Wunderpus ready aquarium cycled and ready to go when the octopus became available. If I had had to throw a system together for this animal, I am sure it would not have lived nearly as long.

This ever changing system has the water volume, space and flexibility to successfully house and breed cephalopods

My cephalopod system has taken over an entire room in my house. It totals roughly 300 gallons of various sized aquariums, cubes and water tables plumbed into a central sump located under the house. There is a 1000 watt heater, at ½ HP chiller, a remote deep sandbed, a large needle wheel skimmer, live rock spread thorough the various tanks, and a macro algae growing chamber to help export nutrients. The water quality levels are maintained at the basic values needed for reef tanks, although the Nitrate is generally higher than I would like; pH 8.0-8.4, 78 degrees F, Ammonia 0, Nitrite 0, Nitrate 20-40, and salinity 34ppt. Since corals are not kept in this system, I rarely check Calcium, Alkalinity or Magnesium, but all water for water changes come from my reef system so I suspect those levels are well within reef keeping range.

I cover all overflows with filter foam glued or zip tied in place to prevent an octopus from going on walkabout in the plumbing. I prevent octopus escape from the top of the tank by gluing a piece of acrylic to the top of the tank, with holes drilled for any needed wires or plumbing, then I use 2 part epoxy to seal any gaps. The remaining open portion of the top of the tank is then be fitted with a piece of acrylic fitted with an acrylic flange that overlaps the piece that is glued to the top of the tank. The ‘lid’ is then screwed or weighted in place. . I usually cut a hole and glue a plastic jar mouth and screw on lid in place to make getting food into the tank easier and less stressful to the octopus.
If you are interested in keeping any kind of cephalopod, please do your research before your purchase. I highly recommend the online resource (the place on the net for all things cephalopod) and the book Cephalopods: Octopuses and Cuttlefish for the Home Aquariumby Nancy King and Colin Dunlop.

An octoproofed lid – note the flanges and jar lid for accessibility and stability

Fontanelle and me
My first priority with Fontanelle was keeping him alive; I kept him under constant, worried, surveillance for the first week, but I did nothing to disturb him. He ate, explored his new home in the mornings and evenings, and spent the rest of the time in his den behind the intake of the hang-on-back overflow on the aquarium.
Sometimes in the middle of the night (yes, I do check on animals in the middle of the night) or early in the morning, I caught him burrowing into the substrate, something that it seems no one has seen before in captivity.
Fontanelle had been doing well for several weeks, so, hoping to simulate the ‘muck’ of his natural environment, I decided to plumb another tank into the system to provide him a variety of mud and sand substrates.

Fontanelle exploring his home

I did everything I could think of to make the transition to the new aquarium as stress free as possible. The new tank used the same lighting, similar flow, an identical external overflow, some rocks from the old tank, and had similar positioning in the room.

I was able to easily coax Fontanelle into a plastic bowl, transferring him into his new home in less than a minute. He has made several attempts at digging in the mud substrate, but, just as in the old tank, has made his den behind the intake to the external overflow.

As he settled into his new home, I witnessed new displays. The extra space allowed him to swim across the tank, body thinned out with two arms probing forward and 6 arms trailing behind. Appearing to claim his territory he swirled, arms curled about him, extending his arm membranes to appear huge and fierce. While hunting a small shrimp, he pounces from above shaping his arms and membranes into an umbrella to trap his prey against the substrate.


Wunderpus often use the webbing between their arms as living ‘cast net’ to capture prey. Unfortunately, this behavior seems short lived in captivity.

Personally, my favorite display is when lines of color pulse up his two eyestalks like the electrical arcing of a Jacobs Ladder – I’m not quite sure what that means in octopus, but it sure is impressive.
The bittersweet consequence of Fontanelle’s acclimation is that the more impressive displays appear less and less, which seems a fair trade for his continued survival.

So far, breeding Wunderpus in captivity has been utterly unsuccessful – which makes sense given how little we actually know about these animals. In the few cases where eggs have been hatched in aquaria, the planktonic paralarvae did not accept any foods and all died within 5 days. Hopefully in the near future, the life-cycle of the Wunderpus can be closed and captive breeding of these animals will become a reality, making tank-acclimated specimens available to aquarists, and without collectors having to take specimens from wild populations.


The Wunderpus is an amazing animal in all respects and I feel honored that I have been able to keep Fontanelle alive and healthy for so long. I am thrilled at my current success, but due to all the unknowns regarding wild populations, I am hesitant to try to obtain any more Wunderpus even possibly for an attempt to breed them. In the future, I hope this species become available as captive bred specimens while the wild populations thrive.


Useful links

The Octopus News Magazine Online
Daisy Hill Cuttlefish Farm
The Cephalopod Page

From UltraMarine

Cephalopods may very well be the coolest animals in our oceans. They are problem-solvers, can change the shape, texture and color of their skin, and are master predators. These animals have long been of interest for aquarists, but their short life spans and poorly understood husbandry needs have made them quite challenging to maintain. While keeping cephalopods is still something not to be entered into lightly, there is now a much greater understanding of their needs. In this article I’ll discuss some general concepts concerning keeping these animals, and clear up some of the common misconceptions about their care.

Two juvenile Sepia bandensis shooting their feeding tentacles to grab the same shrimp. Note the tentacles curving in mid strike.

Fun cephalopod facts

The word cephalopod comes from greek and means ‘head footed’; all of a cephalopod’s limbs come directly off its head in a ring around the mouth. Cephalopods are mollusks, related to clams and snails. There are over 1000 species of cephalopod. They occur in almost every sea, inhabiting most saltwater zones from the sand to the open ocean. Their soft flesh makes them highly desired prey, so they have become excellent at hiding, camouflage, and escape. Cephs are carnivorous, short-lived, and fast growing. Cephalopods have 3 hearts (the two extra pump blood through the gills), copper based blood, a ring shaped brain, arms and/or tentacles, a funnel for jet propulsion and respiration, generally excellent eyesight, a beak, the ability to produce and expel ink, and an ability to alter their color and skin texture providing excellent camouflage protection from predators. The plural of octopuses is octopuses, not octopi, but through common usage octopi is acceptable.

What kind of cephalopod?

The first question a new cephalopod keeper needs to answer is ‘what kind of cephalopod do I want to keep?’ There are essentially three type of cephalopods that are kept in home aquaria; Octopus, cuttlefish and Nautilus. Even determining that you want to keep one of the three is not specific enough as there are many different species that all have different requirements. Cuttlefish and octopus can be giant large, medium or small, nocturnal or diurnal, come from warm, temperate or cold water habitats, so clearly it is important to know what you are getting before you get it so you can meet the particular animals needs.

With a little extra effort, octopus (probably O. Hummelincki) can make a rewarding, interactive pet.

Tank Mates

Keeping cephalopods in almost any sort of community aquarium is a bad idea. Either the ceph will eat the tank mates or the tank mates will eat the ceph. Sure, if you dig around online you can find people who claim to keep cephalopods with fish, seahorses and other cephs, but the exchanges usually stop after a few weeks of reported success and are replaced with eerie silence. When tracked down, the keeper usually confides that, indeed, one of the animals ate the other.

Many corals will do well when housed with cephalopods, but be sure to avoid anything with nasty stings or sweeper tentacles. If keeping soft corals with cephalopods, be prepared deal with whatever toxins may be released from the softies by running carbon or doing water chages more often than you normally would.

Two juvenile Sepia bandensis shooting their feeding tentacles to grab the same shrimp. Note the tentacles curving in mid strike.


You can find many reports of aquarists feeding feeder goldfish, guppies or brine shrimp to cephalopods – none of which actually are appropriate foods. It may work for a while, but eventually, such diets lead to dead cephalopods.  Freshwater guppies and goldfish don’t have the right mix of fatty and amino acids that saltwater carnivores appear to need and are often treated with copper which is deadly to cephalopods, while brine shrimp simply doesn’t provide enough nutrition.

Not all cephalopods eat the same foods. For instance, many octopus will eat animals like snails, hermit crabs, and clams, but most cuttlefish will not.  Cephalopods generally eat a lot of food. To prepare for your ceph friend its important to research their feeding needs and make sure you can either collect or easily purchase appropriate foods for all their stages of life, either locally or through the mail.

Cephalopods also often need different foods during different stages of life. When cephalopods hatch they are almost always very small (Sepia bandensis can be .157in/4mm when hatched!) and will require very small, live foods. As they get bigger they will need larger and large foods to sustain them. Many newly hatched cephalopods have a hunting learning curve and may need easy to catch prey items like live mysis before they can move onto harder-to-catch foods like amphipods.

Good foods include saltwater crabs and shrimp supplemented with the occasional saltwater fish. Freshwater crustaceans can also be used as it seems their nutritional profile is very close to their saltwater counterparts. I have reared a generation of Sepia bandensis on mostly freshwater ghost shrimp. Some cephalopods, young or adult, can be trained to take thawed frozen dead foods, which means that you can feed them good quality shellfish from the grocery store or other frozen aquarium foods like mysis, silversides, or other shrimp from your local aquarium store. There are even some reliable reports of newly hatched octopus eating cyclopeeze.

An adult Sepia bandensis cuttlefish showing the common 'arms up' pose that may be a greeting or a defensive posture.

There are several ways to train a ceph to take non-living food and most of them involve making the ceph think the food is still alive by gently making it move with some kind of turkey baster, pushing it with a thin acrylic rod, feeding with a feeding stick while moving the food as if it were alive, or having enough current in the tank to keep the food item moving. Mixing live and thawed food together can also help the ceph transition off of live food. Conditioning the ceph with some kind of pavlovian response can also work. Most of the time, the only reason I open the lid of my ceph tanks is to feed, and the cephalopods pretty quickly associate the lid opening with feeding and will soon strike at anything living or dead dropped into the tank. I have also gotten into the habit of tapping on the tank lid twice before I feed to let them know food is coming. Finally, there is the shrimp mobile method that seems to work very well for cuttlefish – a toothpick is tied/glued to a weighted fishing line and a shrimp, either live or thawed frozen is skewered on the toothpick and the line is hung in the tank. The current in the tank makes the food item move around and attracts the cuttle. This method also helps keep the food off the bottom of the tank where clean up animals like crabs or bristleworms can get it, plus its also fun to see cuttlefish pulling shrimp off the toothpicks.

