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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 (http://www.coralrestoration.org/) 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. 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 – http://www.secore.org/) 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.
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
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!
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.
This guy is fragging corals while wearing a lab coat which is the only metric you need to know he really is an expert - photo by Phyllis Houlihan Schiavone
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.
Here is the important thing – experts are just people like everyone else. Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong. Sometimes they are trustable and sometimes they are bending reality to sell a product (sometimes they don’t realize they are doing the bending) and sometimes they are defending a position to protect their ego (No need for embarrassment – we have all done it). Since experts are just like everyone else, since they are inherently fallible, it is important that you try not to use them as a replacement for your own brain. Here are a few questions to ask when trying to determine which expert to trust.
Does the expert have formal training?
Formal education in subject can often lend credence to an expert’s advice. In reefing, a perfect example would be the chemists that are also reef hobbyists. These people have a chemistry education and they do chemistry for a living so it makes sense that their advice regarding the reality of chemical processes is sound and based on actual, formal expertise. It also helps that in chemistry, there are often actual correct answers rather than subjective interpretation of transient events. The popular reefing chemistry experts have also been around for a while, have their own forums, have written a lot and have generally been thoroughly vetted by the hobby at large. Therefore, you can ask them a chemistry question and be pretty confident their answer is right.
However, it is important to note that the pedigrees mentioned above don’t necessarily mean that a person is an expert or that their advice should be accepted out of hand. For instance, just because someone has a degree in Marine Biology doesn’t mean that they have practical experience in captive marine husbandry. In fact, people with Marine Biology degrees sometimes/often have little to no practical training in keeping animals alive long term. Just because someone knows all about the morphology and physiology of a coral doesn’t mean they know how to keep it alive in captive conditions. It’s more important to listen to what is being said than to accept what is being said just because someone has a title or works at a Public Aquarium or Tropical Fish Store.
Look at all the people listening to this diver - he must know what he is talking about right? - Photo by Rich Ross
Are you biased knowing that you are getting input from an expert?
Sometimes just knowing that the person giving you advice is considered an expert affects the way you take that advice. Generally, we shut of our skeptical brain in this situation, which, I hope the above has shown, is not the optimal way to process any information. Nowhere is this more true than online as there is something about seeing expert ideas in writing that seems to make us more likely to think of the advice as ‘right’. To combat this, I suggest ignoring the author of reefkeeping threads or articles when you initially read them. This can help keep our ‘expert bias’ (and any other bias we may have towards particular posters), contained. If we read the threads for the information they contain rather than for who wrote them we are more likely to process the information with our critical thinking facilities which allows us to get more out of that information.
Do they have experience to back up their advice?
While there are reef hobby experts that have much experience to back them up (some reef lighting and fish breeding people come to mind) sometimes in this hobby we see people giving expert advice when they really haven’t done the ground work needed to support their advice. Cutting and pasting advice, but without links to the original posting, is all too common on the reef interwebs. Sadly, there is often a lot missing in these simple cut and pastes, important stuff contained in the original context and more important exceptions and explanations in the surrounding text. Is the person telling you how to raise clownfish larvae actually raised them? Is the person telling you that a particular food is bad actually tried it? If the answer is no, you might want to dig deeper and find the people with direct experience before taking the expert advice from people who just present themselves as expert.
Pseudanthias tuka is a really beautiful, hard to keep fish. This one has been in captivity for over 4 years. The guy who keeps these fish alive is probably worth getting advice from (at least about these fish!) - photo by Rich Ross
Has the expert been around for a long time?
Being involved in the hobby for a long time allows someone to amass a great amount of practical knowledge that is often worth listening to. At the same time, just being around for a long time may not mean much if the expert is set in their ways, or isn’t trying new things. The reefkeeping world can change very quickly, so how can someone possibly give useful advice on methodologies or products they are unfamiliar with? At the same time, when old methods are given a face lift and trotted out as new, ‘old salts’ can have save you time and money by discussing how we have been down that road before and why it was abandoned.
Long term experts also have the experience and knowledge to extrapolate advice. They have such a good saltwater thumb that they can give pretty good advice on new ideas/products just by applying what they know. It is important though that they make clear this is what they are doing when they are doing it.
Have you seen their work?
If someone is being presented as an expert, ask to see pictures or video of their aquariums. If they are giving advice on how to set up a fish room or culture facility ask to see pictures of similar projects they have been involved in. Ask about the success of these projects. If these projects are no longer around, ask why. Often this kind of information will tell you a whole lot about the quality of the advice. If their aquarium doesn’t look good to you, or they can’t provide you with any documentation to back up their claims, you might want to be more skeptical about the advice they are giving.
Would you take advice from a guy who's tank looks like this? Maybe maybe not (this is the author's tank after something bad happened) - photo by Rich Ross
Do they give ‘questionable’ advice?
There are people that are claimed to be expert in a particular realm of the hobby that give out advice that many other, trusted experts may find questionable. These people can be really difficult to spot because they have many followers that seem to support their positions, which creates the feeling that the advice must be sound. However, just because many people seem to believe these ideas is not necessarily a good enough reason to believe them yourself – as Tim Minchin says ‘Just because ideas are tenacious doesn’t mean that they’re worthy’(Remember, we were supposed to have a rapture on May 21, millions believed it, but it didn’t happen). Be skeptical of reef experts that don’t answer questions directly, that other, vetted experts question, that repeat their previous points instead of addressing the question being asked, that only report good results of their advice while ignoring the bad results, or refuse to show you the results of their advice. You might determine that you think the ‘questionable’ advice is good, and I applaud that – as long as you have taken the time to do some research on your own to come to that conclusion.
Are they selling a product?
Its hard to not be skeptical of an expert that has their own product line; they are trying to sell that product so of course they are going to recommend its purchase. It isn’t always the case that selling a product taints expert advice, and there are some in our hobby that do both very well. At the same time, there are some that really just want to sell their product, so be careful and ask questions. A good red flag indication is the bashing of similar competing products, respectful comparisons are fine, but bashing is often a strong indication that their advice should be looked at with a skeptical eye.
I saw this Hippocampus bargibanti in the wild, and got a good pic of it. Does that mean I know anything about it?
Do they know what they don’t know?
The best experts know what they don’t know and are happy to tell you they don’t know, and are happy to give you suggestions where to look for better information. Experts that seem to know answers to every question from every aspect of the hobby may be trying to present the image that they know everything, which can lead to problems for people taking their advice if the expert doesn’t actually know everything. A one stop expert with all the info is a good thing, but this hobby is so wide ranging that it makes sense to be careful about taking advice from people who claim to know everything.
