Introducing the Boxfishes, Trunkfishes, and Cowfishes

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  With rigid bodies propelled “helicopter fashion” by tiny fins, the 33 marine species that comprise the Family Ostraciidae are quite amusing as they motor about.  Their appeal is heightened by an “alert” face and, in many, horn-like projections at the head and rear.  Some species grow quite large and require unique diets, but several make interesting, appealing aquarium subjects.

A hard bony carapace protects cowfish relatives from attack by many predators.  However, all are slow moving, and their rapidly undulating fins seem to draw attacks from smaller fish.  Oddly enough, the skin over their rigid protective plates is quite sensitive.  Be sure to watch your specimens closely, lest wounds inflicted by tiny fishes go un-noticed and lead to infection or stress-related diseases.

A 40+ Year Old Memory of a Long Horn Cowfish, Lactoria cornuta

A brilliant yellow body highlighted with blue spots and set off by “horns” at the head and rear renders this droll fish instantly recognizable.  I have a soft spot for these comical fellows.  Back in the early 1960’s, when my grandfather lured me into keeping marine fishes, a long horn cowfish was my first exotic species.  Armed with pioneering marine aquarist Robert Straughan’s 1959 classic The Salt Water Aquarium in the Home, we frequented the 2 NYC aquarium stores (1 in the Bronx, 1 in lower Manhattan) that stocked marine fishes.  Shipments were irregular at the time, but we lucked out on 1 trip with a gorgeous cowfish. 

All-glass tanks were not yet available, so we installed our prize in a large plastic aquarium, where he impressed me greatly by being the only one of  my early purchases to survive my clumsy attempts at marine fish husbandry! 

Slow feeding and peaceful (although aggressive towards other cowfishes), the long horn is one of the few fishes that I was able to house with another long-time favorite, the Atlantic seahorse. 

Hovercraft Boxfish, Tetrosomus gibbosus

This species’ mode of swimming truly fits its name, with only the fins fluttering, propeller-like, as the rigid body moves along.  They are extremely inquisitive, seeming to notice and examine all happenings within and outside of their aquarium.

Maturing at a mere 4 inches in length, hovercrafts are an excellent choice for those lacking space to house long horn cowfishes and other large species.  They are, however, slow to feed, and so their condition should be monitored closely…the stomach areas of underfed boxfishes will rapidly take on a sunken appearance.  However, when housed with other small, methodical feeders (seahorses and pipefishes are worth a try), hovercrafts do quite well.

Husbandry Considerations

Many cowfish relatives are, despite their “apparent calmness”, quite excitable.  Frightened specimens will release a skin-generated poison into the water.  Known as ostracitoxin, this secretion is toxic to other fishes, and, in close quarters, to the toxin-producer itself. 

Establishing cowfishes in an aquarium before adding other species, and choosing only slow-moving, peaceful tank-mates, will go a long way in preventing disasters.  In a dark room, always turn a small room light on before using the aquarium canopy light.

In the wild, cow, box and trunkfishes feed largely upon algae and sessile invertebrates (i.e. sponges, tube worms).  Captives take a wide variety of frozen, freeze-dried  and algae-based foods, along with live brine shrimp, mysids and blackworms.

Further Reading

For further information on the long horn cowfish, please see Species Profile: the Long Horn Cowfish.

Please write in with your questions and comments.  Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by LASZLO ILYES

Freshwater Stingrays: Points to Consider Before Your First Purchase – Part II

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

In Part I of this article we examined some important points concerning freshwater stingray ownership. I’ll continue here with more husbandry tips and a look at the natural history of two unique species.

Selecting an Individual: Health

Large rays may have been collected via hook, do not ship well, and usually arrive in very poor condition. Check those over 12 inches in diameter carefully. Their adjustment to captivity is much less successful than that of smaller individuals.

Do not purchase a stingray whose fins are curled upwards along their margins. For reason as yet unknown, such animals invariably expire in short order.

Identifying the Various Species

It is important that you lean to identify the commonly available species before making a purchase. Animals in the genus Dasyatis, commonly sold as “freshwater stingrays” are actually native to brackish waters (river mouths) and may fare poorly in freshwater aquariums. Others, including ceja, antenna, tiger and China rays, have unique feeding and water quality requirements, and make quite delicate captives.