Escape/Cephalopod proofing a tank

While it is true that some cephalopods are escape artists, some clearly are not. For instance, with its heavy shell and short thin tentacles, a Nautilus is not going to climb out of an aquarium. Similarly, a cuttlefish is also not going to climb out of an aquarium – though it is possible that cuttlefish may jump out of an aquarium though I have yet to see it happen. The most well known escape artist are the octopus, and even though some species I have kept have never made the attempt to escape, I find it prudent to assume all octopus may escape and protect the aquarium appropriately. All overflows must be covered with secured foam either glued or zip tied in place so the octopus can’t take a trip through the plumbing. The top of the tank must also be protected. I am a fan of fitting a piece of acrylic over the a portion of the top of the tank with holes cut or drilled into it to allow any wiring and plumbing to pass into the tank. The acrylic is then glued onto the top of the tank, and any gaps in the plumbing/wiring holes are plugged with epoxy putty. The remaining portion of the top of the tank can then be covered with a tight fitting piece of acrylic that can be locked or screwed into place in such a way that the octopus cannot move it to escape.

Octopus hummelincki (probably) showing some of the camouflage skills that make finding cephalopods difficult in both the wild and in aquaria

It is important to protect cephalopods from things in the tank that could hurt the animal. The intake of any powerhead or pump must be cephalopod proofed to prevent cephalopods appendages from being damaged and to prevent cephalopods from being sucked into the pump intakes. Sponge filter foam glued or held in place with plastic zip ties will usually do the trick.

Cephalopods need pristine water quality?

While water quality is a concern for all captive marine environments, the idea that cephalopods needs super crazy pristine water quality to survive seems a little over blown in my opinion. I think this idea of pristine water came about as a way to explain cephalopods not surviving long in captivity back when we didn’t have a good idea that poor handling practices during transit have disastrous effects on cephalopods. While good water quality should be the goal, I have seen many ceph keepers get over involved in chasing good numbers instead of looking for stable values. I keep cephalopods essentially the same way I keep a reef – don’t skimp on equipment, do regular water changes, and strive for stable water conditions.

Cephalopods need cold water?

This depends on species. Sepia bandensis like tropical temps from around 78F/25.5C while Sepia officinalis will prefer temperatures in the 68F/20C range. Octopus bimaculodies like cooler temps around 68C/20C or cooler while Adopus aculeatus like warmer temps around 78/25.5C. If you know what animal you are getting, you can plan for appropriate temps in your aquarium giving your ceph a better chance at a longer life.

A juvenile Sepia bandensis cuttlefish can either be smooth bodied, or textured like in this photo. Also apparent in this photo is the 'w' shaped pupil that helps give the species its great eyesight.

High intensity lights will blind and kill cephalopods?

This also depends on the species. Obviously, a nocturnal animal won’t be out much while high intensity lights are on, but diurnal cephalopods should be able to take the lighting without a problem. If these animals are out and about on the reef during the midday sun, surely they can handle bright lights.

Cephalopods need large tanks?

Again, this depends on the species. A single Sepia bandensis can live well in a 30 gallon tank, while a Sepia officinalis would need something much larger in the 100-150G/378-567L range. If you are raising cephalopods from hatchlings or juveniles, you are probably going to need different size tanks/containers at different stages of life. A 1in/2.5cm or smaller cuttlefish in a 150G/567L gallon tank isn’t practical because it will get lost in such a big space. I often have a net breeder in the tank for small cuttlefish, a nursery tank for juveniles, and when they are large enough they move into the display/breeding tank. Hatchling octopus are more challenging because they need to be house in something small and escape proof like a jar with a tight fitting mesh lid.

Happily, some of the off the shelf nano aquariums can easily be modified to be octo proofed for some of the commonly available dwarf species.

This Sepia bandensis cuttlefish is near to hatching and is clearly visible inside its grape like egg.

Cephalopods die after breeding?

While there is some truth to this, it does not hold for all cephalopods. Most cuttlefish available to hobbyists do not die after breeding at all, instead they can spend the last half of their lives breeding and laying eggs over and over again. There are some species of octopus that can lay and brood several clutches of eggs over their lifetimes. Those that do breed only once don’t really die after breeding, rather the female will often stop eating once eggs are laid and die shortly after her eggs hatch while the males may or may not breed many times before their end.

Cephalopod ink is poisonous?

This idea came about when cephalopods shipped in bags ink during transit and are dead on arrival. While it appears that most ceph ink contains some kind of toxin, it seems that this toxin in not what killed these animals. Rather, the ink covers the gills and suffocates the animals. While an inking event in the home aquarium can be dangerous, it is something that can easily be combated by ensuring that the system is running an appropriately sized, quality protein skimmer to remove the ink from the water over a few hours (as well as helping maintain good water quality). Having activated carbon on hand can also help in clearing up inking events.

Cephalopods ship poorly?

In my opinion cephalopods got this reputation because the were poorly understood and treated badly in the chain of custody. However, if collected well and treated well, cephalopods ship just fine. Fortunately, it seems people in the chain of custody have begun to understand the shipping and husbandry needs of these animals, and are taking better care of them during transit.

Getting an animal

This can be the most frustrating aspect of ceph keeping. Cephalopods are not consistently available, and what’s worse, they are often identified incorrectly by whoever is selling them or collecting them. Often, ordering a particular species sight unseen ends means you may wind up with whatever species happens to be available instead of the one you actually want. The best way to deal with this problem is to take a photo of the ceph in question at an LFS or find a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) website with a photo of the actual animal for sale and post that picture on the site for all things cephy, While identifying a ceph from a photo is not always accurate, TONMO is a central hub for ceph enthusiasts and professionals, so the ID info you get there is generally pretty good. Plus, because these people live and breathe cephalopods, many are up to date on what animals are currently available (both captive bred and wild caught) where to get them, and can help answer any husbandry issues, so I consider the site an invaluable resource.

Two Sepia bandensis stalk the same prey.

Short life span

Most tropical cephalopods live between 1 and 2 years. As it nears the end of its life span, a cephalopod can enter “senescence.”  During this stage of life, the animal becomes listless, stops feeding and its overall body coordination deteriorates. The animal seems not to care about anything, sometimes not bothering to get away from normally harmless clean up crew animals like hermit crabs and bristle worms…even when those animals begin eating their living flesh. In the wild, animals going through senescence would quickly be eaten by a predator, but in a captive environment some cephalopods can go in and out of senescence for months.  Thus, the reality of ceph keeping is that you don’t have much time to enjoy the animal, and the ending may not be pretty, so be prepared.


There are a number of exotic species of ceph that have been appearing for sale with some regularity including Wunderpus photogenicus, mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) and flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia sp). Even experienced cephalopod keepers with mature tanks should think long and hard before obtaining these species. Their needs are resource intensive, specific, and not yet fully understood. Since these animals are almost always only available as adults they have months or weeks left to live and their impressive price tags make keeping them hard to justify. Perhaps more importantly, the size and health of their wild populations is unknown, so their collection may have very real negative impacts on the survival of the species.

Blue ring octopus (Hapalochlaena sp.) are commonly available, but in my opinion, they should be considered exotic because they are incredibly venomous. While there has never been a documented case of a hobbyist being killed by these animals, and the amount of venom varies with individual animals, ignoring the possibility of being bitten seems like a bad idea. It is possible for blue ring venom to kill an adult human in minutes, and there is no known antidote. It is pretty obvious that if you are going to keep one of these animals it is only prudent to be extra super careful octoproofing the aquarium and to strictly follow venomous animal protocols. Better yet, I would avoid the species completely.

Nautiluses are one of the most frequently improperly kept cephalopods in the hobby. Since these animals are found in tropical places like Palau, many people wrongly assume they will thrive in a tropical aquarium. During the day, nautilus dive as deep as 1500f/457m where the water temperature can be below 50F/10C and only rise to the shallower, warmer water at night. In captivity, their lives tend to be very short when kept in warm water, so if you plan to attempt to keep a nautilus plan on a chiller. Nautilus also require a large, deeper tank devoid of complicated aquascaping so they don’t jet into rocks and injure themselves or crack their shells. Interestingly, Nautilus have some of the poorest eyesight in the ceph world and their eyes are not encased in an orb or fluid, rather they are open to seawater and amount to what is essentially a pinhole camera.

With their beautiful shells and many tentacled faces, they seem like incredibly intriguing animals, but the reality is that most of the time the do little besides float in the water or hold onto the side of the tank. When they feed they are incredibly interesting, but this only lasts for a minute or two, so be prepared for this animals massive inactivity before you bring one home.

Hatchling cephalopods are small. This one day old Sepia bandensis is posing above a US Dime approximately 18 mm in diameter. Its important to note that the coin was under the container with the cuttlefish.


In the last few years there have been great advances in breeding several species of cephalopods. Breeding cuttlefish is relatively straightforward, as the mating is generally not violent and males and females can be kept together, sometimes in groups, as long as the aquarium is large enough to provide sufficient space for the animals to avoid each other. Cuttlefish lay clutches of relatively large eggs, and hatch as miniature copies of adults right out of the egg. There have been some issues with the viability of eggs over successive generations.

Octopus on the other hand, are a bit more complicated. Octopus can be thought of as two groups, small egged and large egged. Small egged octopus lay small eggs that hatch out as planktonic paralarvae which stay in the water column before developing into something resembling their parents. The paralarvae are currently essentially impossible raise or feed. Large egged octos on the other hand, emerge from the egg as miniature versions of their parents, ready to feed.


A stack of young Sepia bandensis eagerly waiting to be fed.

When available, captive bred cephalopods make better pets than wild caught cephalopods simply because you will know their age, and therefore have a more accurate idea of how long they will live. Captive bred cephalopods are sometimes available for sale

Keeping and breeding cephalopods has been some of the most rewarding of my saltwater experiences. I hope this article clarifies some of the issues surrounding the care of these animals and inspires cephalopod keepers to do some extra research prior to purchase so that their experience can be as fulfilling as mine has been.


Cephalopods: Octopuses and Cuttlefish for the Home Aquarium by Colin Dunlop and Nancy King

Cephalopods: A World Guide by Mark Norman and Helmut Debelius

Richard Ross is a longtime hobbyist, author and authority on the captive care and breeding of cephalopods. He is a moderator on, former president of the Bay Area Reefers club and an aquarist at the California Academy of Sciences Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco. Recently, Reefs Magazine editors Randy Donowitz and Dominick Cirigliano had the opportunity to sit down with Rich to chat about a remarkable range of things aquatic and otherwise.

If you’d like to listen to the unedited version of this rollicking conversation (we recommend it ) we have made it available in convenient MP3 format by simply clicking on the provided link.

Reefs Magazine would like to thank Rob Bray from House of Fins for use of his office and Dr. Beth Harris for her technical assistance with the audio post production.

RM: How did you get into the hobby?

RR: I got into the hobby because as a kid in Chicago, my dad had tanks. He had in our basement–I think it was two 50 gallon or two 60 gallon. They were huge for the time, like in the ‘70s I guess. One was African Cichlids and one was goldfish.