The most important Skeptical tool of all
I hope this series of articles has shown you why it is important to approach reefkeeping information with skeptical thought, and has given some useful tools that will be helpful in making decisions about your reef tank. There is one last tool that I want to talk about briefly, and it may be the most important of all.
The skeptical method; changing your mind
In western culture the idea that people can change their minds has lost power. Somehow, changing your mind has become evidence of flip floppiness, weakness and ineptitude. In the hobby we see people defending positions not because the position makes sense, but because they don’t want to lose face by showing they didn’t have perfect understanding all along or by admitting they were wrong. However, willingness to change your mind or admit you were wrong, given compelling evidence, is one of the things that makes science great. Science moves forward when evidence overcomes doubt. We toss out the old ideas because the news ones are better. The reefkeeping hobby needs to be the same way if we are to move forward, learn, and benefit animals both wild and captive. Changing your mind based on good evidence is a gift, a chance to learn and a chance to make the lives of your animals better. I love to be shown that something I thought true makes no sense because it makes me a better reefkeeper. Continue to apply the skeptical method to your own ideas and change your mind when those ideas no hold up. This ability is one of the things that makes humans great, and will save animals lives and keep your wallet full.
This whole series is about getting us to use the huge, magnificent brains that fill our skulls. Our brains are knowledge absorbing sponges capable of startling insight and creativity. They are evolved to see patterns and solve problems, evade deceptions and most of all, to learn. But, don’t take my word for this – for any of this. You need to think for yourself, apply some skeptical thought and see if it really is as great as I think it is.
I hope the Skeptical Reefkeeping series has helped you think about how the way you make decisions impacts your wallet and the lives of your animals, and I hope you have found it to be helpful. If you are attending MACNA in Des Moines this summer and want to further explore these ideas, I will be presenting a talk that was born out of this series. Hope to see you there and happy reefing.
I want to thank Reefs Magazine, Randy Donowitz and Libby Palomeque for their support and encouragement on the Skeptical Reefkeeping series. It has been educational and inspiring for me to formally explore all of these subjects, and I hope the reading has been interesting.
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.
The reefkeeping hobby and industry has no centralized leadership, so new terms develop in a kind of meandering way, and it’s possible for some vendors (by no means all, just some) to take advantage of this process by using terms that are ambiguous or downright misleading. This is particularly apparent in the realm of captive propagation/rearing of marine animals. This is where skeptical thinking can really come in handy – what do those terms really mean and can you trust those saying them?
Knowing what you have
One of the most obvious ways to save money and protect the lives of animals in your aquarium is to know what animals you have and what animals you may be adding. If you don’t know what you have, you don’t really know how to care for it, and if you don’t know what you are getting, you don’t really know how to care for it or if it will coexist with the animals you already have. The idea seems a bit rudimentary, but pulling it off can still be tricky in the world of reefkeeping due to the oversimplification of coral identification.
In the article “Renaming our corals” Chris Jury points out that the 5 groups that hobbyists generally break corals into, small-polyped stony (SPS), large-polyped stony (LPS), soft corals, zoanthids, and mushroom polyps are, in practice, unhelpful in determining how to keep those corals alive in reef tanks. Relying on those groupings can give us a false sense of understanding. According to Jury, the problem with applying this cookbook style of reefkeeping is that it utterly ignores the true diversity that exists within or between each group. This is analogous to saying that seals, bears and wolves are really all the same animals and have the same needs. Obviously, this is not the case, yet a similar argument is propagated in reefkeeping circles simply by utilizing these terms and believing that they confer some knowledge about a certain coral’s requirements. Simply put, the idea that these terms give us any useful information about light, water flow, food or any other requirements is a myth, and I wish to debunk it. He goes on to debunk it rather well in my opinion, as well as discussing the idea that there is no ecological or biological reason to divide stony corals into SPS and LPS. The article is worth the read.
Can you reliably identify any of these corals from this picture? Accurate identifications to species probably take more work than just looking at a snapshot.
Scientific classification is a hierarchical scheme that groups organisms together based on shared characteristics, and is governed by internationally accepted rules that help ensure that each species has only one name. Sometimes scientific nomenclature is referred to as Latin names, but the words used to create the names are not always from Latin, and non Latin words used in scientific nomenclatures are “Latinized”, so the term “Scientific Name” is preferred. The first letter memory aid “King Phillip Comes Over From Germany Soon” (there are other mnemonics, but this is the one I learned (Editor’s note: Or “King Phillip Came Over For Good Sex” – for some reason, my students always remember that one …. LM. ) helps us remember the terms of the hierarchy – Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Reefkeepers are most familiar with the last two, which are really the core of scientific nomenclature or binominal nomenclature, genus and species, which are always italicized with the genus being capitalized and the species not, for example Acropora tenuis. The full taxonomic classification is Animalia: Cnidaria: Anthozoa: Scleractinia: Acroporidae: Acropora tenuis. It is important to remember that science doesn’t stand still, and as new information becomes available, the scientific names can change, as can any of the various levels of taxonomy. Sometimes you will see an animal written as Acropora sp., or spp. Acropora sp. refers to a single species which is unknown but the genus is known. Acropora spp. is used to refer to a larger group of multiple species.
With fish, getting the correct genus and species is often pretty straightforward because the shared characteristics are pretty straight forward: color, pattern, body shape, number of rays in a fin, and so on can be pretty easy to identify by people not necessarily trained in fish taxonomy (with at least one well known exception: it is notoriously difficult to tell A. ocellaris from A. percula). Corals however, are often not so straightforward. Corals are classified by looking primarily at the skeletal structure, which can often be difficult to see under the living flesh of the coral. It can even be more difficult according to Charles Delbeek and Julian Sprung; skeletal characteristics of stony corals vary among individuals of the same species from different regions of the world, or from different locations on the reef. Characteristics used for identification of genus and species may vary even on individual colonies! In other words, grown out frags of the same coral can have very different growth forms and different skeletal structure in different flow and different lighting, so much so that it can be impossible to know that then grown out colonies originally came from the same fragment. A recent genetic study on Hawaiian Porites (Zach Forsman et al) coral found that some corals thought to be different species were genetically indistinguishable from each other. According to the authors, “Our approach shows that morphological characteristics previously thought capable of delineating species must be re-examined to accurately understand patterns of evolution, and biodiversity in reef-building coral.”
Sometimes people are scared off of using scientific names because they are difficult to pronounce. Indeed, different people, even highly trained people, pronounce scientific names differently. There really aren’t hard and fast rules for pronunciation, though there are different schools of thought, so my advice is to go for it because trying is a fun way to expand your involvement in reefkeeping.