The hardy, popular common or motoro ray (Potamotrygon motoro) exists in 6-8 distinct color morphs, and is difficult to identify based on appearance alone.


Freshwater stingrays have fast metabolisms and need 2-3 feedings each day; dietary variety is vital to good health.

Live blackworms, ghost shrimp, crayfish, earthworms and small fishes are necessary for newly-acquired specimens. Eventually, most can be habituated to accepting canned invertebrates and animal-based frozen foods, but live animals remain an important component of the diet.

Stingray Tankmates

While rays often get along well with each other and certain other fishes, the usually benign suckermouth catfishes (i.e. Plecostomus spp) present an unusual problem. They often latch onto stingrays’ backs, sucking at the skin and causing lesions and stress-related ailments. The reasons for this behavior have not yet been thoroughly investigated.


You would be well-advised to check the legality of stingray ownership, as 8-10 states currently prohibit the keeping of freshwater species.

A Freshwater Ray in the USA?

Most freshwater rays offered in the trade hail from South America, but others may be found in Asia, Africa and Australia.

Dasyatis sabina in FloridaInterestingly, Florida’s St. John’s River is home to a population of marine rays that have adapted to life in fresh water. The species involved, the Atlantic stingray, Dasyatis sabina (please see photo), is known to forage in river mouths, but the St. John’s River population is the only one that has become independent of the sea, even breeding in freshwater.

An Amazing Giant

Southeast Asia is home to the world’s largest freshwater stingray, Himantura chaophraya. In January of 2009 a researcher captured a massive specimen in Thailand’s Meaklong River. Spanning nearly 9 feet across and weighing an estimated 660 pounds, the giant appeared pregnant and was released unharmed.

A Hands-On Experience with Stingrays

Please be sure to visit That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, PA (the world’s largest pet store) for a chance to hand feed our friendly marine stingrays.

I’ll cover the care of freshwater, marine and even some native stingrays in detail in future articles. Until then, please write in with your questions and comments.

Thanks, Frank Indiviglio

Further Reading

You can learn more about Southeast Asia’s spectacular giant freshwater stingray here.

Please also check out the book, Freshwater Stingrays for more on captive care.

Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally published by the user Abigor.

A Marine Biologist’s Trip to the Hawaiian Reefs

Cory here. I traveled to the Hawaiian Islands in June of 2008 for my honeymoon, and thought I would take Dave’s lead and tell you all about it. I have always wanted to go to Hawaii and thought that a honeymoon trip would be a perfect reason to do so. There are 8 major islands in the chain, any of which would have been an excellent choice. Since Maui is considered the “honeymooners” island, we decided to go there. We stayed 8 days and 7 nights at the Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa on Maui’s famous Ka’ anapali beach. The Resort was amazing with dozens of shops, restaurants, and even penguins it seemed to have it all. However, Maui had so much more to offer.

There are no longer any active volcanoes on the island of Maui, but the landscape told the story of Maui’s volcanic and violent past. Huge, volcanic mountains, covered with lush rain forests that were dotted with majestic waterfalls. Sadly, our time did not allow us to drive up to the summit of Haleakala. Haleakala is a 10,000 foot mountain with a huge crater. This will definitely be in the plans on my next visit.

I didn’t really come the whole way to Hawaii to see waterfalls, rain forests, or volcanoes. I came to see the aquatic life (and of course, to celebrate my recent nuptuals). My deep fascination for the oceans is always calling and was one of the best reasons for wanting to visit Hawaii. I have to say that 7 days was not enough time to snorkel the island. There are too many aquatic “hot spots” that needed to be investigated and we just ran out of time.