RM: So did you used to help him with them or did you ignore him?

RR: I think I used to ignore him and think I was all hip with the fish. And then when I was a little older we moved – we lived in South Africa for three years. We just had goldfish then, probably about thirty gallons. Then we moved back to the states. When I was around twelve, thirteen, fourteen, I guess, I started keeping my own tanks. And that very quickly turned into 20-25 tanks in the bedroom–brackish water at that point. At that time saltwater was impossible, it was hard, it was terrible! I was also doing reptiles at this time. In ’82, I started working at a fish store and learned more about saltwater at the time.

RM: This was in Chicago?

RR: This was in LA. and it was, you know, when bio-balls first appeared. It was when a tank covered in hair algae seemed totally cool ‘cause everything was alive.

RM: I remember the stories that Terry Seigel tells about the first reef tanks when they first got live rock, and aiptasia started growing and they were like WOOSH!

RR: Something alive! {laughs} And you know, we’d make these spray bars plumbed right from the bottom of the tank. No overflow tube, it was just like the bottom of the tank plumbed. Protein skimmers made with a piece of PVC with an airstone shoved down in it and it would just drain into the chamber. And they did work. They produced … goo. … which is the goal I guess. Typically for me, once we really started understanding things, I kind of got out of it. I went to college.

RM: Where did you go to college?

RR: UC Davis.

RM: UC Davis. I bet you rode a bike?

RR: I did, I rode a bike. And a skateboard. Mostly skateboards because parking a bike at Davis could be a real hassle. I was actually transshipping reptiles through my dorm room. Bad idea. There was a store that couldn’t get anything in Davis, so I used the people I knew in LA to transship stuff. I was bringing, like, mangrove snakes – they’re rear fanged – through so I’d have like 30 reptiles in the dorm. What was I doing? I was probably a real jackass.

RM: I bet this was very popular with the ladies.

RR: Totally. They love an escaped snake. Then I came home after college and got back into it [the saltwater hobby] about five or six years after that. I had moved to San Francisco and lived there probably about four years until it occurred to me, I should do a tank. I’d been thinking about it for a long time. Then I found out that everything had changed and spent a furious year unlearning bad things. I didn’t even know about, you know, high intensity lamps at that point. Still fluorescents and PCs.

RM: So then it seems you started on the usual trajectory of contemporary reef tank setups.

RR: Yes! Mushrooms and soft corals, and just right to hard corals as soon as I understood about lighting. I think that my wife got me Charles’ book, the first one. [The Reef Aquarium Vol. 1] And it was like, oooh, and I remember going through it and I went, let’s treat this like a textbook and highlighted it. We had a little 50 gallon aqua-system, you know with the sump built in kinda thing in the back and it slowly took over an entire wall of the living room with auto top-offs being built and all jinkied together. Terrible, horrible, ugly, disgusting, sad, I couldn’t believe she let me do it. And then when we moved out I ended up officially marrying her because she’d let me do stuff. Well, you’ve seen the pictures of the cephalopod room.

RM: We’ll get to cephalopods in a minute. I want to go back… you lived as a kid in South Africa? How did that happen, and what was that like?

RR: My dad was offered a job there. And… took it. That was kind of interesting because we were actually there for the Soweto riots. We could see smoke from them because we lived in Johannesberg but we didn’t know the riots were going on because, you know, totally state run media and everything so we had no idea until we got a call from my grandma asking if we were okay. I was six – six through ten, something like that. That was pretty cool! Good experience, great reptile park.

RM: Did that feed into your desire to smuggle reptiles?

RR: Ahh, I can’t believe I did that. And I had a parrot at the same time, a blue front Amazon and I remember one of the mangrove snakes escaped and someone came and found me and said you gotta go to your room and the snake was trying to eat the bird and it was just … what the hell was I doing?

RM: What did you study in college?

RR: I ended up studying philosophy.

RM: Philosophy! I in fact was a philosophy major as well. Who was your favorite philosopher?

RR: Spinoza. Loved the Spinoza. He’s internally consistent. Wrong, well maybe wrong but how are we supposed to know? Davis has a real good philosophy program, but it’s very small so they let you do the graduate classes. So I was doing that with Spinoza. Totally out of my league. It was great.

RM: So what was the title of your major paper?

RR: Metaphorical Love. Spinoza and Metaphorical Love. And it turned out metaphorical was actually the wrong word. It was terrible.

There was another class, one of the big classes with this guy Julian, I forget his name but he was a big Set theorist. He believed that Sets were actual things. So, it was like a 300 person class about logical fusions and we spent two days on this and he finally says that a logical fusion is a bicycle, the same bicycle through time. If you replace all the parts over time is it the same bicycle or it now a different bicycle? He said now with the logical fusion of parts we just logically say it’s the one thing. And I was sitting next to a grad student and I went, “excuse me! Isn’t that kind of a trivial distinction?” And she went, “Oh boy.” And she leaned away from me. I never got anything higher than a C in his class again. He hated me. And then, rightfully so because I kinda called him a jackass. So I got out of symbolic logic pretty quickly. But I went into college to be a marine biologist and couldn’t deal with the way the science program was worked. There was no counselor to come and help and so it appeared to me that I would be doing two to three years of make work in the lab and I had no interest in doing that. And the philosophy people were like, we’re very cool and we hate the psychology students and come with us we’ll bag on them!

It was great. I make fun of it because, you know, what do you do with a philosophy degree? But it really taught me to think and to write. I think the first paper I ever turned in was one page and got turned back and it said, “23 spelling mistakes in 24 lines. You should fix this.” And I was like, oh, okay. There was no guilt, or you’re bad, it was just, you shouldn’t do this again. And you have a chance to fix it now.

RM: Have you given any thought as to how that sort of mind training might influence your approach to the hobby?

RR: There are two things. I look at it critically so I can follow A to B to C to D to F, to wherever it goes to in a progression that’s fast and makes sense. You can kind of scope something out and understand it easily, and it’s like – this makes sense, this doesn’t make sense. Also my approach to anecdotal evidence and things like that – people saying “I changed my light bulb and cured my ich” – is that post hoc or proper hoc? I wanted to be the practical philosopher and I think that’s in the hobby a lot ‘cause it allows me to Macguyver things. I hate to use the phase. But you can use superglue for everything. It’s not just for frags, it’s for a billion uses if you just … think about them. So, I think that’s pretty fun.

RM: Okay let’s just jump around a little. Your career prior to your current one, how did that come about, how did you get into that and really what was that all about?

RR: I learned how to juggle when I was a kid. And then by the time I was sixteen I kind of submerged myself in the juggling culture. I just fell into it. I was doing shows already when I was sixteen and then I went off to college … and was doing shows through college. And I finished college and was like I don’t need a job, I can juggle. I was doing street shows and clubs and whatever gigs I could. I was often performing and became part of a dual act called American Dream Comedy Team. One of those guys, Scottie Meltzer, his partner moved away and so he folded me right in and it was like insta career.

We changed our name to Monkey Wrench, and then it became Comedy Industries. I stepped into a full blown career. The juggling is an excuse to be on stage and make funny things happen. We were doing TV, we were opening for The Smothers Brothers, and all kinds of stuff. And we started doing more corporate stuff. We did some trade shows where we talked about their products in our show and it turned out we were good at that integration and then so we became corporate whores. And that’s what we mostly did. We’d be writing, we’d be performing a show, memorizing next week’s show, writing the script after that and doing the initial meetings to touch base with the next show after that.


RM: So it’s sort of marketing for the company by lampooning them in front of an audience?

RR: Yeah, well we’d ask for their white papers and take their messages and turn it into English and then fold it into comedy bits. Sometimes we’d write custom things, but we sort of had a set of things where we could plug their information in. And you know, the hardest part was getting the conversation with them, getting them all not to pee on the script. So that got hard after a while. And then we had a kid, and my wife and I were making about the same amount of money, but she had insurance and therefore I become the stay-at-home Dad.

RM: What does she do?

RR: She’s a financial planner. It’s been a good couple of weeks [laughter]

RM: So you gave up the other thing?

RR: I gave up the other thing. I didn’t mind, I didn’t miss the traveling. I did that for ten years, it was a lot of travel. I guess that’s probably when I really sank into the hobby a whole lot because I had a bunch of time at home.

RM: Is that when the obsession with cephalopods started?

RR: It started about a year after that.

RM: At what point did you take the leap into trying to breed cephalopods?

RR: As soon as I could. The first group I had I wanted to breed, I had three. That’s when I built all those dividers and transparent doors and dark doors and let them see each other so they wouldn’t kill each other. But I didn’t have any real success in breeding them until I was able to get to raise a group up together.

RM: So you were never able to successfully introduce two?

RR: Yeah, I got some matings, but you know when they’re adults and they come in and they’re all stressed and you’re trying to introduce them together and trying to figure out how to keep them at the same time and what size tank do they need and things like that …

RM: Did you start with octopus or cuttlefish?

RR: Cuttlefish. Traditionally, I’ve been more interested in cuttlefish although that seems to be changing now. I need a new species of cuttlefish. If I could get, six flamboyants, I’d be all excited.

RM: You have had some major breakthroughs in the octopus realm recently though.

RR: Yeah … that’s pretty cool. It started with one Wunderpus – Its scientific name is Wunderpus photogenicus – being able to keep it ten months and get it to burrow. And you know, and it’s interesting now, thinking about how philosophy relates ‘cause there was a lot of ethical stuff going on about the Wunderpus on the cephalopod site, TONMO. I was at a wholesaler when it came in and it was healthy and small and I had an empty tank. And it was just serendipity that I happened to have everything available.

RM: So once you revealed on TONMO this sort of serendipitous circumstance, was there support?

RR: There was a rash of shit and support. I got both. There’s a couple people on there who are very anti. Everything to be left in the ocean kind of stuff, and it’s not that simple. From some researchers I got some grief, but I was very stable and said, you know, I understand and I disagree on this and I’m going to do the best I can and there were some people who said, well, if anyone can do it, if anyone should do it, it should be you. Which was very gratifying. You know, which I immediately of course dismissed because I know who I am, I know that I’m just a fraud. But I think everyone knows they’re a fraud.

RM: But in your fraudulent way, you’ve actually made a major breakthrough, right?

RR: I think it’s worked out, I’m doing good.

RM: So talk about your new breakthrough.