Common names are flexible and are generally used within specific communities as a short hand to identify animals quickly and easily. However, these common names can often lead to confusion because different groups of people will use different common names to refer to the same animal so not everyone may be familiar with a particular common name. For instance, Hippo tang, Palette Surgeonfish, Blue Tang, Pacific blue tang, and (shudder) Doryfish all are common names forParacanthurus hepatus.
Many prefer common names that somehow refer to the scientific name. Scotts Fairy Wrasse reflects the scientific name Cirrhilabrus scottorum, while “Nemo fish” is about as far away from Amphiprion ocellaris as you can get. I like it even more when the common name is actually part of the scientific name, like the actual genus as in Rhinopias, Gonipora or the species as in Ventrails anthias (not italicized as they are common names). Scott Michael sums up the feeling nicely by using a common name that is derived from the scientific name, amateur aquarists, divers and marine scientists can all better communicate with one another. Better communication means better understanding, and better understanding translates into better reefkeeping.
This is a fragment of ‘True Blue Mobious Dirty Sanchez Acro’ and therefore should cost $1000 a polyp.
It seems like you can’t turn around in reefkeeping circles without hearing about corals with outrageous common names. Crazy sounding names like “reverse inverted dragons breath purple nipple monster” tell us almost nothing useful about the coral; we don’t even know what kind of coral it is. Much more useful would be “reverse inverted dragons breath purple nipple monster acro” because it at least lets us know the coral is an Acropora sp. These extravagant names have come into play as part of a marketing war by people selling coral fragments. It seems the more exotic sounding the name, the more some people are willing to pay for the fragment, sometimes into the 1000s of dollars.
Initially, these kinds of names weren’t so crazy and actually helped track the lineage of the coral. “Tubbs Blue Zoa” let potential buyers know who the coral came from (a guy named Tubbs), and gave the quality of the coral some weight based on Tubbs’ reputation, as well as some indication of what the coral looks like, what it is and how long its been in captivity. Some vendors sold wild collected similar corals as the “Tubbs Blue Zoa” getting the sales benefit of the linage and reputation without the corals actually being of that lineage. Then we saw “True Tubbs Blue Zoas” for sale, but there was no way to know if they really were or weren’t. The addition of the idea of a “Limited Edition” or “LE” seems to be more marketing as the coral was only “LE” until the next shipment came in with more of that particular coral.
At least today a lot of the corals we are interested in buying are presented with WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) photographs, so even with the crazy names, you get some idea of what the coral might look like. Of course you have to trust that the photo is representative of the actual coral instead of the colors being digitally enhanced or a super macro photo or photographed under extreme lighting (photography used for sale is certainly a place to apply the skeptical method).
My advice: don’t get sucked into sexy marketing names. I suggest buying corals that you like the look of and are willing to pay for rather than trying to get your hands on the expensive, flash in the pan coral de jour. After all, in a few months, that coral might loose its perceived value because lots of people have grown it out and have fragments available for sale or trade. It’s your tank, it should be about what you like, not about what other people think of your tank.
As threats to the worlds coral reefs became widely understood, reefkeepers have become more interested in “sustainable”inhabitants for their glass boxes (Though it could be argued that the shift had less to do with caring for the reefs, and more to do with worrying that animals would be no longer available to the trade, but that’s a discussion for a different time). To fill the desire for more ecologically sound corals, some vendors started offering animals advertised as captive propagated, captive raised, tank raised or tank bred. Of course, the question arises to the skeptical reefkeeper “what do those terms actually mean?” The short answer is they mean different things to different people and some people stretch or break even the most common sense understanding of what those words mean in order to get you to buy whatever they are selling.
Science has a nifty short hand for tracking captive breeding based on filial generations – any generation resulting from a controlled mating of the parental generation. Filial generation is generally notated by the letter F followed by a number F1. F0 (sometimes written as P for parent) are wild collected specimens. F1 refers to the first generation after capture, F2 the second and F3 the third, and so on. Sometimes, F1 is not considered really to be captive bred/propagated to make sure we are avoiding the possibility of “impregnation” before capture so to be absolutely sure the animals we are interested in acquiring are truly captive bread means what we are really after is the F2 generation and beyond. That said, in general, the F1 generation is often considered to be captive bred in fish. Remember I said before that there is no governing body to decide what terms in our hobby really mean: here it is in action.
For fish, the terms captive bred or tank bred seem pretty straight forward: the animal being offered as captive bred was bred in captivity. The parents did the deed in captivity, and the animal was born in captivity i.e., the F1 generation. The problem with the term captive bred comes when vendors slap it on animals that are not captive bred at all, like small wild collected Banggai Cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) to take advantage of the hobbyists desire to purchase responsibly. Thankfully due to more educated hobbyists, it is becoming very difficult to get away with, but it still occurs so if someone is selling a captive bred animal ask questions like “who bred them, where were they bred, how old are they?” If those questions don’t have solid answers, you might want to buy different animals.
Captive bred fish, like the hatchling Banggai Cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) in his fathers mouth are fantastic, but get some conformation that fish being sold as captive bred really are captive bred.
Tank or Captive Raised
Tank or Captive Raised is a bit of nebulous term. It seems to refer to wild collected animals that have been in captivity for some unspecified amount of time, though it seems to connote the idea that the animal in question has been collected as a juvenile and raised to adulthood thereby lessening collection pressure on adults of breeding age. It also seems to connote the idea that the animal is healthier than its wild collected counterparts because it has been fed well and acclimated to captive conditions. That is all well and good, but the terms get abused. For instance, Sepia bandensis cuttlefish eggs are imported and often these eggs hatch in transit or in vendors and suppliers holding tanks. Sometimes, as soon as they hatch, they are promoted as tank raised (or even worse, captive bred!) To make matters worse in this situation, suppliers often don’t have the correct foods available for these animals and by the time they are in the hands of the hobbyist, their health has declined and the whole idea of the benefit of tank raised animals has a black eye. The real question about the idea of “tank raised” animals is how long do they need to be in a tank to be considered tank raised? A day? A week? A month? 6 Months? Further, do large juveniles or adult wild collected fish that have been in captivity for X amount of time count as tank raised? The term is wide open for marketing abuse, so be sure to ask what the vendor means by tank raised and how long the animal has been tank raised before completing your purchase.
