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The Pipefish – The Cousin Of The Seahorse That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Move over, seahorses. Your family’s got another member worth mentioning.

Pipefish are unique fish that are often forgotten about in favor of their more famous cousins, the seahorse. These fish are members of the family Syngathidae. The most famous family member of the pipefish? The seahorse, of course! However, you can’t overlook the fact that pipefish are unique creatures in their own right.

If you’re an advanced fishkeeper and are looking for a new species to keep in your saltwater aquarium, you should consider raising the pipefish. While pipefish are unique creatures, they do have finicky care requirements that can make them relatively challenging to care for if you don’t have a lot of experience.

That being said, reading this ultimate guide to caring for a pipefish can help get you on your feet. We will tell you everything you need to know about raising this illustrious carnivorous species.


Pipefish Background

Photo by Richard Gray

As previously mentioned, pipefish belong to the same family as seahorses. They aren’t a seahorse, although there are nearly 50 different types of seahorses in the world, but they do share many of the same characteristics.

You can find pipefish at most fish stores, with most pipefish costing around $18 depending on their size and age. These creatures can grow up to eight inches in length, so you’ll want to make sure that you have a fish tank that can accommodate for their massive amounts of growth.

Most pipefish are found in subtropical or tropical bodies of saltwater. They will live in lagoons, seagrass, and eelgrass, but can also be found in coral reefs. They use their environment for camouflage, which allows them to hide from predators and to wait for prey.

Some species of pipefish have also been discovered in freshwater environments, but this is highly unusual. Most types of pipefish prefer to live in brackish or fully saltwater environments.

What they all have in common is that they prefer slow moving waters, as they are note great swimmers.

Pipefish Appearance And Behavior

Photo by Lijnie Prins

True to their seahorse family origins, these fish have heads and snouts that are shaped like those of seahorses. THey have narrow, toothless mouth that are actually quite small. They use their mouths to suck tiny crustaceans in, that they eventually eat. There are over 200 different types of pipefish, all of which are available in multiple different colors.

Some of the most popular colors of pipefish chosen by aquarium hobbyists include black, green, red, purple, orange, and brown. While these colors are the most common, they are far from being the only options. In fact, many pipefish can also change color in order to blend in with their environment.

While their mouths and heads look similar to those of seahorses, the bodies of pipefish are actually quite different. These creatures have long, slender bodies. These bodies camouflage easily, surrounded by dense, rigid armor plating. They are straight and hide easily among weeds and seagrass. Some subspecies of pipefish have tails that are able to grasp and pick up items, but some do not.

These fish are exceptional swimmers compared to seahorses, but still can’t quite hold their own when it comes to heavy currents. Instead, they prefer to swim around slowly, using their tiny dorsal fins to propel them, requiring modest and gentle currents to get around. They need to rest frequently and in general, aren’t skilled swimmers.

These fish have some unique behaviors, sometimes acting more like snakes, and other times acting more like fish. They will move through the grass in a sleek, serpentine motion, looking for food and snacks. They will blend in with the plants in your aquarium, so it won’t be unusual to see your pipefish resting in an upright position, either.

Sometimes, these fish even move like bullets. They will dart horizontally across the tank as they look for prey that they want to catch. As a result of these behaviors, pipefish can be extremely entertaining to watch. It’s even more fun if you have a small group or pair of pipefish in your saltwater aquarium.

The Many Pipefish Species

Photo by Hung Chi-Feng

There are over 200 different species of pipefish available, but only a handful can successfully be raised by aquarium hobbyists. Two of the most popular are Flagtail pipefish, which are split into two types of pipefish and beautifully colored, and Dragonface pipefish.Doryrhamphus spp. Pipefish, one of the more popular types of Flagtail pipefish, do quite well in reef tanks, but they can be incredibly aggressive, even to members of their own kind.

Dunckerocampus spp., the other kind of Flagtail pipefish, are much more peaceful than their counterparts. They can often be kept in groups but they aren’t as readily available as they are more difficult to ship. They are also more prone to certain diseases like bacterial infections.

There are five main types of Flagtail pipefish. They are Bluestripe, Banded, Janss, Yellow Banded, and Multibanded. The Bluestripe pipefish is one of the hardiest – and therefore most popular – flagtail pipefish species. They are a great choice for people who are new to keeping pipefish. At only three inches in length, these species are extremely active and need lots of space. Two of these espeices, of these ame sex, is dangerous, as they are prone to fighting to the death.