RR: The new one is Octopus chierchiae, which is just a little octopus, about golf ball size, the size of a blue ring,. They were last studied in ’86, that was the only paper on them. They’re a large egg species and the main problem with them is just getting them. They’re just hard to get, they never show up. I know Roy Caldwell at Berkeley actually sent people to collect them and they got completely skunked, they came back with nothing. We were able to get a female and a male. I’ve been looking for them for three years. They’ve been kind of the grail of aquarium octopuses because they’re large egged and the female will lay multiple clutches and not die. And I think we’re on our third clutch of eggs on the one female. They’re small and they’re easy to keep. They’re a good pet. I mean, they’re not super active but they’re there and you can see ‘em.

RM: Are they the only species that lay multiple clutches of eggs and survive?

RR: There’s a bunch actually. There’s an actual word for it, but it’s escaping me right now. Um… not sure, mercatorus might do it too. I’d have to double check that. I might be making stuff up. The larger egg ones are going to be more likely to do it. So we had the first batch and I think the ones we have from the first batch are over 100 days old, which is great. We’ve discovered a bunch of stuff already, like the female will continue to eat through brooding which the paper from ’86 says that they won’t. And just doing it, and documenting it has been pretty cool. I’d like to get them to the hobby, sell them, people want them, but we’re not ready yet.

RM: What do they eat?

RR: They eat amphipods when they’re little. I collect amphipods, culture them. And shore shrimp, I just buy a bunch of bait shrimp and freeze it. They eat almost anything. They’re easy octopus. So, easy and small. So you could always just plumb a small tank into your system and then when it’s done you could un-plumb it. You know they only live a year or however long they live.

RM: Alright, I know your car service is on it’s way, maybe just quickly, how did you end up at the Steinhart where you are now?

RR: That’s a crazy story. My kid’s five now, so it gives me a little bit more freedom. I started sort of volunteering and that was going well and there’s always the idea that oh, well, maybe that’ll be a job, but, you know, they’re pretty clear up front that volunteering doesn’t lead to anything and I understand that.

And then a biologist actually retired and Matt Wandell said, “Hey do you have a degree? Because you should apply for this because it’s opening up,” and there was a whole lot of discussion about well I have a degree in uh… philosophy. But that’s something. And then there was a lot of wrestling about do I want a job even. For me, coming at it from the hobbyist side, this is like my pretend career. When they started the move they needed real help, so I became what is called an as-needed biologist. And so it was like, okay, just work your ass off. So I’ve been working with them and they know me and they like me and I guess I’m competent and I get along with everyone and they found a little pot of money. I was on vacation in the summer for three weeks which I was worried about because it was right in the middle of the move and I thought, oh, they’ll probably let me go because of this and then I get an email that says, hey, as soon as you come back can you go full time and probably permanent. So then we got home and it was insane – we had to put my daughter in private school to make it work.

RM: What did your wife think about that?

RR: We had a lot of discussions about it. When the idea first came around, she was really supportive of it. She said, “You’ve been at home for five years with a kid. You should be around people.” We were in like a co-op preschool and I just wanted to kill everyone. It was just a nightmare, I just hated it. The point of the co-op was to teach me how to not kill other parents. I think that’s what it was.

And now the job is great, everyone there is great and it’s just real exciting to be part of it.

RM: Well thanks so much Rich , that must be you car service beating on the door. We don’t want you to miss your plane. 

RR: Thank You it was fun.

[Editor’s note: Rich did make it to the airport on time only to be delayed at JFK for 6 hours. So it goes……]

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From Reefhobbyst Magazine

Individually Unique Body Color Patterns in Octopus (Wunderpus photogenicus) Allow for Photoidentification published by PLoS ONE – see also the Wunderpix site

From Reefhobbyst Magazine

From Reefhobbyst Magazine

From Reefhobbyst Magazine

From Reefhobbyst Magazine

From Reefhobbyst Magazine




From Reefhobbyst Magazine

RHM whatsonyourbottom 62007

From Advanced Aquarist

It was exhausting. It was grueling. It was worth it.

Part of the reason the water and jungle at Milne Bay is so pristine is that getting there is an adventure in and of itself. It took us 4 flights (23 hours in the air), two hours by car (also an adventure,) and a half hour boat ride to get from San Francisco to the Tawali Resort.

It was exhausting. It was grueling. It was worth it. The Tawali caters to divers, and serves no more than 30 guests at a time. I cannot speak highly enough of this operation. Even though we were in a remote location, every luxury was provided. The rooms were spacious and air conditioned, the food was fresh and tasty, and the dive boats and equipment were top notch. The resort even had a mascot, a female cassowary in a very large pen – apparently there had been two cassowaries, until the local tribe decided to redistribute the bounty by eating the male during a local feast. Management arranged great childcare for our 4-year old daughter, who happily went off to play in the local village every day as we readied our dive gear.

A bobtail squid buries itself near the Tawali house reef. Photo by Richard Ross.

A cuttlefish flashes warning colors. Photo by Richard Ross.

Huge schools of fish swim above the reef. Photo by Richard Ross.

I believe that part of our challenge as aquarists is to find creative solutions to complex cultural and ecological conundrums. Tawali navigates these issues with grace. The resort was built next to a beautiful fringing reef that the locals fished for food. In order to protect their patch of coral from over-fishing, the resort spent the time and money to build an artificial floating ‘reef’ platform a few hundred feet away from the coral. The larger fish love the new habitat, the locals love the convenience of being able to fish from the platform, and the divers love the fact that this leaves the coral undisturbed. This creative solution has resulted in a house reef full of cuttlefish, bobtail squid, balls of coral cats, and giant nudibranchs. The highlight of the house reef is a nook with two large patches of branching Porites where, as night falls, pairs of mandarin dragonettes rise from the coral head and hover in a mesmerizing mating dance.

Milne Bay’s deeper waters are home to spectacular coral reefs. These are the healthiest reefs I have ever seen – no trash, no breakage, no bleaching, and populated by plethora of vertebrae and invertebrate animals. Mantas, rhinopias, turtles, crinoids, clams and the giant schools of anthias fill the water. Below the reefs, were gorgonian forests, home to many animals, including two species of pigmy seahorse.

Large tabling SPS, surrounded by softies. Photo by Richard Ross.

Pegasus sea moth pair, in 4 feet of water. Photo by Richard Ross.

As a reef keeper, I was astounded by the variety of both hard and soft coral. Branching, tabling, plating… it was all there. There were fields of staghorn that took minutes to swim over. Heavily prevalent were large branching colonies of green Tubastrea, bright pink/purple Acropora and red/orange softies. I was torn between wanting to get someone to set up a collecting station right away, and wanting to never tell anyone about this place. On the one hand, the income would certainly be welcome to the locals while reefkeepers back home would certainly would love to get some of the animals from the area into their home tanks. On the other hand, there are so few pristine areas left in the world, I couldn’t help but hope that this one might be left alone.

As wonderful as the reefs were, our favorite marine environment in Milne Bay was the muck fields. These huge, undulating vistas of settled silt and mud appear gray and lifeless at first glance. The creatures living there are generally masters of disguise; but if you have a keen eye, or a good dive master (which Tawali provides) the landscape is crowded with bizarre and wonderful discoveries. Pegasus Sea Moths, seahorses, crocodile fish, cuttlefish, octopus, ghost pipe fish, mantis shrimp, frogfish, and an unbelievable assortment of nudibranchs inhabit the landscape. Most of them live in shallower water, above 60 feet, which can lead to some seriously long dives – 90 minutes plus of slow, effortless, bizarre discoveries.

A small 'cleaning station' or patch reef sprouting from the muck. Photo by Richard Ross.

Clams and tabling Acropora side by side. Photo by Richard Ross.

Occasionally, you’ll find small patch reefs right in the middle of the muck, which the local dive guides call ‘cleaning stations.’ One minute you are swimming along over a desert of colorless muck, and suddenly you encounter a colorful oasis. Huge brain corals, branching corals and an overwhelming density of reef fish all crowd together in spaces as small as 8 feet in diameter. These little reefs are like fantasy tanks: densely populated by lionfish, pipefish, cleaner shrimp, coral banded shrimp, anemones, clown fish, puffers – even a giant school of cardinal fish. You can’t take one fin stroke without seeing something bright, exotic, or rare. It is an aquarist’s dream.

Colorful corals abound in PNGs reefs. Photo by Richard Ross.

While my wife and I spent most of our time poking around underwater, I would be remiss in not mentioning what there is to see on land near Tawali. There are no roads, so the only way to a get anywhere is on foot or by boat. The jungles are thick and green, and just a few feet away from the coast the heat becomes oppressive. But, again, your suffering will be worth it. Hornbills fly overhead, their wings rasping together with a sound like a swarm of bees. You trudge and trudge, and finally come upon a fissure in the limestone, only to find a skull cave, where the bones of the locals ancestors’ are stored in astounding quantities. You are led past orchids, clouds of bugs, and walls of greenery to a crystal freshwater stream. You follow the stream to a clearing where a picturesque waterfall plunges down the rockface to pool just deep enough for a refreshing swim. Yes, there is suffering. But it’s worth it.

Mandarin Dragonetts rise to mate at dusk. Photo by Richard Ross.

A field of staghorn coral that seems to go on forever. Photo by Richard Ross.

Dragon pipefish on a brain coral in one of the 'cleaning stations'. Photo by Richard Ross.

PNG is very strange, culturally speaking. Many of the body language clues we use to communicate with those who don’t speak our language, simply don’t translate here. If someone looks at you and doesn’t smile, you have no idea what they are feeling. As long as we were traveling with someone from the resort, we were met with warmth and hospitality; wander off alone, and we found ourselves in an environment of suspicion and territoriality.

'Dusty' water above the muck on a windy day. Photo by Richard Ross.

Pigmy seahorse blends into a gorgonian. Photo by Richard Ross.

This coral invoked feelings of lust and greed. Photo by Richard Ross.

Rather than lessening our enjoyment in the trip, this strangeness added to it. When we finally arrived home, I felt as if we had really traveled. The time, the difficulty, and the expense were all worth it to see a glimpse of this pristine and strange world, both above, and below the surface of the water.

One of many nudibranchs. Photo by Richard Ross.

A diver follows a school of fish around a 'cleaning station' or patch reef. Photo by Richard Ross.

Skulls of tribal ancestors are piled high in the skull caves. Photo by Richard Ross.

Our daughter was really hungry. Photo by Richard Ross.

The Tawali resort's mascot, 'Cassie'. Photo by Richard Ross.

From TONMO and Advanced Aquarist

Originally published in,, republished here with permission from the author.