Since sexual reproduction of corals in captivity is still in its infancy, the hobby instead talks about captive propagated corals – corals that are grown in captivity. It turned out (turns out probably this is still happening) that some vendors would chop up freshly imported wild corals, glue the fragments to plugs or rock, and sell them as captive propagated, sometimes without even giving the corals time to encrust. For most people, these corals are only captive propagated in the strictest semantic sense; after all the corals weren’t cut up in the ocean, they were cut up in captivity. This excuse rings hollow, and is clearly a way to get around the intention of the idea of the captive propagation movement to minimize the amount of coral wild coral being collected for our hobby. So, what do people really mean when they talk about captive propagated corals? Some version of “this coral was grown in captivity”. Does that mean cutting the new growth on a branch of wild collected coral after it has grown in an aquarium is captive propagated?
We can loosely apply the filial generation terminology here. For corals (looking for the F2), this means we are looking for the fragment taken from the fragment taken from the wild collected colony. Some people are willing to accept a fragment of just the new growth, the F1, as captive propagated because it is very clear that that tissue was added completely in captivity. It seems that fresh fragments taken from wild collected corals are clearly not captive propagated, while it can be argued that those same fragments given time to encrust and grow may be. As mentioned earlier, there is no real authority for the aquarium world in these matters, so we need to allow for some common sense flexibility. Again, your best defense against vendors using terminology without the reality to sell items is to ask a bunch of questions. If you don’t like the answers move on to another vendor.
Frags, frags everywhere. Are they captive propogated or chop shopped? All you can do is ask and then decide if you trust the answer.
It’s often been asserted that words have power. That’s as true in reefkeeping as it is in any other arena. The skeptical reefkeeper is cautious with that power, and understands the myriad ways that power can be misused.
Don’t take things at face value. Inquire. Discover. Be skeptical. Enjoy the process and your reef.
Scientificalness? Ethics? Rationalizing the hobby? Tune in to find out.
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.
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’, Palamontesvulgaris, from http://livebrineshrimp.com/ 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.
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 www.TONMO.com for their help and support over the years.
Ross, R. “Sepia bandensis; Husbandry and breeding.” Tropical Fish Hobbyist, August 2009: (pp102-106)
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.
Cyanide fishing presents another, even more catastrophic problem.
When a fish hides in coral, and cyanide is squirted into that coral to make fish collection easier, the cyanide also kills the coral. Think about it for a minute…if a collector squirts 100 squirts of cyanide a day to collect fish, that’s 100 patches of coral that die. If you have 100 collectors doing that every day, you get a lot of dead habitat very quickly, and dead habitat means no food or breeding areas for the fish we want in our tanks, which means less animals overall (and the corals which we now also want in our tanks are dead too). Cyanide was also being used to collect fish for people to eat (the cyanide breaks down before people eat the fish), which meant even more was being sprayed into corals and more habitat was destroyed.
People started to become aware of this issue in the 80’s when 1. SCUBA in exotic locations became more popular, and 2. the trade in live coral began to boom. Some in the industry sought to address the issue by training collectors to collect with nets and skill rather than juice. Those animals could be advertised as net-caught, which made consumers happy because they could still get the fish they wanted, safe in the knowledge that wild reefs were not poisoned in the process. A win for everyone! Let’s move on! Not so much.
As it happens, those who were skeptical of net-caught claims looked deeper. Sure enough, some collecting outfits continued to use cyanide, even after being trained to net catch, but simply said they weren’t. ‘Juicing’ fish was easier and cheaper than using nets. While some collecting outfits did net-catch exclusively, skeptics discovered that as cyanide caught fish and net caught fish made their way through the chain of custody, they were mixed together in holding facilities so there was no longer a way to differentiate between the specimens; both were sold as cyanide free.
How much of this coral can be sustainably collected? How do you know? Who can you ask?
To combat the negative press about cyanide use, the hobby was told that fish could now have a cyanide detection test (CDT) which would weed out juiced fish. Great! Problem taken care of, right? Wrong! As we know to ask from the first installment the immortal question from They Might Be Giants – ‘are you sure that that thing is true, or did someone just tell it to you’ skeptical reefers questioned the CDT. How was the test administered? Who administered it? How often? How accurate was it? How long did it take to get results? As it turned out, there was a CDT, but it was not fast, it needed to be done in a lab, and the fish had to basically be blended to carry out the test. This all made the test impractical because the only fish you could be sure was or wasn’t ‘juiced’ was converted into slurry, and a fish slurry makes an odd sort of display.
Its not just ‘juice’
The story gets even more involved. As it turns out, cyanide itself wasn’t the only part of the collection that destroyed coral habitat. Imagine you are a collector squirting cyanide into a huge coral head to knock out a bunch of damsels. You squirt, the damsels stop swimming, but they are still deep in the coral – how do you get them out? You break the coral with a hammer or crowbar or whatever was available. When the net trainings began and collectors were trained to use a ‘tickle stick’ to coax fish from their hiding places and into a net, some of the cyanide use actually did stop, but not all of it…because smashing is faster than coaxing. Instead of knocking out the fish and then smashing the coral to get at them, the knocking out step gets skipped, the coral gets smashed and the frightened fish are netted out of their smashed hiding places. Sure, not juiced, but the habitat destruction remained practically the same.
How about now?
We hear different things. What really need is a way for the industry to act as a whole for it’s own, and the environment’s benefit. In the last decade or so, the idea of sustainable collection has really caught our hobby’s collective psyche, but is there really any way to know if the animals that are being sold as sustainable or responsibly collected really are either of those things?
Catching fish with hand nets, barrier nets and tickle sticks provides quality fish with minimal impact on the reef
There have certainly been attempts to answer these questions. Most notably, in 1998, the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) was established “by key stakeholders to provide voluntary standards and an eco-labeling system for the marine aquarium trade.” Unfortunately, MAC was quickly, right or wrongly attacked for myriad reasons including corruption, lack of follow up in the field and the voluntary nature and utility of its certifications. Getting actual information about the reality of these attacks or the MAC’s actual effectiveness is very difficult for a skeptical thinker because it’s just so hard to get any evidence that isn’t suspect for one reason or another. It’s hard to trust the MAC’s info because they are the ones putting it out and it’s hard to trust the detractors’ info because they often seem to have some sort of personal or professional axe to grind with the MAC.
Today, MAC’s future is unclear. What is clear is that what they were trying to do still needs to be done.
Skepticality in action
Given the above history with cyanide fishing and reef smashing, it’s no wonder that our hobby is periodically vilified as environmentally damaging. Recently, ‘Snorkel Bob’ has begun a campaign to get marine ornamental collection in Hawaii shut down completely, and he has lots of followers. Snorkel Bob’s most recent attack on the hobby was presented on the Sea Shepherds website (yes, the ‘Whale Wars’ people) as a launching point for his media tour to promote his new book and to ‘reach millions’ in his message that the marine hobby is indeed a bad thing for the planet. Essentially, Snorkel Bob says that fish collection for our hobby is responsible for dwindling fish numbers around Hawaii. Funnily enough, these attacks seem to be lacking the kind of skeptical and critical thinking that we have been discussing.
