Stuff from my brain


Ornate Ghost Pipefish mating, releasing larvae caught on video

Text by Matt Wandell, Video by Rich Ross – Posted Jun 20, 2011 04:00 PM on Advanced Aquarist’s blog
Since our last update we’ve been able to observe mating several times, and Academy biologist Rich Ross has captured it on video.

Ornate Ghost Pipefish spawning and ‘birthing’ at the California Academy of Sciences, June 2011.

As reported earlier on Advanced Aquarist, the California Academy of Sciences’ Steinhart Aquarium has a pair of Ornate Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) on display which have released larvae in captivity. Since our last update we’ve been able to observe mating several times, and Academy biologist Rich Ross has captured it on video.

Check out the video below to see the entire process of ghost pipefish reproduction–from mating, to a close up look inside the female’s pelvic fins where she holds the developing eggs, to larval release. So far we have seen the female release between 20-50 larvae every morning for the last 8 days, followed by mating with the male as soon as we place them back together. Is this typical behavior for the species, or an artifact of captivity? Does she hold eggs and larvae of different age in her pelvic fins at the same time in the wild?

Before you go rushing out to obtain a ghost pipefish or two, you should be aware that the vast majority of these amazing animals collected for the aquarium trade die before ever reaching their intended destination. Those that do make it are often extremely weak from the journey. The individuals described here were carefully collected and shipped by Steinhart Aquarium staff from a shallow seagrass bed in a small Philippine bay to a display tank in San Francisco within less than 36 hours. Along the journey, they received several water changes and were always held in enormous containers. It is our firm belief that this extraordinary level of care during shipping is necessary for these fishes to arrive alive and in good health.


A video update of some cephalopods at the California Academy of Sciences including: hunting Coconut Octopus, mating Dwarf Cuttlefish, hunting hatchling Flamboyant Cuttlefish and feeding Broadclub cuttlefish.

Things have been hopping at work with cephs! It is remarkable to work at a place with such diversity. Things are mating, hatching, eating and above all growing. I am amazed that the Sepia latimanus hatched in February this year are now almost 7 inches long. The Amphioctopus marginatus are growing almost visibly day by day. The Metasepia sp hatchlings are almost doing the same. Anyway, a video is worth a thousand words, so here is a bit of a long one featuring the A. marginatus on display moving faster than I thought possible, the Sepia bandensis on display (mating), the Metasepia eating and the S. latimanus eating and being burly!

Skeptical Reefkeeping Part 5: Experts and Changing Your Mind

By Richard Ross

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.

The guys 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). 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

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? Do they have the overarching experience to create an educated opinion even if they don’t have direct experience? 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

Have 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 authors 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.

Coconut Octopus, Amphioctopus marginatus, on display at Steinhart Aquarium

From TONMO far as we can tell, on June 1st the Steinhart Aquarium became the first aquarium to display Amphioctopus marginatus, the Coconut Octopus or Veined Octopus. This small robust octopus has gotten a lot of attention over the past few yeas first as one of the documented octopuses capable of bipedal locomotion and as an octopus possibly capable of tool use…/2011/jan/20/1.

The animal on display was collected by Steinhart Biologists in Anilao, Philippines, as part of the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition, just a week before going on display.

Needless to say, I am very excited to have the opportunity not only to have seen these animals in the wild, but also to be able to work with them in captivity. So much so that I am posting the above video shot on my iphone. In the video you can see the octopus flashing colors, a bit of a limb that is re growing, hunting and catching a ghost shrimp, and returning to its glass jar den.

Boy, its easy to be dumb


As some of you may remember from my previous article ‘The anatomy of a disaster”  I have a penchant for not keeping up on float switch maintenance and ending up with kalk overdoses. Regardless of the failsafes I put in place, I continue to OD on kalk, and guess what, I did it again recently, and I humbly present to you the newest of precautions I have put in place to possibly save my lazy butt from yet another disaster.

The last disaster was really, really bad.