Why Cuttlesfish?
I may be biased. Ok, I am completely biased. I think cuttlefish may very well be the coolest animals on the planet. They maneuver around their tank like hummingbirds, vertically, horizontally, their fin appearing blurred like bird wings. (Image 1) As they fly about they flash amazing color changes, creating patterns that pulse and shift and shimmer on the canvas of their skin. They are master predators, stalking their prey with cunning and attacking with accuracy, speed and skill. Over time, they learn to recognize and respond to you, and will often greet you when you walk into the room (or maybe they just know you bring the food). They are smart, beautiful and unusual, and unlike certain other eight-armed Cephalopods, they don’t try to escape from your aquarium.

My History
My infatuation with cuttlefish started when I was a kid. To me, they just looked like extraterrestrials, and they seemed so smart that I wanted to know more about them. I read about them, made expeditions to public aquariums to see them, and watched any program on cephalopods, hoping to catch a glimpse of these fascinating creatures. Through it all, I hoped for a cuttlefish of my own, but none ever seemed to reach the market. I kept seeing shows on research being done on cuttlefish, but no research station breeding them is able sell them to individuals (please don’t bother them by asking!).

Twenty years later, after I had become proficient at reefkeeping, I started noticing cuttlefish appearing at local fish stores about once a year. However, they always seemed unhealthy and I was reluctant to try my hand with less-than-robust animals. Finally, in 2003 (I waited a long time!) two cuttles came into a LFS that I am friendly with. When both cuttles eagerly ate, I decided to take a chance. Two years later, I converted an entire room in my house to cuttle fish breeding and husbandry. For more information on my set up, and cuttlefish video (I am quite proud of the videos) please check

Keeping cephalopods, and especially cuttlefish, in home aquariums is still in its infancy, so I thought I would write an article with all the information I would have wanted when I started keeping them. This is not to say that there isn’t info out there – The Octopus News Magazine Online (, which recently held its first cephalopod convention in Monterey Ca, and The Cephalopod Page, currently celebrating its 10 year anniversary (, both have much good information and I use them often; this article is intended to supplement those resources. My hope is that one day, cultured cuttlefish will be commonplace in the aquarium hobby, and I hope that this article will entice people to not only keep them as pets, but will inspire people to breed them as well.

Most of the information available on cuttlefish concerns itself with Sepia officinalis, mainly because they have been raised and used widely for research in the scientific research community. Another reason there is hobby-side information on S. officinalis is because they have been relatively easy for European hobbyists to obtain.

I believe that S. bandensis, provided captive bred/raised animals are available, are well suited to life in the home aquarium. It is important to note that I am not a cuttlefish ‘guru’ and that I expect that some of my ideas regarding cuttlefish husbandry will change as more people start keeping these animals successfully. There is much we don’t know, and it is my hope that my experience and ideas will inspire more people to work with these amazing animals, that our knowledge of their husbandry needs grows rapidly, and that captive raised S. bandensis become commonplace in the near future.There is sporadic importation of other species of cuttlefish into the USA, the most common of these imports is Sepia bandensis. There isn’t much information on keeping S. bandensis because they have not been studied very much in the scientific arena, and they have rarely survived for very long in the home aquarium.

Nuts and bolts
Definitions: Just what the origin of the word ‘cuttlefish’ is has not been pinned down, but according to cephalopod researcher John W Forsythe, “The name Cuttlefish originally came about as the best guess of how to spell or pronounce the Dutch or perhaps Norwegian name for these beasts. It is derived from something like ‘codele-fische’ or ‘kodle-fische’. In German today, cuttlefish and squids are called tintenfische, meaning ‘ink-fish’. I’ve been told that the term fische actually refers to any creature that lives in the sea or are caught in nets when fishing, not just fishes. Anyway, that’s what I understand the derivation of name to be.”1

The cuttlefish isn’t a fish at all – it is a cephalopod. Cephalopod researcher Dr. James Wood sums it up well; “Octopuses, squids, cuttlefish and the chambered nautilus belong to class Cephalopoda, which means ‘head foot’. Cephalopods are a class in the phylum Mollusca which also contains bivalves (scallops, oysters, clams), gastropods (snails, slugs, nudibranchs), scaphopods (tusk shells) and polyplacophorans (chitons)”2, however unlike their relatives, cephalopod move much faster, actively hunt their food, and seem to be quite intelligent.


Image 2: Video frame of an adult S. bandensis catching prey with its tentacles. Photo, Richard Ross

Physiology: A cuttlefish has 8 arms, with two rows of suckers along each arm, and two feeding tentacles with at least two rows of suckers along each. The tentacles are tipped with a tentecular club, each covered with suckers while the ‘shaft’ of the tentacle is smooth. The tentacles and tentecular club act much the same as a chameleon’s tongue; they shoot out to snare prey and bring it back to be eaten by a beak-like mouth and a wire brush like tongue called a radula.(Image 2) Cephalopods have three hearts, a ring shaped brain, blue, copper based blood, and have a lifespan between 6 months and 3 years.

Cuttlefish have amazing eyesight having ‘w’ shaped pupils which, according to cephalopod specialist Mark Norman “when closed, forms two separate pupil openings.”3

Image 3: 2 week oldS. bandensis, about ¼ inch long. Note the detail of the skin structure. Photo, Richard Ross

Image 4: Adult S. bandensis mimicking the cyano covered tubing which it is hiding under. Photo, Richard Ross


Image 5: Juvenile S. bandensis imitating macro algae. Photo, Richard Ross

They are also known for the amazing chromatophores, leucophores and iridophores that change the color of their skin. (Image 3 and 4) At any time, half of their body may be one pattern, while the other is completely different pattern. The patterns aren’t necessarily static either, they move, like animation on a TV screen; one pattern is referred to as ‘passing clouds’ because it seems to mimic the shadows of clouds passing overhead – although the pattern is also thought to mesmerize prey (see videos at www.DaisyHillCuttleFarm). These animations are thought to aid in communication, hunting and camouflage. To evade predators or hide from prey, they not only rely on their color-changing abilities but will also shape skin on their bodies into textured protrusions (Image 5), expel ink from their bodies, and ‘jet’ rapidly away from danger.

For locomotion cuttlefish generally use a two-tiered approach: a fin that girds their mantle, as well as the jet propulsion of water pumped over the gills and through their funnel. This ‘jetting’ is often used when the animal is seriously threatened, and can move the cuttlefish surprisingly quickly. Some cuttlefish, like S. bandensis and Metasepia pfefferi (flamboyant cuttlefish), actually walk across the sand using their bottom two arms and two lobes on the back part of the bottom of the mantle.

One of the most well known features of the cuttle fish is the cuttle bone, which is used by pet owners to provide calcium for caged birds. This lighter-than-balsa-wood, gas filled, multi-chambered internal calcified ‘shell’ gives the cuttlefish its buoyancy control.

Cuttlefish can also produce copious amounts of ink if startled. It is thought that the ink acts as a smokescreen to allow the cuttlefish to escape predation. Some cuttlefish ink forms ‘pseudomorphs’, or blobs of ink that are thought to further aid in escape from predation by presenting the predator with multiple targets. The question of the toxicity of cuttlefish ink is still up in the air, although it is clear that some cephalopod ink is indeed toxic, but again, the major reason the ink is thought to be toxic is because it coats their gills, causing them to suffocate. This ink has been used by humans as, well, ink; the genus shares its name with ink – Sepia. The cuttlefish ink is also used as an ingredient in many ‘snake oil’ medicines that claim to cure everything from insomnia to menopause. Cuttlefish are also quite tasty, and prepared in every way possible, from raw to deep fried snack foods.

Hard to Keep?
Cuttlefish have traditionally been thought of as a difficult animal to keep. I don’t think that is necessarily true – IF you can keep a reef tank (and understand the basics of cuttlefish care). If you have never kept a reef tank, I would strongly suggest keeping one before you start on cuttlefish – even if not all husbandry methods are transferable. Since the basics of keeping both coral and cuttlefish are similar, and since cultured corals are becoming so readily available, coral seems like a better creature to “learn on” than cuttlefish.

In my opinion, much of the reputation of being difficult to keep comes from cuttles being mistreated during collection and shipping: often housed together, the resultant fighting can cause injuries and infections, while stressed animals can ink in shipping bags causing them to suffocate.

If you can get your hands on a cuttle in good shape, I have found them to be pretty resilient and adaptable. Two cuttles I recently got from a local wholesaler were in good shape and were eating thawed frozen krill the second day I had them, and exhibiting ‘begging’ behavior on the third!

However, please remember that cuttlefish are short-lived animals (which has also bolstered the thought that they are difficult animals to keep), so get prepared for your little alien friend that greets you every time you walk into the room to be with you for l3 months or less. According to James Wood, “lifespan in cephalopods seems to be a function of two things, the water temperature that they live at and the size they mature at. Species that mature at a small size and live in warm water have the shortest lifespan.”4

There are many ways for a cuttlefish to die. An injury from fighting can become infected or the injury itself can be terminal. Sometimes, a cuttlefish will be eating well and active one day, only to be floating lifeless the next morning. If you are able to keep a cuttlefish to the end of its natural lifespan, you may get to experience the animal going through senescence, which really means the process of getting old, but in cephalopods the process is downright gut wrenching. The onset of senescence is often marked by a clouding of the eyes. Since eyesight it central to a cuttlefish’s hunting ability, such clouding can be disastrous. The ability to track and catch prey is impeded, with the animal’s tentacles seeming to not function properly and an inability of the tentecular club to hold onto prey. Eventually, the animal can become lethargic, showing no interest at all in eating or even moving. To make it even more painful, senescence can last for days or months.

The death of your cuttlefish is awful and it is going to happen; be prepared.

Available species
There are essentially two species of cuttlefish that are ‘available’ to the aquarium trade – Sepia officinalis and Sepia bandensis.

Much has been written about S. officinalis because they are bred all over the world for different kinds of research – from neuron research to behavioral research. While S. officinalis are pretty simple to get a hold of if you are a researcher, or live in Europe, they are quite difficult to get in the US. What’s even worse from a practical point of view, is they get big – 18 inches. It is recommended that the smallest aquarium for a single animal be at least 200 gallons. They are from ‘cool’ waters and like a water temp between 59 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

I believe that Sepia bandensis, on the other hand, are the perfect animal for the home aquarium because they are small: about 4 inches. Since S. bandensis is the species with which I have the most experience, they are the focus of this article. However, if you are interested in Sepia officinalis, please read this article by Colin Dunlop (, or this article by Dr. James Wood (

There are many Sepia species that are similar to each other, and many may not have been identified yet, so proper identification can be very difficult. For instance, it is possible that the first cuttles I got were not S. bandensis, but I only came to this conclusion after raising bunches of cuttles that I am more sure are S. bandensis through observations.

Other species sometimes seen in the hobby are pharaoh cuttlefish, Sepia pharaonis, which are even less available than S. officinalis. I once had the honor of keeping a flamboyant cuttlefish, Metasepia pfefferi – but not enough is known about them to make me feel comfortable recommending them as pets, and there seem to be indications that their populations in the wild are in decline.