Notice the pile of dead coral skeleton in this picture. Does it point to poor collection/husbandry practices or is it simply the nature of the hobby?
Fenner points out that the numbers of fish being collected is widely debated, that a lot of fish are collected as food, that other impacts on those fish populations (golf course run-off and food fishing) are significant, but often ignored, and that Snorkel Bob runs a reef tourism operation which surely impacts the wild reefs around Hawaii – thousands of people (transported by polluting motor boats) covered in sunscreen, body soaps, and toxic bug repellants, brought to the same spots, day after day, week after week, year after year to flail about on the reef…are helping the reef? Or helping Snorkel Bob’s bottom line?
As with many such emotional claims, there are nuggets of truth (albeit exaggerated) buried in what Snorkel Bob is saying. However, when examined skeptically, his conclusions seem flimsy and self-serving.
Do the Right Thing
Many hobbyists want to do ‘the right thing’ and buy sustainably caught animals for their tanks, but are continually frustrated by supporting projects only to find that they are not doing the noble work they set out to accomplish. Don’t despair. There really is good work being done out there, though it may be hard to see.
As collecting stations pop up marketing themselves as environmentally friendly, history shows us we must be skeptical even though we want to believe. Are they really doing what they say they are doing or are they are just using green speak to drum up more business?
Let’s look at one such operation: the SeaSmart (http://seasmart.ecoez.com/) project in Papua New Guinea. This project claims they are using all local labor, local ownership, safe collecting practices, and scientific survey techniques to determine how many of each animal can be collected without damaging the local environment. Are they for real? Here are several important pieces of evidence that indicate that SeaSmart may be giving us more that just lip service.
First, they have a track record of several years, which is longer than most other ‘green’ collecting stations, which tend to fold after a year or two. Second, the organization works closely with the government of Papua New Guinea, a nation that has a history of taking their natural resources seriously, protecting them, and educating their population on the reasons why those resources are important. Finally, and perhaps most encouragingly, SeaSmart is making an effort to be transparent to the consumer. The outfit uses social media, including Facebook, to continually post information, photos and video of the project. Previous attempts at sustainable collection had very little if any documentation, so it’s great to see SeaSmart putting that info out there on their own. SeaSmart even has an open door policy, so if you can get yourself to PNG, get in touch with these guys and they say they’ll be happy to show you first hand what they are doing. If you do go, please make sure to report back and share the information with other skeptical reefkeepers who would love to get behind a company that is doing good work.
Freshly harvested wild acros. Corals of this size ship badly and remove a lot of coral from the wild which means its probably not a responsible collection practice.
If you keep asking questions, and digging when something doesn’t seem right to you, you are helping the hobby. You are helping to expose bad business, helping to save other hobbyists from wasting time or money on bad business, and most importantly, you are spreading the idea that good, sustainable work is wanted and important. You are also sending the message that empty promises will not be believed for long.
In the next installment we’ll explore the differences between captive bred, tank bred, tank raised, aquaculutured, and maricultured. Or maybe old reefers tales re-visitied. Or maybe we’ll look at electrical savings plans and see if they really save electricity. Or maybe…
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.”
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 bothMetasepiaspp – 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 (Discosoma, Nepthea, Xenia 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
Dunlop, C and King, N. 2008. Cephalopods: Octopuses and Cuttlefish for the Home Aquarium. TFH Publications. 269 pages
Hanlon, RT and Messenger. 1996. Cephalopod Behaviour. Cambridge University Press. 232 pages
Jereb, P. and Roper, C.F.E. (editors). 2005. Cephalopods of the world. Issue 4, Volume 1, FAO. PP 60-62
Norman, Mark. 2000. ‘Cephalopods a world guide’. ConchBooks : pp.86-89
Nesis, KN. 1987. Cephalopods of the World. TFH publications. 351 pages
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 onwww.TONMO.com (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 www.TONMO.com’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.
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
Boyle, PR and Rodhouse, P. 2005. Cephalopods: ecology and fisheries. Wiley-Blackwell, 452 pages
Dunlop, C and King, N. 2008. Cephalopods: Octopuses and Cuttlefish for the Home Aquarium. TFH Publications. 269 pages
Hanlon, RT and Messenger. 1996. Cephalopod Behaviour. Cambridge University Press. 232 pages
Rodaniche AF (1984) Iteroparity in the Lesser Pacific Striped Octopus, Octopus chierchiae. (Jatta, 1889). Bull Mar Sci 35:99–104
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.”
Television shows like Mythbusters, Penn and Teller: Bullsh!t and Scooby Doo are more popular than ever. These shows get right to the heart of skeptical thinking, “Just because someone said it, doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Skeptical thinking is a method, not a position. Officially, skepticism is 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 supporting evidence.
What would Scooby say about that product you're considering?
In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much supporting evidence. Most claims that appear on products have “No visible means of support”. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Take your time to do some research. Follow up to get a handle on why, how and if ideas and products actually work – if at all.
Remember, a recommendation from someone is not evidence, neither are anecdotal claims. Checking the real data is hard but in the end it will save you a lot of trouble.
This is a pain in the butt. Why bother?
Two reasons: Animals’ lives and our money. The animals in our reefs rely on us to keep them alive. When we make bad choices, animals die. If you buy “Professor Polyp’s Fabu Everything Cure Juice” to stop a disease in your tank and it doesn’t work, your sick animals will probably get sicker and continue to go downhill. Luckily, most of the products on the reef keeping market won’t directly kill the animals in your tank, (there are exceptions so be careful) but if they don’t actually do what they claim you are just wasting your money, the time that might be used saving your animals and maybe even the animals themselves (and they aren’t an unlimited resource).
Why do people sell reefkeeping stuff?
In our hobby there is the feeling, since many of the product manufacturers are accessible through online forums and trade shows, that reef products exist first and foremost to help us be better reefkeepers. In the best cases this is 50% of the reason people are selling stuff.
In 9th grade I went on a fieldtrip with the staff of my high school newspaper to the LA Times newspaper offices. On our tour, the guide asked us why newspapers exist. My classmates and I, ever the optimists, chimed in: “To bring people the news,” “To keep the public informed,” and “To keep a watch on what our public officials are doing.” I’ll never forget the answer the guide gave us, “Newspapers exist to make money – everything else is ancillary.” That answer helped to stick the knife of practicality deep into whatever remained of my idealistic heart.