The first day took us to Honolua Bay, located on the Northwestern shore. Who would have thought the first location we visited would be the best! Honolua Bay does not have a sandy beach, only small rocks and pebbles, but we spent most of the time in the water so it didn’t matter. We spent nearly 5 hours in the water and still had to come back a second time to take in all of the amazing fish and coral. I think the most amazing thing I saw that day was a school of Convict Tangs (Acanthurus triostegus). There were over a hundred of them, caring more for the algae that they were eating than how close I was. There were Naso (Naso lituratus) and Orange Shoulder Tangs (Acanthurus olivaceus), Thread fin (Chaetodon auriga), Ornate (Chaetodon ornatissimus), and Yellow Long-nosed (Forcipiger flavissimus) Butterflies, along with dozens of other fish. Wrasses such as the Orange Saddled Wrasse (Thalassoma duperrey) and the Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides phthirophagus) were everywhere. I could go on and on listing the fish I saw, just amazing.

I am a coral junky and was really excited to see some wild colonies. I was however, slightly disappointed in the amount of coral diversity. I knew in the back of my mind that the Hawaiian coral diversity is no match for the fish. Don’t get me wrong, the coral was unlike anything I have seen in the ocean, which has been limited to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys. There were huge colonies of blue Montipora, Yellow Porites, and a large pallet of Pocillopora colonies. There was almost always a Hawkfish inhabiting the Pocillopora colonies, guarding them with ferocity. Huge Black Longspine and Orange Pencil Urchins dotted the reef cape with color and caution. I went through sensory overload on my first day and couldn’t wait for what the second day would bring.

On the second day, we took a boat trip to Molokini Island, which is located about 3 miles off the southwestern side of the island. The Island was formed from volcanic activity millions of years ago, since then erosion has caused one side to wear away, leaving a crescent shaped island. The inner portion is for snorkeling, which is where we went. The outer half has a dramatic drop off of over 250 feet where only divers venture. This is where you can find sharks and other open water fish. However, the inside portion was amazing. We were dropped off in nearly 200 ft deep, calm water, where the visibility allowed us to see the bottom. We were welcomed by dozens of Durgeon Triggers and Blue Jaw Triggers. Once on the reef, there was so much to explore, huge colonies of stony corals. There were large eels, Yellow tangs, a school of Adult Naso Tangs, and a fight between three Achilles Tangs. From Molokini, we took a short boat ride to an area called Turtle Town where they guaranteed us to see Sea Turtles. Sure enough within 5 minutes of being in the water, the first turtle was spotted. It was an amazing experience, and one that I will never forget.

The entire visit did not involve us and the water, one day was spent traveling the road to Hana. This is a very slow, winding drive through the eastern coastline of Maui. Along the way are lush, tropical plants, dozens of waterfalls and pools. I was amazed by the Rainbow Eucalyptus trees and the black sand beach. The trip took the better part of the day, but was well worth every minute. The photos in the blog are only a sampling of those we have to remember the trip.

Everywhere we went on Hawaii was amazing, from the coral reefs to the rain forests, and even the resort. We fell in love with Hawaii and plan to return very soon.

Check out the rest of the picture’s at our Facebook page here, and be sure to comment :).

Fish for a Phillies Fan – Setting up a Sports-themed Saltwater tank

Phillies tankAs many of your know, That Fish Place/That Pet Place is located in the heart of Lancaster, PA…thus, we love our Phillies. Hopefully you enjoy this Phillies tank idea (unless you’re a Mets fan) from rabid Phillies fan Marine Biologist Melissa was Leiter but now Weibley (she just got married :). – Ed

Hey Phillies fans, how about paying homage to your favorite team by adding something red, reminding you of those fighting Phils every time you look at your tank? If you have a spare tank, you can create a theme aquarium, or dress up the aquarium you already have in the living room to show your spirit! Let’s begin with some critters that may fit the theme. One of my favorite inverts, the banded coral shrimp is one possibility for an addition if you have the right marine set-up. Their claws have red and white Phillies pin stripes all over them! They have a great personality and are easy to care for, though only one can be put in a small tank unless they are purchased as a mated pair. If you only get one they tend to be a little shy and reclusive until they get used to the tank.
Peppermint shrimp, fire shrimp, and Randalls pistol shrimp may also be great possibilities in a reef or community saltwater tank. There are also some other cool inverts besides shrimp that are red, too. We have some red reef starfish (for well established reef set-ups), scarlet hermit crabs that will help to maintain your “field”, and burrowing crabs that like a deeper sand bed. Flame Scallops like to spend time in the dugout (they’ll anchor to rock usually) but they too show their colors proudly! Be sure to provide adequate feedings for them to thrive.

