Seahorses and Pipes – Cousins of the Reef

Most people see pipefish as odd-looking, snake-like creatures with tiny mouths and wiggly bodies, but to most people’s eyes, the pipe hardly looks like much of a threat–especially to something as large as a seahorse. However, sometimes the greatest threat in mixing species doesn’t come from a physical attack.

I’m a fan of pipefish, in all their forms. I kept a pair of brackish pipes for years, and when I set up the reef tank in December of 2010, I knew I wanted pipes.

14A21 Full Pipe 2

Unfortunately, pipefish aren’t normally good tank mates for seahorses.


Seahorses and pipefish both belong to the syngnathid family, which also includes weedy sea dragons. The name derives from Greek words meaning “fused jaw,” and refers to the snoutlike mouth and jaw structures unique to these creatures.

14A21 Pipe

Sygnathids can pass diseases from one species to another, especially when mixing wild-caught specimens with captive-bred ones. Pipefish aren’t usually raised in captivity, so the threat of wild-caught pipes passing illnesses to captive-bred seahorses is a serious, and well-known, problem in the seahorse-keeping community.

However, there are ways around the problem, for a careful (and patient) keeper. I acquired my pipefish, Thing 1 and Thing 2, six months before I introduced any seahorses to the tank. That way, I ensured they weren’t carrying latent diseases.

When I introduced the seahorses, I kept to a single species (Hippocampus erectus, the lined seahorse) and also committed to not adding more wild-caught specimens thereafter. That choice reduces the chances of accidentally killing either species via an unknown pathogen. In order to introduce additional pipefish, I’ll need to set up another aquarium, or wait until the seahorses die and start the original process over. (Additional seahorses pose no problem, because they’re captive bred, and I will use the same breeder I’ve used for the others in my tank.)

13B Cyg and Ghillie feeding

Many people don’t think about these issues before setting up (or adding to) a reef tank, but a little planning greatly increases the reefkeeper’s chance of success with difficult species. The reef is an ecosystem with lots of moving parts (literally as well as figuratively) but the joy of watching the creatures interact is worth all the planning and effort it takes to maintain the tank.

Do you have hobbies that benefit from extra planning? What do you think of seahorses and pipes as pets?