What on earth is a pipefish? They are a cousin of seahorses, and there are over 200 species of pipefish worldwide!
Pipefish are a unique fish, slender and long-bodied with rings of bony armour around their bodies, much like seahorses.
There are freshwater pipefish, but most live in either marine or brackish waters. A great number of them live in coastal marine areas with seagrasses, but you can also find them in the open ocean as deep as 1,300 feet.
If you’re considering this species of fish for your own home aquarium, then you’ve come to the right place.
Here, we break down all you need to know, so you can own this pet with confidence.
Pipefish Appearance & Personality
Although the species varies in size, the average is about eight inches – yet some get as big as 26 inches!
They spawn like seahorses do, with the female depositing her eggs into a small pouch on the chest of the male. Once the eggs are laid, the male fertilizes them, and then carries them until they hatch.
Pipefish come in a wide range of patterns and colors, and some species can even change their colors to match their surroundings.
Because pipefish don’t have large fins, and their bodies are very flexible, they are slow swimmers.
Since they can’t outrun predators, they rely on camouflage for protection, and often hang out in long grasses in the wild. Some species even have prehensile tails to hang on to these grasses.
Certain species of pipefish like to collect in large groups, and will use those prehensile tails to grab onto each other and form a ‘train.’
Sometimes, seahorses will cling to a pipefish’s tail and hitch a ride on their slender cousins, making for quite the show in your aquarium!
Pipefish do well in established reef tanks, but should not be kept with aggressive fish such as puffers or maroon clownfish.
They shouldn’t be kept with clams, as they can startle the clam and get caught in its shell.
Also, because of how pipefish swim, they should not be kept with anemones, as they often get stung and die.
Because of food competition, it’s best that they are kept primarily with other pipefish and seahorses, but they can be housed with Dragonets, invertebrates, dartfish, gobies, or jawfish.
They do well with corals and live rock.
Disease can be introduced to the tank when you add anything that has not been properly cleaned or quarantined, including live rock, corals, and fish.
The best prevention is proper care and cleaning of anything new going into the tank, as well as making sure that you provide quality food, clean good water, and proper tankmates.
Pipefish are relatively hardy, but, in order to be healthy, require slow-moving water and plenty of branching gorgonias, algae, or coral decorations.
The biggest problem with pipefish is making sure they have enough to eat, as they are finicky about frozen food.
Be careful to cover all openings to pumps and filters too, otherwise the pipefish may slide in to find a hiding space and become trapped.
They are also susceptible to bacterial infections, but cloudy skin, fins, or eyes can be treated with antibiotics.
Tank requirements will vary depending on the species, and with over 200 available, it’s hard to choose.
Let’s look at a few of the most common types found:
These pipefish are quite small, and only grow to about 3” in length. Despite their size, they are very active and need a lot of space to swim.
They should have a tank size of at least 30 gallons per pair, and need plenty of spaces to hide when spooked.
These fish can be aggressive towards the same sex, so it’s best to keep a male-female pair, and although the little weirdos will sometimes swim upside-down, it’s normal behavior and no cause for alarm.
When purchasing, look for one with vivid color to help indicate a healthy fish.
These fish are sometimes fussy to keep alive when first introduced to a tank, but once established, they are relatively hardy.
They can be in tanks from 30-50 gallons as long as you are supplementing their food, but will need larger tanks if you are counting on the natural larvae spawn to feed them.
These pipefish rarely accept frozen food, so if you’re not cultivating macrofauna for them, you will need to feed live.
They get along well with each other, and will not fight like the Bluestripe. Pairs will frequently hang out, and when separated, they will often dart back to their partner’s side once they realize they’ve drifted apart.
A healthy Dragonface should be moving around and actively looking for food, so keep watch for this when you go to purchase.
Here’s a video showing off a Dragonface pipefish.
Red Banded Pipefish
A new breed of hardy and captive-bred pipefish, these are a good variety for enthusiasts. They are a brightly-colored variety of the Banded Pipefish, which normally has black bands or rings.
They grow up to eight inches long, and do well in pairs or small groups within a tank of 30 gallons or larger.
With a peaceful temperament, they’re good to pair with seahorses or other slow-swimming fish like gobies or firefish. This kind of pipefish are bred by Ocean Rider, and may need to be ordered directly through them instead of bought at a local store.
If you are looking at a different variety of pipefish and aren’t sure if they’ll work in your tank, talk to your local specialist.
Many wild-caught pipefish are very sensitive and stressed due to the change in conditions, so if you can find captive-bred variety, they are more likely to be healthy and ready to transition into your aquarium.
When picking out your favorites, look for those that have clear skin and eyes, and if it is breathing rapidly, that is usually a sign of distress, either from fear or possible fungal or bacterial infections.
As with all fish tanks, the water, substrate, and decorations should be cycled in the tank before fish are introduced.
Many pet stores offer salt water ready to go, but you can also mix your own salt water, which requires more work and precision.
The water in the tank should be kept at a temperature between 72 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit, with a PH between 8.1 and 8.4. Specific gravity should be between 1.020 and 1.025.
The rest of the water requirements should be about the same as any other salt water tank; low ammonia and nitrates, and nitrites less than .2 ppm.
The water should also be slow-moving, as pipefish are poor swimmers and could otherwise be caught in the current and pushed into objects that will hurt them.
If you already have fish in your tank and want to introduce a pipefish, the best way to do so is in a quarantine tank first.
This not only keeps a potentially sick fish away from the others, but allows the new fish to get used to the water and food you are providing, reducing stress.
Pipefish are very picky eaters, so avoid keeping them in quarantine for longer than necessary, or they may not eat enough to stay healthy.
Before you remove your pipefish from quarantine, ensure that the tank has plenty of areas where the pipefish can hide.
Rearrange the current layout of your tank to distract the existing fish and remove any established territories.
Feed your current fish right before introducing the new one, which will make them less aggressive.
It is also better to introduce more than one new fish at once, as it reduces the chances of one new fish being singled out and aggravated.
Finally, as always, make sure your water is clean and appropriately balanced to reduce stress in all of the fish.
Once a tank is set up and the fish are happy, water changes are the best way to maintain a healthy tank.
Smaller tanks require more frequent water changes because toxins such as ammonia and nitrates build up more quickly compared to larger tanks.
The smaller the tank, the more important regular water changes and good filters are.
For reef tanks, water changes should be:
- Tanks up to 40 gallons: 5% water changes weekly
- Tanks 40-90 gallons: 15% water changes bi-weekly
- Tanks 100+ gallons: Once the water is aged and stable, 10% bi-weekly to 20% monthly
In the wild, pipefish eat tiny crustaceans, smaller fish, and even parasites off of larger fish. Since they are predators, they can eat live or frozen food.
When first introducing your pipefish to the tank, it’s best to feed them live to ensure that they eat.
Newly-hatched brine shrimp are the best bet, and once they are used to eating frozen, copepods or prawn roe are a good option. If this is their only food source, they will need to be fed multiple times a day.
You can allow your tank to create the food for your pipefish, too; animals you use as a cleanup crew for your tank such as shrimp, crabs, snails, and worms all reproduce in the aquarium, and the larvae are a natural part of the pipefish’s diet.
If you have a diverse cleanup crew, this can help give your fish a varied and healthy diet, but you should still supplement with live or frozen food.
Although these delicate fish are unusual and more difficult to find than other species of saltwater fish, they can soon become a prized and funny addition to your aquarium.
They are great for keeping your reef healthy, and create beautiful pairings with seahorses and soft corals.
After a little bit of love, they can be your companions for years to come.
Do you own any Pipefish?