Getting a cuttlefish
Getting a cuttlefish, especially in the US, is currently difficult. There are no cuttles native to North America, so unlike our friends in the rest of the world, you can’t just go and collect your own; you have to hope that your LFS will get one in stock. Still, there is hope.

There are other people, just as into cuttlefish as I am, working on breeding Sepia bandensis in the US and the UK. Last year offered captive raised Sepia officinalis for sale – and plan to again this year. is the only facility culturing octopus for the hobby in the US, and they also sell a variety of other marine animals. Recently, I have been working with to help them establish S. bandensis brood stock on a larger scale than what I am working with.

I am a huge fan of captive propagation in general, and think the benefits of captive-bred or captive-raised cuttlefish are massive – the animals are already acclimated to captive conditions, already eating available foods, and don’t go through the stress of being collected or shipped from another continent; not to mention reducing the demands on wild populations.

Another option is to raise your animals from eggs; cuttlefish eggs, usually S. bandensis, show up in the hobby from time to time. They are usually added to orders as ‘filler’ and one wholesaler told me they feed them to fish at his facility! Raising baby cuttles from eggs has its own host of problems and benefits that will be addressed later in this article.

Setting Up for S. bandensis 
S. bandensis don’t get very big, 4 inches or less, and a single animal can easily be kept in smallish aquaria. They seem to be very reluctant to ink, they tend to become very personable very quickly and, unlike octopus, they don’t try to escape from their aquarium. Whenever I walk into my cuttle room, they all swim to the front of their tanks to see if I will feed them. They really seem to be the perfect cephalopod for the home aquarium.

Below is a breakdown of what is needed to keep a single S. bandensis in a sumpless system. I am not going to go into very much detail because I am hoping that anyone who wants to keep a cuttlefish already has some basic experience in keeping saltwater tanks and understands the nitrogen cycle. If you don’t, but are still interested in keeping a cuttlefish, I suggest you check out’s New Reefers Forum (

    • S. bandensis can be kept in tanks as small as a 20 gallon high, although a 30 gallon high is better for a single animal. They prefer to have a tall tank, and seem to like the feel of the height of the water above them. They can, of course, be kept in bigger tanks, but the bigger the tank the harder it might be to make sure a small cuttlefish sees its food.
    • Any water pump, powerhead or filter intake should be covered with a filter sponge, or something similar, to keep the cuttlefish from being sucked into the filter or sucked against the intake.
    • A protein skimmer is a must, not only for oxygenation and water cleanliness issues, but also to deal with ink events. A hang on back skimmer will work just fine – I like the Bak Pak with a wooden air stone added to the reaction chamber to produce more foam. I have also used the Remora Pro, but never really got much skimmate out of it, but some people swear by them. Any decent skimmer will do.
    • A hang-on back – Preferably with a surface skimmer attachment to suck ‘scum’ off the top of the water. The mechanical filtration provided is helpful because cuttlefish are messy eaters and messy excreters. A HOB filter is also a good place to run carbon to help deal with inking events or other water quality issues. Make sure you change or rinse the filter media often. The HOB filter will also give you plenty of circulation for S. bandensis – provided you get the right sized filter for the right sized tank. I use Aquaclear 500’s on 20 gallon high tanks. A canister filter will also work just as well.
    • Extra water flow – If you need extra water flow, a power head will work just fine (but cover the intake with a filter sponge!). Air pumps are also very efficient at moving water, and make especially good water movement for baby cuttlefish.
    • Heater – S. bandensis come from at least the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and seem to do just fine between 78 and 80 degrees.
    • Chiller (if you need it). In the SF Bay area I have never needed one, but if I did need one I would use an IceProbe Micro Chiller DIY’d onto a hang on back filter. I doubt you would need one for this species. For S. officinalis you very well might want one.
    • Water quality – Specific gravity should be around 1.025, pH 8.1-8.4, Ammonia, nitrite and nitrate as close to 0 as possible.
    • Make sure that the tank has completely finished its nitrogen cycle and is ready for a high biological load before adding a cuttlefish.
    • Lighting is not much of an issue as cuttles don’t really need it. I use Lights of America fixturesfrom Home Depot or Costco to keep the macro algae growing. Some people have reported cuttles going blind from high intensity lighting, but I am not sure if I believe it. Cuttlefish eyesight tends to go as they reach senescence – the eyes cloud over and they find it hard to see their prey, and these are the symptoms that people have reported keeping cuttles under high intensity lighting. It is hard to tell if the timing of the eye problems is coincidence or caused by the lighting. Your lighting will also determine what corals, if any, you keep with the cuttle.
    • Aquascaping – I like to create big arches so the cuttles have places to hide, but are still easy to find. I suggest going light on the live rock to make it easier to find the cuttlefish – remember they are masters of camouflage.
    • A sand bed of 1/2 inch depth is fine. The cuttles will dig around in the sand, so a deep sand bed might be problematic.
    • S. bandensis are often found among sea fans, but seem to do very well with hanging macro algae. You can hang your macros with a lettuce clip used to feed tangs and angels vegetable matter.
    • Top off – over time the water in your tank will evaporate, and will need to be replaced. Note that the salt does NOT evaporate, so your top off water should be reverse osmosis water or reverse osmosis/deionized water heated to the temperature of the tank. How often you will need to top off your tank will depend on the rate of evaporation you experience.
    • No copper! Copper will kill cuttlefish.
  • Water changes – I recommend a 25 -50 percent water change once a month. The water should be reverse osmosis water or reverse osmosis/deionized water mixed with a good quality salt mix, heated and aerated to tank temperature for 24 hours before adding it to the tank.

Of course, a system with a sump would be fine as well. A sump is essentially another tank below the show tank, often kept inside the tank stand. Water drains from the show tank into the sump, and is then pumped back up into the show tank. Sumps do basically two things – they give your system a larger water volume which makes the system more stable and they give you a place to put equipment that may be unsightly, like your skimmer, heater or chiller. A 50 or 100 micron sock can also be added to the end of the tank drain for extra water filtration, but make sure to clean it at least once a week, if not more, so the detritus collecting in the sock don’t break down and cause water quality issues.

Keeping groups of S. bandensis: I have not experimented much with keeping groups of S. bandensis together. I have had so few animals, and I didn’t want to risk losing them to possible injuries from fighting. It may very well be the case that keeping groups, especially groups raised together, of S. bandensis in the same aquarium turns out to be a great way to keep them. It may also turn out that the fear of fighting is overrated. I think that as long as they are given a large enough tank that they should be fine, but I have no ideas as to what constitutes ‘large enough’. When the current babies I have are old enough, I plan on keeping a group of them in an undivided 100 gallon tank, so I should have more information in the near future.

Tank Mates for S. bandensis: Most fish, shrimp and crabs that are smaller than the cuttle will eventually become food…they will even eat mantis shrimp. Larger animals may distress the cuttle. In short, I would NOT recommend having fish and cuttles in the same tank. Snails, however, are completely safe in my experience.

Any kind of non-aggressive coral should be fine with cuttlefish. Anything that tends to sting should be avoided. Mushrooms, colt corals, ‘tree’ corals, clove polyps and green star polyps are all good choices for a cuttle tank. SPS corals may not be good choices for lighting reasons and water quality issues.

Feeding S. bandensis
Cuttlefish are predators eating mostly crustaceans and fish. It seems that motion triggers their amazing hunting response, so lots of people want to feed them live foods. This can be problematic because live food can be expensive, and even though cuttles will eat fish, they really are crustacean eaters. The most widely available live crustation for food is the ghost shrimp, which is good for a snack, but may not be the best everyday food.

There are several options to feeding your cuttlefish. Variety is always a good idea, as it covers more nutritional bases and keep the cuttle mind more active.

Image 6: Adult S. bandensis eating a locally caught crab. Photo, Richard Ross

  • Live saltwater crabs/shrimp collected locally. This is a great, inexpensive food source if collected from a clean area. I live near the SF Bay, and crabs are easy to collect, but I am now worried about the pollution levels being problematic for the cuttlefish, so I don’t use them as my primary food source. Also, remember not to feed crabs or shrimp that are bigger than the cuttle just because it is cool to watch the fight – prey has defensives and will often injure the predator. (Image 6)
  • Live saltwater fish collected locally: See above – but remember that Crustaceans make up the bulk of cuttle diets in the wild, so a fish-only diet is not best. If you are interested in seeing what different species of cuttlefish eat in the wild, please see Cephalopod Prey in the Wild ( Even though there is not a lot on S. bandensis, the information may be informative.
  • Live saltwater crabs/shrimp or fish for a live bait shop: Great if you can find ’em, as long as they are collected from a clean area.

    Image 7: Adult S. bandensis eating a sickly Cardinal fish. Photo, Richard Ross




  • Live saltwater fish from an LFS: Not the best option because this usually means damsels, which can be pretty aggressive and can even injure the cuttlefish – not to mention expensive. (Image 7)
  • Live saltwater shrimp/crabs from the LFS: Great if you can afford them. They will almost always be expensive, but can be a good option in an emergency. Hermit crabs, like clean up crew hermits, aren’t the best idea because they are so small and can disappear into their shells – and the cuttlefish may ignore them completely.
  • Live freshwater crabs/shrimp: It is questionable if freshwater animals make good food source for saltwater animals – there may be missing nutrients or may have incompatible amino acids. Otherwise, ghost shrimp are eaten with gusto by cuttlefish, as are small fiddler crabs or very small crawfish. The big drawback is if the cuttle doesn’t eat the animal, you now have a freshwater animal in a saltwater tank . . . which may die and pollute the water.
  • Live freshwater fish: Guppies seem to be ok, but goldfish seem to cause indefinable problems. The big worry is that these animals are treated with copper or other chemicals that can be detrimental/disastrous to the health of the cuttlefish.
  • Frozen Krill, fish, or other (but not cooked!): As a general staple, frozen krill from the LFS or fresh frozen, rinsed shrimp/non oily fish from your local grocery store are great. Make sure you thaw the food completely, and it is a good idea to supplement once in a while with live food. Please note that weaning your cuttles onto frozen food can be a challenge. The trick is to make the dead food look alive via a clear feeding stick or by having it ‘blow’ around in the current. Two wild-caught cuttles I currently have took to frozen food almost immediately with almost no work on my part, while other cuttles I have had would never even look at it.
  • Ordering live food from the internet: Great but expensive due to overnight shipping costs, and you will need to set up a separate tank to keep them alive. Check out and suggest feeding cuttlefish at least once a day, and promptly remove any uneaten food from the aquarium. They will eat a lot more than once a day, but it does seem like it is possible to over feed them. Their metabolism is very fast, so I wouldn’t suggest not feeding them for more than a couple of days in a row. Cuttlefish floating near the surface may be a sign of starvation, so be on the lookout for this behavior.