People sell reef products to make money.
Even if the original impetus for a product is to make a better ‘reef trap’, products don’t go to market, or at least they don’t stay on the market very long, if they don’t make money. There are just too many costs involved in getting products to market for it to be otherwise. Developing the products, the materials, the packaging, the labels, the shipping, the physical plant, the advertising, and the staff all cost money. Being in business is neither cheap nor easy. The vast majority of new businesses fail in the first year because they aren’t able to make it work.
I’d venture to say that most reef related companies start up because they want to do “good” but if the product doesn’t make money, that company has to stay in business somehow. They’ve spent a lot of money on setting up the business. They’ve got a web site, business cards, a printer and a garage full of crates of whatever they’re selling.
There are some owners of reef companies that are independently wealthy or made millions by inventing something amazing like the singing greeting card or something equally esoteric, but even they have limits to how much they are willing to throw at a money-losing venture before they have to bail.
That’s a lot of products, how will you ever decide which to use?
In an effort to make sure that a product will be profitable some companies will do whatever they can. Do you blame them? They’ve spent their kid’s college fund creating “Professor Polyp’s Fabu Everything Cure Juice” and they need that money back. In an effort to do that they create advertising that can range from personal touches on the packaging to the outright untruths and everything in between. There is no overseeing body that checks the claims on most reefing products to make sure they are on the up-and-up; unlike most products for human consumption, a claim written on a package doesn’t mean its been verified. We all want reefkeeping to be easy. The promise of a magic solution in a bottle that will take care of our reef problems is very enticing. Maybe someday a one bottle solution is going to be the panacea we want it to be but right now there is just too much going on in our tanks that we just don’t understand. Cultivating a saltwater thumb by caring for a reef tank over time allows us to be sensitive to the ups and downs that occur in our glass boxes. Experience, often painfully acquired, teaches us to make changes slowly, so we can observe how our animals are affected.Our need to feel like we’re doing something can lead us to jump on an untested product. It’s horrible to sit by and watch while things in our reef tanks are ‘off’ or ‘going south’. We don’t want to wait for our alkalinity to come down on its own, for the little bit of lymphosystis to run its course, or for algae to go through its cycle and die back. We give in to our desire to be in control and buy a product that we suspect doesn’t really do much, but, heck, it can’t hurt right? There have been a slough of “reef safe” products that have turned out to be anything but. It is my belief that using products that don’t do anything other than make you feel like you are doing something, makes it more likely that you will continue to use bottled fixes to the detriment of your animals.
The best product in the world with poor packaging will sell less than the worst product in the world with great packaging. Everything, from the shape and size of the packaging, the color of the label, the font of the text and the wording used is scrutinized until it is the most appealing it can be to the projected market. Is a candy colored skimmer going to skim better because of its color? It is important to note that not all advertising is trying to scam you. Some of it is simply trying to portray the product in the best light to get more people to buy it. As mentioned earlier, it can be difficult to tell the two apart.
Baloney Detection Kit for Reef Products
Carl Sagan first published his Baloney Detection Kit in his book ‘The Demon Haunted World.’ It was immediately helpful in codifying ways to ferret out faulty reasoning. Later, Skeptic Magazine’s Michael Shermer put together his version of a Baloney Detection Kit that lists a series of questions to ask when encountering any claim. Standing on the shoulders of those skeptic giants, I present the first version of the Reefkeeping Baloney Detection Kit, or the RBDK, for the acronym addicted. I hope it will help you decide if claims are solid or, well, baloney.
Did these colors come from a magic potion? Photo by Sanjay Joshi
1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
Much of the time in reefkeeping the source of the claim is the manufacturer. You know that the manufacturer is trying to get you to buy their product. Are they a reputable manufacturer that has other products that you trust? What does the manufacturer claim this product will do? Is this a new manufacturer trying to capitalize on the newest reefkeeping fad? Are the claims supported by an ‘expert’ quote? Who is the expert and why should you listen to them? What kind of connection does the expert have to the manufacturer (i.e., are they getting paid, trying to get their name ‘out there’, or own part of the company?)? Is the expert support anecdotal (remember our old friend anecdote from the first installment?)? Was the expert quote taken out of context? Did the expert even say what the manufacturer says they said? If the source of the claim is not all that reliable, you need to dig further before you accept that claim.
2. Have the claims been verified?
Have there been any studies that support the claims? Our hobby is ‘sciency’, and for many of us, that is part of the fun. So, we often trust that the claims written on the packaging of reefkeeping products have been tested but it is hard to tell if that is indeed the case. If you are going to buy a product that claims to reduce nitrate and phosphate, you want to know that it actually works. Is there data to back the claim? A responsible company will have some kind of documentation to back up their claims and they should share it with you. An irresponsible company may be guessing at what the product does and hoping hobbyists will report back with success. If they have no documentation or support, you simply can’t be sure that the product performs as advertised. I’m going to tack on the opposite to this rule. Does an ad include weasel words like “benefit” or other vague claims? If the claims are weasely, or there is no verification of the claims, it might be better to move on to a different product.
3. Does this fit with how reef aquariums are generally thought to work (is it too good to be true)?
A product that promises to do away with regular maintenance like water changes or to completely ‘cycle’ a tank in days is offering something extraordinary. As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s pretty clear that water changes are a great way to get rid of pollutants that occur in just about every tank. It’s pretty clear that aquariums need time for bacteria responsible for the ‘nitrogen cycle’ need time to settle down, so a product that claims to bypass these ideas needs to have a lot of good supporting evidence to back it up.
4. Does the claim have an over complicated explanation?
A popular tactic for products that don’t actually have much if any support for their claims is to present overcomplicated and long explanations. These kinds of explanations often contain ‘scientificy’ sounding words that don’t actually amount to much. Often the reference experts or scientists don’t seem to exist or live in far off lands and have no published works. This is really an argument from authority covered in the previous installment. This type of advertising is designed to get you to assume that much work has been done on the product and you can therefore trust the claims. Such product claims should make you question the product even deeper.
5. Are the claims covered in ‘greenspeak’?
A popular advertising tactic is to claim that the products are all natural, green, eco friendly, herbal or good for the environment. It is often difficult to determine if the ideas behind the terms are supported. The terms themselves are so general as to border on meaninglessness. Ask a few questions about an ad like this and the response you’ll get can be something akin to religious fervor. “How can you be against something that is good for the environment?” Somehow asking, “What does that mean?” is interpreted as evil. The truth is NO ONE is against things that are good for the environment. Some people that think this type of advertising is above reproach. Don’t be that person. Ask the questions. The animals that you care for, that were collected 10,000 miles from your home, deserve it don’t they?