Another common type of flagtail pipefish is the Banded pipefish. This species must be purchased from a captive source, as they don’t do well when taken from the wild. They can be kept in pairs. The Janss pipefish is also not as aggressive as the Bluestripe pipefish, but is should not be kept with other members of the pipefish family. It’s interesting to watch as it swims mostly upside down.

The Yellowbanded and Multi Banded pipefish are the last two species in the Flagtail group. These are not common in the aquarium hobby world, as they tend to not do well in captivity.

The ragonfice pipefish family is also quite large, consisting of twelve recognized species. However, only about a quarter of them are actually recognized in the hobby. You might find the Network Pipefish, the Messmate Pipefish or the Scribbled Pipefish in the trade.

Dragonface Pipefish of all kinds don’t handle shipping well, so you’ll want to be careful about the place from which you purchase these fish. That being said, caring for pipefish is pretty much the same regardless of the speice. As a result, many aquarium stores or other places that stock fish do not tell you the difference between the different types of fish – they will simply label them as pipefish.

Pipefish Tank And Water Requirements

Photo by Hung Chi-Feng

Try your very best to create a pipefish tank that is similar to this fish’s natural environment. You should try to set up a saltwater tank that has lots of grass, rocks, and coral in which your pipefish can hide. Adding decorations like caves and rocks is also a good idea, as these will provide shelter for our fish. You should consider selecting decorations that are brightly colored, as this will make your pipefish feel most at home.

These fish are native to the tropics, so the water should be kept between 70- and 80-degrees Fahrenheit at all times. The ideal pH is between 8.1 and 8.4, with a hardness of 8-12 and a gravity of 1.020-1.025. They like somewhat alkaline water, and also need lots of lighting. Pipefish are visual eaters, meaning they need lots of light in order to see and eat their food.

Pipefish should be kept in tanks that are no smaller than 30 gallons in volume. However, keep in mind that pipefish should be kept in groups and will therefore need a larger tank.

What Do Pipefish Eat?

Pipefish are unique in that they require lots of lighting in order to find their food. They are not competitive and will not compete with tankmates for food, which is why you should only keep them with other pipefish or seahorses. Otherwise, they may starve to death.

These fish are carnivores and prefer meaty foods. In the wild, they will eat live food like copepods, shrimp, amphipods, crustaceans, and plankton – anything will do as long as it is small enough. Occasionally, they will also go after insects, worms, and small fish.

Pipefish are excellent predators because they can fit their bodies into small places. They have slim bodies, however, which causes them to have a narrow digestive tract. Therefore, you will need to feed them small amounts of food but on a more regular basis to ensure that they do not run out of energy to perform their daily activities.

You should make sure you have lots of live food ready to go when you bring your pipefish home. Even though you might see your pipefish eating frozen foods at the aquarium store, you should have live foods, too, as stressed pipefish often will not touch frozen foods.

Make sure your aquarium is well-established with plenty of macroalgae and live rock. This will help encourage your pipefish to eat, even when it is stressed from its travels.

When you are selecting foods for your pipefish, make sure you only choose those that are from a marine environment. Freshwater foods do not have highly unsaturated fatty acids, which pipefish desperately need. If you choose to feed freshwater live foods, make sure they are enriched with fatty acids. Vibrance is one such product that contains both unsaturated fatty acids as well as vitamin C and other crucial nutrients.

Beyond that, just about any kind of live food will do. Amphipods are a good choice. These crustaceans can live on filter pads in your tank and are easy to breed as long as you provide them with a small plastic box filled with algae.

You can also feed your pipefish baby brine shrimp who are within the first twelve hours after hatching. These shrimp contain yolks that are nutritionally dense and valuable to your pipefish. Adult brine shrimp are also commonly fed. These don’t have as much nutritional value, so they won’t be as healthy for your pipefish. Because pipefish have such short digestive tracts, they may have additional problems in digesting this food as a staple of their diet.

Cleaner shrimp larvae and copepods are also a popular choice for live foods. Coops are a great choice for young or small pipefish, but they are so small that they might go unnoticed. You need ample lighting in order to feed these creatures to your pipefish.

Some other options for live foods include mysis shrimp, red shrimp, ghost shrimp, and isopods. If you introduce these foods to your tank, you need to make sure they do not have any parasites that can be introduced to your tank.