Rearing S. Bandensis eggs


Image 8: Baby S. bandensis inside the egg. Photo, Mike Irving


Image 9: Baby S. bandensis inside the egg. Photo, Richard Ross

S. Bandensis eggs look like a cluster of 8-40 grapes, are dark purple to black in color (the outside of the egg is partially made of ink) and generally stay attached to each other even after they are removed from whatever they were attached to by the female cuttlefish. The eggs are pointy when laid, but as they mature, they swell, become round and eventually grow so transparent that you can watch the baby swim around inside. After 2-3 weeks, the baby cuttlefish emerge from the eggs ready to meet the world. Sometimes a yolk sack is still attached, however this is generally considered to be an effect of a premature hatching. Though tiny, they are perfect replicas of their parents and begin color changing almost immediately (and even while still in the egg!) (Image 8 and 9)


Image 10: Baby S. bandensis. Marks at the bottom of the frame are 1/8 inch apart. Photo, Richard Ross


Image 11: Video frame of 2 male S. bandensis intimidating each other with visual displays. Photo, Richard Ross

The cuttlefish are born as small as 4 mm (Image 10), but grow quickly, up to 1 cm in one month! I keep newly hatched S. Bandensis in net breeders so I can keep track of them and make sure they are all eating (I turn the net of the net breeder inside out so the extra material is on the outside of the net breeder so the babies don’t get caught in it). If the babies are kept in the main tank, they can easily get lost or sucked into a filter. I am also experimenting with keeping baby cuttlefish in display ‘cubes’ like you see in aquarium stores. I often keep up to 5 individuals in the same net breeder for several months, or until I begin to see fighting displays (Image 11). Then, I move them into sectioned off areas of the 100 gallon tank. I have tried keeping groups together for mating and tried keeping individual animals apart except for mating, and have had equal results in both cases, but will use a larger space for groups in the future.

Image 12: A ‘net breeder’ used to house and protect baby S. bandensis. Photo, Richard Ross


Image 13: Baby S. bandensis inside a ‘net breeder’. Photo, Richard Ross

If you have a cuttlefish that lays eggs, leave them where they are until they start to inflate. Then you can carefully remove them from whatever they have been laid on by removing the ‘stalk’ of the bunch of grapes from its point of attachment and move the eggs to a net breeder or other hatching container (avoid moving them close to hatching, because it can be stressful) (Image 12 and 13). It would be even safer for the eggs if you were able to move them by moving whatever it is that they are attached to, or you could suspend the eggs in the middle of the water column via monofilament or bent rigid airline tubing. Keep a gentle water flow over the eggs and remove any eggs that fail to mature. Make sure to cover any filter/pump intake with a filter sponge, or simply use an airpump for water motion.

Eggs come with their own set of pros and cons. The pros are big – the eggs ship well and take up little space, and allow you to know the exact age of your cuttles. However, the major con is massive – feeding the babies. Baby S. bandensis may not eat for 2 or 3 days after hatching, but once they get started, they eat an amazing amount of food, and the food has to be the right size. Live mysid shrimp make the perfect food, but you need lots of them, and to make matters worse, mysids are cannibalistic so you have to keep them in a large enough container and feed them enough so they won’t eat each other.

If you are lucky enough to be able to collect your own, or live near some place that cultures them and will sell them to you, or decide to (shudder) culture your own, you win. Otherwise you will need to have them shipped to you overnight and incur those expenses. When I shipped in live food, I was very happy with, a division of Reed Mariculture.

Image 14: Three week old baby S. bandensis and Gammarus spp amphipod. Marks at the bottom of the frame are 1/8 inch apart. Photo, Richard Ross


Image 15: Baby S. bandensis eating an amphipod. Photo, Richard Ross

If you live near the coast, you can also collect amphipods (Gammarus spp) for baby cuttlefish food, which is actually pretty easy. I prefer to go to a gravelly area that gets exposed at low tide, find a rock about the size of a dinner plate, flip it over and scoop the revealed gravel into a bucket with some tank water. When I get home, I drop a net in the bucket. The pods tend to cling to it and voila… easy baby feeding. (Image 14 and 15)

UK S. bandensis keeper Mike Irving collects mysid shrimp for his baby cuttlefish: “In coastal areas you may find that you have mysids living. Usually they are more abundant in tidal areas, or where fresh water run-off meets salt water. Mysids live at the sand surface, so in order to collect them, you should take a fine net (sized so that is will let silt through but not the mysids) and run it along the surface of the sand/sediment. As you net disturbs the mysids and sweeps through the water, you will catch the mysids.

A word of warning – when you collect mysids yourself, first make sure that the water is unpolluted (however the presence of them can sometimes indicate so, and that you do not collect too many. When transporting them from coast to home, if you over collect for your transportation receptacle (bucket!) they mysids use up oxygen fast, and you can end up with a bunch of dead shrimp. Collect light and aerate with a tube if you can – even better buy a battery operated air pump.”

Baby fish can also be an option ( sells baby saltwater guppies). Some people will use enriched small brine shrimp but only in a pinch – it is thought that long term, brine are not an adequate cuttlefish food.

Another thing to try is to wean them onto frozen mysids. Put cuttlefish in a small tank, cube or net breeder with enough circulation to keep the thawed mysids moving and after a few days the babies should start eating them.

Warning: It is not known how well S. bandensis can do with a diet of only saltwater guppies, enriched brine shrimp, or frozen mysids. A varied diet of other live foods seems to give the best chance of survival.

Breeding S. bandensis
I have had limited success breeding S. bandensis – mainly through trying to keep breeding groups or pairs in hobby sized tanks. I get lots of mating, but have lost the parents before egg laying for reasons I believe may include fighting due to limited space, separated cuttles injuring themselves trying to get to each other through dividers, or slow poisoning via live foods collected from the SF bay.


Image 16: Two young adult S. bandensis mating. Photo, Richard Ross

Cuttlefish breed by coupling head to head, and the male packet of sperm called a spermatophore, is deposited into a pouch in the female’s mantle (Image 16) The mating can last from 10 seconds to many minutes, and in some species, males will use their funnel to flush other male’s sperm out the females pouch.6 Females can lay several clutches of eggs, and can live for months after egg laying.

Even though cuttlefish can tell each others sex on sight, it is very difficult for humans to accurately sex them if you don’t actually see them breeding. In general, S. bandensis males tend to adopt high contrast black and white patterns when faced with another male while females tend to keep the more relaxed mottled colors that a resting cuttlefish adopts. However, males sometimes display like females and females sometimes display like males, so introducing S. bandensis that don’t know each other should be done with care.

Image 17: Divided 100 gallon tank used for breeding and sexing S. bandensis. Photo, Richard Ross

The method of introduction and sexing that I am using developed with much help from Chris Maupin. So far, while not perfect, it seems to be effective. I built movable partitions in a 100 gallon tank, each with a removable door that can be either be transparent or opaque.(Image 17) To try to sex the cuttles, I put in the transparent door to see how they react to each other. Hopefully, those reactions will allow me to determine the sex of the animals. James Wood suggests holding a mirror up to the tank, but I haven’t tried this method of sexing yet.


Image 18: Close up of the face of an adult S. bandensis eating a crab. Photo, Richard Ross

When I think I have a male and a female, I remove the door and watch as the two cuttles face off. Males and females will mate pretty much immediately, while two males will display and fight (Image 11). After breeding, I separate the two to prevent fighting. If the pair ends up being two males, I separate them as quickly as possible.

The first pair I successfully bred produced one clutch of eggs using this method. The next cuttles I raised were all male. The third attempt seemed successful, and the pair mated like crazy, when disaster struck. The two lovesick cuttles were so eager to get some “unsupervised” time together, that they attempted to mate through the mesh of the tank dividers. Both animals were injured, and died shortly thereafter.

I have also kept groups of cuttles together to see if they would pair off or mate without intervention, but have had little success, mostly due to apparent fighting. It is probable that the space I gave these groups was simply too small.

When the babies I currently have are old enough, I will modify my procedure. The modifications I’m considering are: using different dividers, leaving an empty space between divided cuttles to prevent them trying to reach each other, and using a much larger tank/tub as an environment for small group to live in. I suspect that S. bandensis would be easy to breed with a group of 10 or so as long as they were in a 300 gallon tub with plenty of macro algae for hiding.

Image 19: Rear view of 3 week old S. bandensis eating an amphipod. Marks at the bottom of the frame are 1/8 inch apart. Photo, Richard Ross

Cuttlefish are fantastic animals, and I am still amazed that I have them in my home. I hope that as more people begin to keep and breed them that they will become a captive bred staple in the aquarium hobby. I also hope that you have found this article helpful, and that your interest in keeping and breeding cuttlefish has grown. If you have any information on keeping or breedingSepia bandensis, or if you have found any errors in this article, please contact me because to make captive bred bandensis readily available we need to pool our information.

My efforts with Sepia bandensis would not have been possible without the generous help of Bob Mendelsohn, Chris Maupin, Colin Dunlop, Mike Irving, Dr, James Wood, both the RDO and online communities and the information compiled by Dr. James Wood on The Cephalapod Page and Cephbase. I also need to thank my wife Libby for allowing the absurdity of attempting to breed cuttlefish in a house and for her immeasurable help in writing this article.


The Cephalopod Page –

The Octopus News Magazine Online –

CephBase –

Mike Irvings


General) Norman, Mark (2000), ‘Cephalopods a world guide’, ConchBooks PP 1-92



3) Norman, Mark (2000), ‘Cephalopods a world guide’. ConchBooks : pp.82

4) Private correspondence referring to the following paper: Wood J.B. and R.K. O’Dor (2000). Do larger cephalopods live longer? Effects of temperature and phylogeny on interspecific comparisons of age and size at maturity. Marine Biology. 136 (1) : pp.91

5)Lights of America Fixtures –

6)Norman, Mark (2000), ‘Cephalopods a world guide’. ConchBooks : pp.42


Image 20: 3 week old baby S. bandensis. Marks at the bottom of the frame are 1/8 inch apart. Photo, Richard Ross

From Advanced Aquarist

July 2004 – Richard shares his awesome 150 gallon tank with us this month.

I began reefing in the 80’s when algae covered rocks were thought to look good and bio balls were the end-all of water quality control. After working in several LFS in LA for 5 years, I moved to the SF Bay Area and took a hiatus from the hobby. When my wife and I were lucky enough to buy our first house I jumped back in with a 50 gallon and labored to catch up with all the new information that had become available. I was very happy with the tank, but always thought about doing something bigger and better.