The most current kalk issue was not nearly as bad as the previous one. Last time I lost 95% of my SPS corals, where this time I only lost 2 – though some of them are going to take a month of so to recover completely.

When I caught it, the pH in the tank was 9.7, bad but not immediately kill everything bad. My sump is essentially a 180 gallon tank so when the primary float switch failed about 15 gallons of yummy kalk water was pumped into the tank until the secondary float switch, located about 3 inches above the primary clicked into action.

This time, instead of dumping gallons of vinegar in the system to lower the pH, I tee’d off of the CO2 feed to my calcium reactor and bubbled CO2 directly into the display tank. CO2 is better for a couple of reasons, the most important being the lack of bacterial bloom that results from gallons of vinegar being dumped into a saltwater system. Since the system wasn’t totally crashed, this was very important to me. Another good thing about the CO2 addition is that its effect of lowering pH is very fast and its hard to overdose – just take line out of the tank. Getting the pH down to 8.2 took less than 10 minutes, and the change was startling. Fish that were clearly stressing and hiding came right out and ate. A Linkia starfish that looked to be dead, perked right up. LPS corals started opening up within 30 minutes. I like the CO2 much better than vinegar. Of course, it should be obvious that CO2 can be dangerous for both your tank and you, so be careful and I wouldn’t even think of doing it without a calibrated electronic pH meter.

So what did I do to avoid this avoidable problem in the future. First, I further slowed the amount of water pumping into the system via the Auto Top Off. I also put the ATO on a timer with an on/off cycle of 30 minutes.   The system can still move enough water to keep up with top off, but it takes time to fill it up, and that less time means more time before the problem becomes critical.

The second thing I did was reconfigure the sump equipment so it was all easier to get to and maintain. Easier and neater means faster and better regular maintenance. Now, the switches are right up front, in a dark space and soaking them in vinegar takes a matter of minutes. Easy peasy. I also modified the way the float switches were laid out. Now, instead of 3 inches between primary and secondary float switches, resulting in a 15 gallon addition, there is about .5 inches, resulting in a 3ish gallon addition before the secondary kicks in. Its such an obvious modification that I marvel at my lack of making it immediately upon receiving the float switches.

A modification so obvious that I should have done it long ago (The second set of floatswitches is for the auto fill for water changes)

The third and most important think I did was set up a 4 month recurring calendar event on my computer to remind me to do the regular cleaning.

Will this work? Will I avoid disaster in the future? Only time will tell…

Steinhart arrives in Anilao

From the California Academy of Sciences

First sunset after the first day in the Philippines

After a 14 hour plane flight and a 3 hour drive, Steinhart Aquarium biologists Bart Shepherd, Rich Ross and Matt Wandell arrived at Club Ocellaris and were treated to a breakfast of garlic rice, eggs and French toast. After filling our bellies, we suited up, went diving and have been on the move ever since. The first night, after a spectacular sunset,we dove on a stony coral dominated site called “Dead Palm” (apparently there used to be a dead palm tree under water). At the end of the dive we encountered something that we never imagined we would run into, never mind on the first night – Acropora sp. corals spawning. Thousands of egg/sperm bundles released into the water by branching corals filled the ocean with a peach colored ‘snowstorm’ rising towards the surface. Many screams of excitement could be heard under water. We collected some of the spawn, and after email discussions with friends from project SECORE (SExual COral REproduction – ), we tried to mix the gametes to harvest and settle ‘baby’ corals.  The effort was not completely successful because Acropora corals cannot self-fertilize and we couldn’t collect material from multiple corals. Regardless, the experience was worth the effort, and sets the stage for future work.

The collection of coral fragments has been moving along well, and we are getting ready to pack up the first shipment back to the Academy. We have been collecting fragments that have naturally detached from mother colonies, or harvesting small fragments from the growing edge of large colonies.  The parent colony should quickly heal and show no sign of disturbance within a week or so.