6. Too many claims?
Some products give you a laundry list of ‘ailments’ they are supposed to address. Does a product claim to cure every conceivable fish disease? Does it claim to increase skimming efficiency, buffer ph, clean the front glass, and park your car? It strains credulity that one product can do so many things and such a product absolutely warrants more support before its purchase.
7. What do people you trust think of the claim?
Given the lack of supporting scientific evidence, you may have to fall back on the wide-ranging experience of other reefkeepers on the interwebs. If you are reading Reefs Magazine, chances are you have been around the reefing world for a while and have developed a feel for which reefers, both local and international, that you trust. Ask them what they think of a particular claim and see if it rings true for them or not. But be warned, it is easy to find support for just about any claim on the web. You need to be careful that you are not reading the parts you want to agree with, while ignoring the rest. Be aware that this trust can be as dangerous as it can be beneficial, as I have seen ideas that seem crazee gain huge followings.
I have stayed away from discussing specific products. My purpose in writing these articles is not to pick on any one product or company (though a debunking team of independent ‘Reefbusters’™ would be fun – anyone interested in funding such a project let me know). Why don’t I discuss specific products? Simple, I don’t want to get sued by an angry company. Lets face it, being right or wrong in a lawsuit is almost irrelevant – the cost of dealing with even the smallest legal action can financially wreck a person. My real purpose in these articles is to get us all thinking and to give us tools to navigate the information that is constantly thrown at us. I do, however, have one example of a product that I can include because, well, it’s not real.
This product doesn't exist.
A couple of years ago as an April Fools Day joke, Gresham Hendee and I used our advertising experience to put together a fake product. Our intention was to poke fun at our friend Jake Adams and his obsession with water flow (the idea was actually sparked by Brian Edwards who said that Jake thinks that ‘flow is more important than water’). We created a print ad and even went so far as to make up several bottles of the product to have on hand at frag swaps and conferences. Jake made a video advertisement for the product for Reefbuilders. Our fake product was called ‘Instaflow’, and the marketing claims in the promotional materials were based on claims from actual products.
We were very clear the product didn’t really exist. It says on the packaging that the product doesn’t exist and even though we thought it was obvious that the claims were so insane that no one would believe that this product actually existed, that the expert claims were so patently ridiculous that no one could believe they were real, Jake tells me that from time to time he gets email inquiries about the product’s availability. That’s marketing for you. Fear its power. Fight its power.
Next time – ‘old reefers’ tales examined, or something equally as interesting.
If you have a reefing subject that you think would be good to discuss in one of these articles, please let me know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
”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.
The series of tubes we call the internet is full of good and bad information. Make sure you filter everything well. Photo by Richard Ross
Two reasons – animals’ lives and money. The animals in our glass boxes rely on us to keep them alive, and if we embrace a methodology that turns out not to work, they die. Seems like a simple idea, but many people prefer to do what seems quick and easy, instead of being patient and thorough, and it does indeed, cost animals their lives. Need an example? Every year or two there seems to be some kind of salt controversy. Either X brand of salt is bad so you should stop using it, or X brand of salt is good so you should start using it. People rush to switch salts and some crash their tanks or kill their corals. Only then do they start looking into the reasoning behind the claims that got them to switch salts in the first place. And what do we usually find? Someone saying, “Things looked better.”
Do these colors come from magic potions or sound husbandry? Photo by Sanjay Joshi
As it turns out these animals cost money, sometimes lots of money. Killing them by embracing untested, unsupported methodology is throwing money away. Not to mention, that simply embracing the “new methodology” costs money in itself – salt, for instance, isn’t cheap. More importantly, we can’t ignore that the animals we keep are a finite resource and that we are ethically responsible for their well being.
In an effort to maximize the life and health of our reef animals, and spend money wisely, lets look at some methods for sifting through online information.
There is so much reefkeeping information available on the interwebs and so much access and participation in discussion by experienced reefers that our hobby has really jumped forward in leaps and bounds. At the same time there is much information out there that just doesn’t pan out, or have any actual support. Most of this is based on anecdote. 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.”1 . For example, ‘I did a water change and my hair algae algae went away’. That’s a nice and harmless observation, but can a generalization be generated from it? Should you do a water change when you get hair algae? This is exactly where being skeptical comes into play. What kind of algae (there are many)? Was it actually algae or something else like dinoflaglates? What else was being done to get rid of it (usually lots of things)? What does ‘went away’ mean? Will it come back? What about all the cases of tanks with hair algae that didn’t go away after a water change? Unfortunately, anecdote is often converted to ‘Truth’ with amazing speed. “I did a water change and my hair algae went away’ gets converted to ‘water changes make hair algae go away’ which simply does not pan out across different reef systems. Even worse is when the observation isn’t all that harmless, as in the case of saltwater ich, Cryptocaryon irritans.
Real or a mirage of photoshop and macro photography? Photo by Sanjay Joshi
A case in point
Several years ago a thread was started on an online forum about a possible new cure for ich. Throughout the thread, many common fallacies were used that I think all reefkeepers should be aware of because poor reasoning leads to poor decisions. The original poster reported that they had ich on their fish for four or 5 days. They put ginger in the fish food and, hallelujah , the ich went away within 24 hours. Therefore ginger cured the ich. This is the most often seen fallacy, or logical misunderstanding, that we see in reefkeeping – post hoc, ergo propter hoc – Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by”. Correlation is not causation. Just because one event occurred after another doesn’t mean the first event caused the second. A classic example would be that after a rooster crowed, the sun rose. Therefore the rooster’s crowing caused the sun to rise. Seems silly because we all know its silly, but it gets a little more complicated when we want to believe. Cryptocaryon has a complex and confusing lifecycle. To help explain why the posting claiming that ginger cured the fish of ich is fallacious lets take a quick look at the lifecycle:
The lifecycle of crypto is summed up well in an article in Reefkeeping Magazine, so I’ll quote Steven Pro: “The stage where the parasite is attached to a fish is called a trophont. The trophont will spend three to seven days (depending on temperature) feeding on the fish. After that, the trophont leaves the fish and becomes what is called a protomont. This protomont travels to the substrate and begins to crawl around for usually two to eight hours, but it could go for as long as eighteen hours after it leaves it’s fish host. Once the protomont attaches to a surface, it begins to encyst and is now called a tomont. Division inside the cyst into hundreds of daughter parasites, called tomites, begins shortly thereafter. This noninfectious stage can last anywhere from three to twenty-eight days. During this extended period, the parasite cyst is lying in wait for a host. After this period, the tomites hatch and begin swimming around, looking for a fish host. At this point, they are called theronts, and they must find a host within twenty-four hours or die. They prefer to seek out the skin and gill tissue, then transform into trophonts, and begin the process all over again (Colorni & Burgess, 1997).”2.
