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Issue: June 2007

Raising Sepia bandensis: From Hatchling to Breeding Adult (Full Article)

Author: Jennifer Saitz

SAIT 0607
Photographer: Jennifer Saitz
A marine biologist with a love for cuttlefish gives an account of how she successfully raised her Sepia bandensis hatchlings to maturity.

I have always loved cuttlefish, but in my initial years as an aquarist the only opportunity I had to keep them was at a public aquarium with running sea water. I’ve been a marine biologist for 14 years, most of which I spent in Southern California near the beach. Recently I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a location that has plenty of rivers but lacks salt water. Thankfully circumstances would soon change, however, and I would finally have the chance to keep my beloved cuttlefish.

Opportunity Knocks

After learning that I was a marine biologist a neighbor gave me a 29-gallon tank that had been stored away in his garage. It came with everything I needed and more—even an undergravel filter. I saved the tank and the hang-on-the-back filter and disposed of everything else. I stocked the tank with sand and live rock, and I added a protein skimmer. After waiting three months for it to cycle, I added 10 red-legged hermits, a percula clown, a six-lined wrasse, and a skunk cleaner shrimp. I thought I was happy, but I was wrong; I wanted a cephalopod. For six months I chatted with other cephalopod fanatics on Tonmo.com, an online community and news magazine devoted to cephalopods. One of the regulars on the forum had some wild-caught Sepia bandensis hatchlings. After much thought I purchased three of them, and he shipped them to me overnight. Since young cuttlefish only eat live food, I had already stocked a net breeder with live mysids.

The Tiny Hatchlings

On the day the cuttlefish arrived I was working, so I left explicit instructions for my musician husband to drip-acclimate them. When I arrived home I saw three tiny little creatures in the bottom of a bucket, along with some brown material. It turns out that my husband had mistaken the heat pack for dried food and had “fed” my cuttlefish for me. So much for a three-hour acclimation—I immediately moved them to the net breeder floating in the 29-gallon tank.

I had four net breeders floating in the tank. Two of the breeders held mysids, while the other two housed the cuttlefish (two in one, and one in the other). The hatchlings were so small—about the size of a small pea—and I couldn’t even see their eyes. Within days I observed them stalking and capturing mysids. Live mysids are cannibalistic, so I was having difficulty keeping enough to feed my hungry cuttlefish. After 10 days I offered the most aggressive cuttlefish a frozen mysid but he rejected it. I tried again the next day and it was accepted. Finally I had something to offer the cuttlefish when I ran low on live mysids.

Keeping cephalopods in the home aquarium requires a lot of vigilance. The water conditions have to be close to pristine. I purchased a RO/DI filter so that I would have easy access to good water. I change 25 percent of the water two to three times per month, and I make sure to clean my protein skimmer frequently. My 55-gallon aquarium has about 50 pounds of live rock, a 15-gallon sump with a refugium, a wet/dry filter, and a protein skimmer rated for 150 gallons.

Getting Bigger

I fed frozen and live mysids to the cuttlefish three to four times per day for the first month. Luckily, after a month the cuttlefish graduated to larger food. I was able to offer them live shore shrimp Palaemonetes vulgaris. The shrimp were sometimes larger than the cuttlefish, but the fish were still able to capture it with ease. Eventually I decreased the feedings to twice a day. The cuttlefish were growing quickly, but they were still smaller than a dime. The two cuttlefish that shared a home were fighting over food, so I separated them, giving each its own net breeder.

The percula clown, six-lined wrasse, and skunk cleaner shrimp were still sharing the tank with the cuttlefish. I did frequent water changes and kept a close eye on the water parameters. The cleaner shrimp often clung to the net breeder. When I noticed one of the cuttlefish trying to capture the shrimp’s leg through the net breeder, I knew it was time to find another space for the other inhabitants of the 29-gallon tank.

I started searching the local paper for used aquariums. As luck would have it, I found someone a few miles away selling their 55-gallon tank. It was stocked with live rock, mushroom corals, zooanthids, a maroon clown, and three yellow-tailed damsels. I negotiated a good price and relocated the tank to my basement. I traded the maroon clown and the yellow-tailed damsels for a bunch of hermit crabs at my local fish store. I moved all of the other inhabitants to the 55 and released the cuttlefish into the 29. I was worried that I would never find the cuttlefish in the fish tank, since they were only about one inch in total length. For most of the day I could not distinguish the cuttlefish from the rocks, but when I tossed some live shrimp in they eagerly appeared.

Breeding Adults

After four months I determined that I had one female and two males. The males would display a black-and-white pattern on their bodies when they were near each other. I also observed mating between one of the males and the female. I decided to move the cuttlefish to the 55-gallon tank, so I spent an afternoon drip acclimating six animals into two different tanks. When all was said and done all of them were successfully introduced into their new environments.

I was forced to move the cuttlefish tank into a different room just 10 days later. A contractor needed to lay a new floor and so the fish tank had to be moved temporarily. While I was moving the cuttlefish and the live rock, I discovered eggs attached to the rock. I removed the eggs and placed them in a net breeder. I was able to find someone from the online forum who was willing to raise these captive-bred eggs.

Toward a Better Understanding

Sepia bandensis has not been the subject of much research, and little is known of their life cycle. It is thought that they live about nine months and lay approximately 40 eggs in their lifetime. I have had the cuttlefish for nine months and they are probably nearing the end of their natural life.

My female has continued to lay eggs for the past five months—over half of her life. As of last count she has laid 225 eggs. It has taken quite an effort on my part to find a place for all of these eggs. I have shipped some to 11 different takers, including the National Resource Center for Cephalopods (NRCC). The NRCC is hoping to use these hatchlings to learn more about the life cycle of these remarkable creatures, and I am happy to have contributed to research that can help us all better understand these amazing animals.

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