Because pipefish are such shy eaters, they often starve to death before their owners even notice. Your pipefish can be seriously struggling without you even noticing until it is too late. Live foods are hard, and while you may be able to feed your fish some frozen food, some won’t recognize it as food and will actually ignore it.

To help get around this, try to choose the smallest pieces of food you can find. Some good options include frozen cyclop-eeze and frozen mysis. You can also purchase most of the live foods we already mentioned in a frozen format. If they’re too big, use a cheese grater to make them the ideal size for your pipefish.

You will need to feed your pipefish small amounts, at least three times a day. Do not overfeed your pipefish – they will not only have a hard time digesting this food, but they will leave unwanted food uneaten and it will dirty your tank quite rapidly.

Feeding pipefish can be a bit of a nuisance, but feeding them the proper food is vital if you want to maintain a healthy population in your tank. Remember, you will need to source food for your pipefish for the rest of its life – which could be anywhere from five to ten years. Make sure this is the appropriate choice for you before deciding to invest in a pipefish.

Pipefish Tank Mates

Photo by Elias Levy

Consider keeping pipefish in either pairs or small groups. You should try to avoid keeping pipefish with other species and instead try to maintain a pipefish-only aquarium. You may be able to get away with keeping seahorses in there, too.

Keep your pipefish with members of their own kind. If you absolutely must keep your pipefish with other species, make sure that they are the ones that will not compete for food. These fish are slow swimmers and will shy away from any competition when it comes to their food.

These fish should absolutely not be kept with territorial or aggressive fish like pufferfish, clownfish, or clams. They may even need to be kept by themselves in order to keep them safe.

Common Pipefish Diseases

Photo by Oldair Jacinto

It is very difficult to care for pipefish because they have some specific needs that can be challenging for novice fishkeepers. While some species of pipefish are quite difficult to keep, there are some that are better for newer or mid-level aquarium hobbyists to care for. If you’re new to fishkeeping, you might want to consider less aggressive pipefish like the Dragonface Pipefish.

You may notice some problems with your pipefish as soon as they arrive in your tank. Some people think that they don’t handle the transition between living in the wild to living in captivity well, and while this is partially true, it is usually the direct cause of them not being fed enough while they were in transit.

Despite this, once you have your pipefish established in your tank, they are relatively easy to care for. The only major issue you will have to worry about is a bacterial infection. Bacterial infections can cause cloudiness in the skin, eyes, or fins. Rapid breathing is another common sign of bacterial infection.

However, rapid breathing can signal other problems as well, such as stress or distress from travels. Make sure you monitor your pipefish on a regular basis to rule out any potential diseases.

Avoid overcrowding your pipefish, as this can lead to disease. Remember, too, to check your filter, water temperature, specific gravity, and water quality on a daily and weekly basis. You should be changing ten to twenty-five percent of the total water volume every two to four weeks to keep your fish healthy, too.

Signs of sick pipefish include rapid breathing, a loss of color, fungus or spots on the body, rubbing against the substrate, or having trouble staying afloat. Usually, most diseases in pipefish are caused by parasites or fungal growths, but it’s always worth consulting a veterinarian to sort out the direct cause and potential treatments.

Breeding And Life Spans Of Pipefish

Pipefish are difficult to breed, but if you’re able to do so, it will be quite a spectacle to watch. Male pipefish are the ones that carry the young, and will do so either on their tails in a dedicated spongy area or in a pouch. To mate, a pair of pipefish will engage in elaborate breeding rituals. They will travel at the same speed, with the female depositing her eggs immediately after being courted.

The female will deposit eggs with several different males in order to increase the likelihood and amount of offspring she is able to produce. Young pipefish, upon hatching, are able to fend for himself immediately – which is a good thing, since their parents do not care for them. Unfortunately, despite their ability to survive on their own at an early age, most pipefish don’t survive to adulthood, with only one percent reaching maturity.

Is A Pipefish For You?

Pipefish that are bred in captivity tend to be hardier than those caught in the wild, so if you are out shopping for one of these gorgeous creatures, try to get one that was bred in captivity. That being said, this can be a challenge, as very few people actively breed pipefish.

If you’re looking for a unique, more challenging fish to raise, you should consider this interesting saltwater fish. Although you will need to have a fair amount of luck, talent, and know-how in order to successfully keep pipefish in captivity, their elaborate displays of color and active behaviors make them a great choice for your saltwater aquarium.

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