Traditionally coral fragments are collected and either glued to something (rock, a concrete disk, or a plastic plug) or left loose and stored in some kind of rack land in a holding tank. This presents a a couple of problems with water flow and water quality.  It also can cause shipping problems, as the coral either sits unsupported in the shipping bag, or is rubber banded to some Styrofoam (both of which can stress the coral and involve additional handling). Inspired by the work Ken Nedimyer is doing in Florida at the CRF (Coral Restoration Foundation – ), and after prototyping the system in the Philippine Coral Reef at the aquarium, we placed our coral strings about 50 meters off shore.

Coral fragments waiting for shipment to CAS

This system keep the fragments up in the water column with good water, flow and light until we are ready to ship them. For shipping, we simply snip the middle of the zip tie chain ( leaving the rest in place for future use) and attach the coral to another zip tie looped through some Styrofoam. This way the fragment is suspended in the shipping bag, and it will be hard for it to bump the sides or bottom, which can cause damage. The lines themselves are silicone airline tubing strung between repurposed plastic water bottles (floats) and dive weights (sinkers). Additional lines can be added to an existing float to quickly and simply extend the system. It seems to be working well and we are anxious to hear how the corals arrive at their new home in San Francisco.

Last night we spent two hours muck diving collecting cephalopods and seeing amazing and bizarre creatures, but we are out of time so that will have to be covered in a future blog as we are off to Manila for meetings and shipping.

Richard Ross, Bart Shepherd and Matt Wandell.

Things to think about before you buy a cephalopod


1. Home aquarists and scientists agree- cephalopods can be really hard to keep alive in a captive environment. They require a very clean, stable seawater system, escape proof lids (for octopus), and they are picky eaters. Keeping one can be expensive, and feeding one can be expensive.

2. While some countries have strict collecting laws, many tropical animals are collected from the wild using irresponsible and illegal methods such as poaching, habitat destruction (smashing coral to catch the target animal) and/or “cyanide fishing”. Cyanide fishing involves squirting cyanide into the reef and breaking coral to dig out the poisoned, stunned animals. It kills coral, other invertebrates, and fish. Ask your aquarium shop for tank-raised animals.

3. It might be deadly. Blue-ringed octopuses are deadly. There is no anti-venom for their bite. Other octopuses are so poorly known that we don’t even know how dangerous they might be. Relatives ofAbdopus aculeatus have a poison in their bodies that’s similar to TTX, the poison in blue-ring venom (Robertson et al. 2004 Toxicon 44: 765). Striking animals like “Wunderpus” and the “Mimic” might be highly venomous. It appears that the tissue of the “Flamboyant” cuttlefish is toxic. You don’t want to be the one who finds out.

4. It might be rare, so taking a wild animal might put those cephalopod populations at risk.

5. It might try to crawl out. Octopuses are well-known for their abilities to escape aquaria. Intertidal species are notoriously hard to keep in a tank. If it goes walkabout when you’re not looking, then you will find a dead octopus on the floor the next morning, or behind the couch in two years.

6. It might eat your other pets. Crabs, clams and sometimes snails are not safe from the voracious appetite of a cephalopod. Often fish will most likely either eat your cephalopod or be eaten by your cephalopods.

7. They don’t live very long, most species only about a year. By the time you get your tropical cephalopod, it may be an adult near the end of its live span. You’ll be lucky to keep it alive for a few months.

8. Exotics
Even experienced ceph keepers with mature tanks should think long and hard before obtaining these species. Their needs are resource intensive, specific, and not yet fully understood. Perhaps more importantly, the size and health of their wild populations is unknown.Even the sharing of information, photos and video of these animals can be controversial. Some fear that detailed information and attractive photos may encourage inexperienced saltwater aquarists to obtain specimens. Personally, I believe that knowledge should be freely available. I also believe that the admiration of a species can be of benefit to its preservation in the wild rather than its detriment. Furthermore, it is my hope that the information on the site will empower aquarists to make sound, rational decisions regarding the advisability of keeping these very difficult animals.

With permission, this list is based heavily on (in fact, some of it outright copied from) a similar list by Christine L. Huffard, Ph.D.