Some guy told a friend of mine these fish were reef safe. Photo by Sanjay Joshi
The short version of all that is that the trophonts, the actual white spots we see, leave the fish in 3 to 7 days without any treatment at all. This happens with or without ginger. It happens with our without many of the other crypto ‘cures’ I have seen tossed around including: water changes, salt mix changes, and my favorite, changing light bulbs! After this was pointed out, the original poster then did a bit of a turnaround and wrote that they weren’t sure that the ginger cured the ich and that more study would be needed. They did however stick to their guns regarding the ginger being a cure for ich. In my opinion it was critical for that information to have been included in the first post so people wouldn’t rush out and start feeding their sick fish ginger – which they did.
Soon, another fallacy reared its head, argumentum ad verecundium – an argument from authority. It was claimed that someone with a PhD in Europe previously developed this ginger method and it does “in fact” work. The idea here is that since a PhD said it, it must be true. PhD’s, or any authority, are wrong all the time about a great many things. There are few reasons to believe someone simply because they are an authority. In this particular case it’s even worse because no one could name the PhD, point us to anything that supported the claim that any such PhD existed, or that they developed a method of treating ich with ginger. Even once this was pointed out, the idea that the claim supported the ginger treatment idea persisted.
The original poster then picked up a fish infected with ich from the LFS to further ‘test’ the ginger method. It was presented that trying the ginger on another infected fish would give further credence that the ginger worked, but that was just post hoc, ergo propter hoc again but people ate it up claiming that the ‘scientific’ approach was wonderful. However, there really was no science – no control, no redundancy, no scrapes to determine levels of infection – it was all just anecdote! Some people ate it up, but some started asking questions.
One person pointed out that there was no science to support the ginger claim. They were immediately pounced on for belittling people just for trying something new. This is a form of the Poisoning the Well fallacy or trying to generate bias. The claim is that since the poster is belittling people, the points they are making don’t matter, but one has nothing at all to do with the other. The points really do matter. Even big hairy jerks are right some time. And, in this case, the poster wasn’t actually belittling anyone. People often take disagreement personally rather than talking it for what it was – pointing out that the proported conclusions about ginger don’t hold up.
Next, people said everyone should take a chance on a ginger treatment because it’s new and might work. This is an Appeal to Novelty; Just because something is new and shiny does not necessarily make it correct or worth trying. Sometimes new things are outright bad ideas – let’s use table salt for our reef tanks! There was also a little bit of an Appeal to Tradition, “Ginger has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, so it must do something.” Just because something is done traditionally, doesn’t mean it actually has any effect – blood letting was also a tradition. Furthermore, the idea that something works on people, even if it were accurate, does not necessarily mean that it will work on other animals. We also got some observational selection. Some people posted that they treated their fish with ginger, but they died from the parasite. This claim was immediately swept away by people saying that nothing is 100%. You can’t dismiss results you don’t like just to make the claim you want to be true seem more plausible. There was also an appeal to ignorance. “Since there was no proof ginger didn’t cure ich, it could be concluded that it did cure ich.” Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Links to ginger being linked to antibacterial action were posted in defense of the claim that ginger cured ich. It was quickly pointed out that ich is not bacteria. No fallacy there, just your basic skeptical insight.
Ginger cures ick? Wow I didn't know that, thanks. Photo by Sanjay Joshi
In the next 20 pages of the thread there was a lot of argumentum ad hominem, against anyone suggesting that ginger might not cure ich. Rather than, “We’re testing ginger, wait and see” responses became, “You just hate new ideas, so your points don’t matter” and “You think you are an expert, but you’re just a hobbyist like me so your points don’t mean anything” or, more to the point, “You’re stupid and ugly and I don’t like you.” Of course that makes little sense, loving or hating new ideas has nothing really to do with pointing out reasons there is no support for the idea.
For me, the important point was that the misinformation in the thread had been quickly converted to gospel. It started showing up on other forums as a proven cure. People started treating their fish with ginger. In the case of minor infections it wasn’t really a problem. Many fish are able to fight off minor infections. People with heavily infected fish that tried Ginger often ended up with dead fish when they could have used one of the proven methods to cure their fish of the parasite (hyposalinity or copper). This is the real world impact of non-skeptical thinking. Ideas get accepted as truth, when they aren’t. Luckily, the ginger treatment didn’t gain too much traction, even though it still gets brought up from time to time.
The Internet is a wonderful thing, but it can also be dangerous. You can find support for any idea, but your animals are counting on you. You owe it to them to make sure you aren’t just finding the answers you are looking for, but that you are looking for information with a critical eye.
One final thought about anecdote
Anecdotal evidence has its place in the world, and in a hobby like ours its downright necessary. Dictionary.com defines anecdotal evidence as “non-scientific observations or studies, which do not provide proof but may assist research efforts.” Our hobby has certainly pushed research – just look at the lighting studies of Sanjay Joshi which helped to put to rest the misleading ‘watts per gallon’ lighting rule, or the recent skimmer studies by Ken Feldman that are putting some real data into what protein skimmers are actually doing. However, a lot of the stuff we deal with everyday has not really been looked at with scientific scrutiny because real science takes time, money, expertise and review. There are about a bagillion things that reefers want studied that simply aren’t going to be gotten to anytime soon. We all rely on observational reports to make some day-to-day decisions about our tank’s flow, lighting, feeds, animal interactions, and more. I think it is important that we remember that anecdote has its limits, be careful in your reporting and even more cautious in your reading.
Some reefkeeping products promise amazing things, so how do you tell the truth from bunk? More importantly, how do you write about bunk product claims without getting sued? We’ll find out in the next installment.
Aquatic biologist Richard Ross spent years learning to breed unusual sea creatures called dwarf cuttlefish for fun in his Alameda home. Now Bay Area — and the rest of the country — is benefiting from his expertise.
The 2- to 4-inch dwarf cuttlefish, native to the Philippines and the Indo-Pacific region, are biologically related to octopuses, squid, and even snails. Dwarf cuttlefish are “masters of camouflage,” said Ross. “They can change the color and texture of their skin at will,” even creating moving patterns on their skin. They are also excellent hunters, with eight arms, two feeding tentacles, a beak to eat and “a tongue like a cheese grater” that helps them break up food, Ross said. (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 Liveaquaria.com, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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