Tank Shot: 2004

Tank Shot: 2002

Click here for a Shockwave time lapse of Richard’s tank.

My chance came in 2002. My wife was pregnant and we decided to move a whopping 5 blocks to a bigger home that would better suit our growing family. And, of course moving meant NEW TANK. The situation worked out perfectly because we had two months to prepare for the move, and I was able to use that time to design and collect the components for the new system. Best of all, beneath the new house was a 40 inch crawl space with great access, so a remote sump was high on the list.

Being on a budget, I searched the Internet for used equipment, and based my system around what I found. I knew I wanted a bigger tank, and soon I found a 150, 5x2x2, drilled with overflows and perimeter bracing (I love perimeter bracing because it allows you can put all kinds on stuff right by the tank where you need it). I also got a used Euro Reef CS-3, some used 250 watt DE pendants, a used Ampmaster 3000, and a used 180 acrylic tank for the sump. All these were significantly less money than the same items new, so if you have the time, searching for used equipment is the way to go.

A custom-made stand and canopy were a must because the old tank was rigged with temporary solutions that seemed to always become permanent, and the room it was in was slowly taken over by the kudzu-like growth of reef equipment…it drove my wife crazy. The stand and canopy were the single most expensive purchase for the new system: red oak, 30 inch high stand, 16 inch high front opening matching canopy – mmmm pretty. I now completely believe that a good looking stand and canopy are a must because they make your tank look like showpiece rather than a cobbled together hobby.

I wanted to locate the tank in our living room because that’s where I spend most of my relaxing time, but there really wasn’t a good place for it. I considered another room, but knew I wouldn’t be happy with it there. I posted diagrams of the house on RDO and asked for input. There was a perfect wall for the tank, but in that wall was a door to a bathroom. Someone suggested I move the bathroom door, an idea I never considered. This strategy had the added benefit of allowing me to access the back of the tank from inside the bathroom. So a contractor friend and I moved the door, reinforced the floor under the tank, and began the move-in.

Set up for this system officially began in August of 2002. The first order of business was moving the old tank to the new house (the move actually went very well, only needing 2 friends and 20 containers for livestock…and the result was almost no losses). The livestock stayed in the 50 gallon until the new system was up and stable, which was pretty quick because almost all the live rock came from the old system and any new rock had been curing for months at the LFS. In the third week of August I moved a couple of LPS and softie frags over and they did well, so over the next two weeks I moved everything over.

Two years later, the system is flourishing, (knock on wood, we all know how quickly that can change!) allowing me a constant stream of frags for sale or trade to other hobbyists.


My idea about how the system should work was based largely on the idea of ‘a little bit of everything’. In building this system, I have tried to incorporate the best techniques from the reefing world. In my opinion, this includes:

  • The biggest show tank possible.
  • A big, remote sump for macros and coral farming. I think the benefits of a big sump are huge: stable temperature, stable water quality, hidden mess (which, from the pictures, you can tell is important) and no noise in the living room. I am currently thinking about adding a 300 gallon tub to the sump as cheap additional water quality insurance because I have the room under the house.
  • An over tank refugium to keep the in-tank supply of pods stable for the fickle fish.
  • A medium sand bed mainly because I like the look of it, and I like the stability it provides. I also regularly ‘storm’ the sand with a power head to help remove detritus build up.
  • A big skimmer running wet to take out the nasties quick.
  • A calcium reactor for the stability and peace of mind.
  • Good lighting that will allow the keeping of practically anything.
  • High water turnover rate and strong, random circulation.

Automate everything possible – timers for lights, temp controllers for fans, auto top off, auto skimmer shut off – because it is more fun to look at your tank than to spend time doing menial tasks.

Water Circulation

  • Ampmaster 3000 as return, feeding 2 1 inch Sea Swirls located in the front corners of the tank.
  • Mag 9.5 on a SQWD closed loop, entering tank in the bottom back corners. The pipe into the tank can be rotated so the direction of the output can be changed.
  • Mag 7 running a SQWD, one output to the above tank ‘fuge, the other I move around the tank depending on where I think more circulation is needed.
  • 2 power heads on an MVT wave maker to eliminate dead spots, and one large power head, also on the MVT to act as a ‘surge’ across the top of the tank.
  • Currently adding another Mag 9 and SQWD for additional circulation.


  • 2 250 DE PFO mini pendants, running 20K X bulbs
  • 2 250 DE PFO mini pendants, running 13K Geisman bulbs
  • 3 48 inch super actinic VHO bulbs, two in front and one in back
  • DIY moonlight with 8 LED’s
  • The lights come on staggered. At 10:30 am the VHO’s come on, then the 20 K’s at 11:00 am. The 10 K’s come on at 2:30 pm and go off at 8:30 pm. The 20k’s go off at 9:30pm and the VHO go off at 10:30. The moonlight comes on at 10:30 and goes off at 1am.

Additional Equipment

  • Euro Reef CS-3 skimmer
  • 2 350 Watt Won titanium heaters, one in an overflow, one in the sump.
  • 100 GPD RO/DI unit
  • DIY Kalk reactor
  • DIY Calcium reactor

Rear of tank

Full tank shot

Sump in crawl space

Above tank refugium


I am a little bit of a redundancy and anti flooding freak. My auto top-off has two float switches: one for low water, one for high. The return pump is on a float switch in the main tank in case the 1.5 inch overflows clog. The ‘fuge pump is on its own float switch and has 2 drains to the main tank, one above the other in case of clogging.

DIY skimmer auto shut off, so the skimmers stops foaming when its external collection container is full.

All power cords are clearly labeled; so it is easier to trouble shoot something over the phone.

My one vulnerability right now would be in case of a catastrophic power failure. Eventually I will acquire a generator of some kind; in the meantime, I employ several Penn Plax battery powered air pumps on the tank and the sump that kick on if the power goes out. I also have a 600 watt inverter in case of longer outages.


I feed PE mysis and Cyclop-eez every day. I occasionally feed Golden Pearls and flake food. I’ve tried using other supplements, but was unconvinced by the results.

I clean the interior surface of the tank with a magnetic cleaner every couple of days using a magna scraper when coralline is present. I use vinegar on a paper towel to clean the exterior surface of the tank, particularly if guests are coming over..

Once a month I harvest Macros from the sump.

At least once a week I check to make sure that all the pumps the house and all the reactors under the house are working properly.

I add some salt to the sump when the 5 gallon skim mate container is full.

Due to the large volume in the system, I don’t perform regular water changes, and I do generally run carbon and at least one polyfilter. However, I will occasionally do a water change when I get worried, when I ‘steal’ water from this system for my other tanks, or if something looks unwell.


The basic layout for the tank consists of two distinct pinnacles, with some shallow rubble between them. I arranged each pinnacle with multiple swim- throughs for the tank denizens, as well as overhangs and cavelets to shelter some of the shyer tank-dwellers. I use the vertical surface of the back and side tank walls for additional aquascaping, and to provide the illusion of depth of field.

As the tank has matured, I’ve encountered the happy problem of having the space between the two pinnacles close organically. While this “crowding” disturbs my minimalist friends, I see the changing landscape in the tank as being part of the fun, and content myself with only minimal intervention. I do harvest frags when they threaten other corals, or when a colony simply gets overwhelming. But for the most part, I let them do their thing. Of course, when a cool new frag comes into my possession, I somehow always find a way to place it!

I have also come to look forward to the occasional rock shift or slide, as it gives me the opportunity to re aquascape making me feel like the tank is new again.



  • Purple tang
  • 3 Bartletts Anthias
  • 3 chalk bass
  • 2 black perculas
  • 1 Yellow Watchman Goby
  • 2 garden eels
  • 4 various pipefish
  • 1 psychedelic mandarin
  • 7 blue eyed cardinals – the coolest fish ever!

Blue eyed cardinals

Goby on open brain


  • 2 fire shrimp
  • 2 cleaner shrimp
  • 3 sexy shrimp
  • Various snails, tubeworms, tiny brittle stars, and cucumbers
  • a host of ‘pods

Corals (P = propagated, WC = wild Collected)


  • Purple/blue tortuosa (P)
  • Blue stag (P)
  • Blue table (P)
  • Purple, green, and orange digitata (P)
  • Blue, green, neon green, orange, and red capricornis (P)
  • Pink, purple Millepora (P, WC)
  • Pavona (WC)
  • Porites and worms (WC)
  • Green Slimer (P)
  • Mycedium (P)
  • Echinophyllia (P)
  • Hydnophora (P)
  • Yellow Turbinaria (WC)
  • Tricolor (P)
  • Asst sps frags (P)
  • Deep water acro (P)
  • Efflorescens (P)
  • Blue tipped acropora (P)

Blue tip acro

Left side


Purple digi

Side view

Left side



Open brain at night




  • Pagoda Cup (WC)
  • Metallic Green Frogspawn (WC)
  • Bi colored frogspawn (WC)
  • Hammer coral (WC)
  • Green Candy Cane (P)
  • Red Candy Cane P)
  • Pink Candy Cane (P)
  • Green Tubinaria (WC)
  • Red Green brain (WC)
  • Green Bubble (WC)
  • White Bubble (WC)
  • Elegance (WC)
  • Heliofungia (WC)
  • Red Scolymia (WC)
  • Multicolored Cynarina (WC)


  • Encrusting Gorgonian (P)
  • Purple Gorgonian (P)
  • Green Star Polyps (P)
  • Clavularia (WC)
  • Yellow and green open brain (WC)
  • Various Zooanthids (P)
  • Green tree (P)
  • Colt (P)
  • Assorted mushrooms and Ricordias (P)
  • Xenia (P)
  • Umbrella Leather (P)
  • Yellow Tonga Leather (P)
  • Green Toadstool (P)


  • Green and Blue Maxima clams (WC)
  • Rose Anemone (P)

Odds and Ends

  • I decided not to clean up all my equipment before I took photos for this article. I am always more interested in seeing how people actually ‘work’ their systems than sanitized pictures for display.
  • I am not a stickler for the Latin names of my critters, especially corals because they are so hard to id correctly – for instance, it looks like my “Bay Area” tortuosa is actually gomezi.
  • I don’t try to maintain a particular kind of biotope; rather I choose corals I want to look at.
  • I try to buy propagated corals as often possible, I frag and trade both privately and to LFS, and if I am buying a Wild Collected coral I like to split it with at least one other reefer.

Thanks to RDO and Advanced Aquarist for their support over the years, and for including my reef as a featured aquarium.

More information on this tank and my cuttlefish project can be found at