For you real reefer Phillies fans, we have a couple of possibilities for you to add to your tank as well. Red mushrooms look awesome and will brighten any tank. If you have good lighting the red blastomussa or a red open brain coral would look very nice. For those of you that do not have too much light, you could try a red deep water gorgonian or tree sponge. These guys are not photosynthetic they just need lots of phytoplankton to keep them happy.

Now for you fish lovers we have lots of fun fish that go with the Phillies theme. For well-established tanks we have red firefish, flame pygmy angelfish, longnose hawkfish, and flame hawkfish. We even have some clownfish that sport the flashy red for the Phils, like the maroon clown, fire clown and cinnamon clown. For those of you that love the big boy fish we have that covered, too! White edge lyretail groupers, and other similar groupers may fit the bill. So for all you avid Phillies fans out there make sure you have at least one of these fish/inverts in your tank at all times. Who knows, maybe it will be the luck they need to win big again this year…GO PHILS!!!

Marine Angelfishes: an Overview of Natural History and Captive Care

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Angelfishes (Family Pomacanthidae) represent to many the “classic marine aquarium fish” – vibrantly colored, active, alert and somewhat delicate.  Ranging in size from 4 to 24 inches, an angelfish of one kind or another is responsible for luring a great many people into setting up their first marine aquarium.

Diversity and Range

The 74 described angelfishes range throughout the tropical Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and generally occur in shallow water (less than 60 feet in depth), often in association with coral reefs.  All are somewhat compressed in profile and spectacularly colored.  A great many species exhibit long, trailing extensions from the dorsal and anal fins.

Adult-Juvenile Differences

Juvenile and adult angelfishes of the same species often exhibit striking differences in coloration…so much so that the young of several were initially given full species status.  A number of theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon.  Young angelfishes of some species consume external parasites from the scales of larger fish.  It may be that their unique coloration advertises this role to larger fish, which might otherwise make a meal of them.  Such coloration may also inhibit aggression from the normally territorial adults of their own species

Angels in the Aquarium

Although the cherubfish (Centropyge argi) and certain other dwarf angels are fairly hardy, angelfishes are not recommended for inexperienced hobbyists.  Most are intolerant of sub-optimal water conditions, and a number are fairly specific in their food requirements, subsisting largely upon sponges, corals and fish eggs, and therefore difficult to acclimate to captive diets.


Angelfishes with less specialized dietary requirements should be offered a wide variety of live, freeze dried and frozen foods, including brine shrimp, mysis, squid, prawn, algae and mollusks.

Be aware that large angelfishes may not bother to eat live brine shrimp and other tiny creatures.  In fact, such may be pulled into the fishes’ gills during respiration, causing irritation and stress.


Despite being quite active swimmers, all angelfishes require rocks and coral among which to shelter for the night.  Dwarf species in particular require a great deal of structure in the aquarium, as much of that time is spent in and around such in the wild.  Deprived of secure hiding spots, most will languish and die.


Among this family we find species that are hermaphrodites and others that utilize virtually every reproductive strategy known to fishes – monogamy, promiscuity, harems and leks (in which groups of males gather to display before females).  Although captive breeding is not routine, several species of angelfishes have successfully reproduced in private and public aquariums.

Outwardly very similar, the sexes may sometimes be differentiated by the swollen abdomen of the gravid female.  In those species that exhibit monogamy, mated pairs rise upward together, releasing eggs and sperm as they go.  The tiny eggs float about among the plankton, and, after a time (which varies from species to species but averages1 month in length), the minuscule fry settle to the ocean’s floor.

I’ll cover individual angelfish species in the future.  Until then, please write in with your questions and comments.  Thanks, Frank Indiviglio.

Further Reading

For detailed information on some of the largest and smallest of the angelfishes, please see the following excellent articles, also posted on this blog: Species Profile: Pygmy Angels and Species Profile: Queen Angel