How to pt. 2 - Success with Leopard Wrasses
When people talk about leopard wrasses, they often associate them with words like “delicate”, “sensitive”, or “hard to keep”. And for the most part this is correct, in the hobby it is very difficult to find specimens that will do well long term. However it is always stemming from the stereotype that they don’t eat prepared foods. But why is that? For those of you who have kept a leopard wrasse long term, you know that for the most part they are a relatively robust fish once they adjust and are eating. So how do we get them to this point?
In the recent years I’ve experimented with some suppliers of mine on ways to have success with leopards. Obviously there has to be something going wrong between the point of collection (where the fish are being caught out of the ocean) and the point of acquisition (suppliers, where vendors like myself purchase them to sell). Something is happening to these fish that is so damaging that they don’t want to eat. Now I’m sure right about not there’s someone reading this thinking: no it’s because these fish in the wild only eat live foods like copepods. Sure they may take faster to live foods like brine or black worms, but to say that that’s all they will eat? I don’t buy it. And what about the ones that won’t eat, even when you offer live foods? Why are they not eating? All fish that come from the ocean are eating live foods. Yet somehow we have no trouble getting most of them to eat right? Think about it. What fish in the wild actually have a significant portion of their diet made up of made up up dead matter. Algae, sponges, crustaceans, coral, plankton, small fish; these are all forms of food that fish on a reef eat. But notice that they are all alive. Leopard wrasses should be no different!
So what’s happening to them?
Fish, when they come in from over seas, are packed in as small of bags as the fish will allow, with minimal water and oxygen. This is in an effort to pack as many fish as possible per box and keep freight costs low. Unfortunately most people in the industry are not hobbyist like ourselves and to them is like any other business where it’s all about cash flow, product turnover, and keeping costs low. While it’s a great business model, it’s a horrible way to deal with live animals. The fish in those small bags go though so much just to get here. In those bags they are stressing out, having trauma, slowly suffocating, sitting in their own waste, and getting ammonia burn to their body and gills. Now that last thing, ammonia burn; it’s the key to why the industry struggles with leopard wrasses.
Ammonia Burn**: the physical damage caused to a fish’s body by high concentrations of ammonia. Often where it’s corrosive property eats away at the gill filaments, slime coat, and eventually flesh.
Leopard wrasses in the context of trauma are very sensitive. While in those bags, a lot of reactions are going on; there’s gas exchanges, oxygen depletion, ph drops, and ammonia building up. All of which can change very rapidly in such a small environment. Now what’s cool about packing fish in bags is it’s actually relatively safe. As Oxygen levels lower, ph drops, and a lower ph actually makes ammonia less toxic to the fish. However, there are limitations, eventually there will be to much ammonia in the bag and the fish will start to get “ammonia burn”. To add insult to injury, the second the bags are opened and oxygen touches the water the Ph will shoot back up, making all of that ammonia even more toxic and making the damage even worse.
On leopard wrasses ammonia burn is usually limited to the gill filaments which normally isn’t a huge issue. Gill filaments***: portion of the fish’s gills responsible for absorbing oxygen from the water. Fish can recover from this in a matter of a few days. However, the fish has to be allowed to do so. Suppliers and importers generally acclimate their fish with system water or if not its often medicated acclimation water. What’s wrong with that? Copper! Copper that everyone uses for parasite control and what we hobbyists use in our quarantines is a gill irritant! So leopard wrasses, a fish sensitive to trauma, in addition to having ammonia burned gills, are immediately acclimated with a gill irritant. It’s easy to see why they don’t do well. The combination of coming in from over seas with ammonia burn combined with the immediate exposure to copper causes irreparable damage to the fish in most cases. Now of course there will always be a few that kick the trend and push though all of that and still manage to do well in our aquariums, but the majority do not.
So how do you get a healthy specimen then if everyone is using the same methods?
That’s the thing. It’s going to be on your preferred vendor to put in the effort to get them. If your LFS or who ever gets your fish has access to a local supplier(wholesale), tell them to take the fish out of the box directly when they land from over seas and acclimate the fish themselves without copper. Or if you’re a vendor see if you can convince your local wholesale to do an “invert drip” acclimation(where they use water from an invert or coral system to acclimate). The key is to keep them out of copper for the first 3-4 days after arrival. Doing so will almost always equate to success. This allows any damage to the gills a chance to heal a bit and for them to have a less stressful acclimation. I use this technique personally when I bring leopards in and they always eat frozen, some even pellets!
Quarantine all of your fish!! Even leopard wrasses. Once they come in, my recommendation is to get them eating prior to adding medications. Their response to food will also let you know how recovered they are from shipping and if they can withstand medications. To get them eating you can always use live foods to entice a more aggressive feeing response. But in most cases when preforming acclimation post arrival properly, I’ve found to be unnecessary.
For the majority of you out there that may not be able to get the fish out of the box and do a proper acclimation. Always see if they are taking food. Even if it’s live. It will tell you about how the fish is going to do. A fish that takes live can always be weaned onto frozen. If you have a leopard that will only eat live, my recommendation is to feel small amounts at a time. Fish react more aggressively if they can physically see that there is little food; this can be used to your advantage. By feeding less, and having them be more aggressive when feeding, it will train the fish to take food when it’s present immediately. We’ve all seen when a picky fish looks at food for to long and can’t decide if it’s going to eat it or not. This will help eliminate this problem. And it will be more important when weaning. The reason you are trying training the fish for an aggressive feeding response is so when you do introduce frozen the fish will see it and eat it without thinking. This can take a couple weeks to do but works well. Live brine is most readily available for hobbyist so the progression I’d recommend is to go from live brine, to live and frozen brine, to only frozen brine, to frozen brine and Hikarii Mysis, to frozen brine, Hikarii Mysis, and PE mysis. Once you get to that point you can usually offer anything and they will take to it. Just remember small portions!
When you get to quarantining, I recommend using nitrofurazone( or Furan 2) and copper at full dosage and running for about 2 weeks. The copper will kill off any parasites and the nitrofurazone will keep any secondary infections down if the copper irritates the gills too much. You can also even give the fish a freshwater dip for 3 minutes mixed with prazi every few days. If there are flukes on the fish you should be able to see them turn white around the 30-40 second mark. It’s important to also turkey baste them off the body of the fish so you don’t introduce them into the quarantine tank. Quick tip** when dipping fish, make a transition dip of half salt and half fresh for the fish to go into after the freshwater dip. Saltwater fish have no problem dropping salinity, but going back up is extremely harsh on their body so having an in between dip will help them to recover with less stress.
Leopard wrasses like to bury in the sand so for these fish putting a little sand will help them to not run the risk of running their faces against the tank bottom. Wrasses that like to burrow can often cause major damage to their mouths by trying to bury in a tank without sand. This can lead to them not eating again, infections, starving, and death. It’s important not to use calcium carbonate based sand(like the same we keep in our tanks). Copper will bind to it making maintaining proper copper concentrations difficult, but it will also over expose the leopards to it when they are under it sleeping. Use silica based sand. It’s often sold as play sand(like for a sand box) or pool filtration sand. Copper will not bind to it and it is also incredibly soft so it won’t damage the wrasses.
Thanks for reading everyone! Have a great weekend!! And as always Happy Reefing!!