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Before you buy a cuttlefish....

Things to keep in mind before you decide to get a cuttlefish

by Colin Dunlop
original text March 2004 -- Updated January 2006


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Opening notes...
Since this article was originally written it has been necessary to rewrite parts of it. There have been significant advances within the hobby and cephalopod husbandry techniques are still evolving. It is certain to require more updates in the future but that's what keeps this hobby of ours interesting.

The point of this article is really to get the prospective keeper to have a think about their reasons for keeping a cuttlefish; is it something they really want to do? Is it something they really can do? There are no short cuts to be taken and cutting corners, more often than not, will result in the death of the cephalopod. It is neither an instant gratification hobby nor is it an inexpensive hobby as this text will show. We will aim to give you the facts.

As an online community; TONMO.com members stand firmly in favour of keeping captive bred (CB) species. However, we do know that sometimes wild cuttlefish like Metasepia pfefferi are imported 'often accidentally' and sometimes people buy them on an impulse. In these cases we will try very hard to ensure that you have all the information you need to offer the cephalopod the opportunity to live its full natural lifespan. You will never be 'flamed' for asking questions on the Ceph Care Forums. But please, don't ever buy any animal without thoroughly researching all its captive requirements!

There is no easy answer to the, 'I am tempted to buy the cuttlefish that my local aquarium shop has because otherwise it might die in the shop or go to a less knowledgeable person' scenario. Ideally we like to discourage the unfavourable wild collection of more specimens but it's not easy to walk away and leave the cuttlefish. The jury is still out on this one but always buy CB where possible.

Gradually more captive bred species are becoming available through the hard work of dedicated enthusiasts and the most important thing we can do is to keep sharing the knowledge we are gaining about these fascinating creatures and where possible try to encourage them to breed in captivity.

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Introduction
One of the initial purposes of TONMO.com's Cephalopod Care pages was to supply the information needed to keep an octopus in the home aquarium, very few people had tried to keep cuttlefish in the early days. Fortunately, through the work of TONMO.com's members we now have a good resource centre with online articles and a healthy forum where octopus related questions get answered almost instantaneously. There is also a very healthy section devoted to cuttlefish husbandry with some great success stories regarding captive breeding.

Captive breeding is important because let me draw your attention to the fact that (in case you didn't know) there are no naturally occurring species of cuttlefish to be found in the waters of the USA. This means that most cuttlefish sold in the USA have probably just finished a stressful flight of several thousand miles from their point or origin and cuttlefish do not travel well at all. Hopefully captive bred specimens, bred within the USA will be more common one day.

In the UK, Western Europe and other parts of the world, native species are often kept and can usually be bought or caught without too much hassle. These countries can also get wild caught shipments from aboard via tropical marine importers.

Even more recently, wild caught (WC) eggs which are harvested on the South Coast of England are making their way to the USA where they are hatched out in captivity. Not quite CB but they travel very well as eggs and as the eggs were laid on lobster pots unlikely to have hatched in the wild. Let's look at the animal's origin in more detail.

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Wild caught...
A cuttlefish for sale in the USA; swimming about in a marine aquarium at the Local Fish Shop (LFS) is more than likely to be a species called Sepia bandensis. Other species do surface from time to time but S. bandensis is the most commonly seen. This little cuttlefish, originally from Indonesia, is fully grown at about 5 cm (2") mantle length. If the cuttlefish is close to that size then assume it is wild caught, unless the shop staff can tell you otherwise?

The chances are that it will just be labelled as 'cuttlefish' and there will be no scientific name accompanying it. This is very frustrating and can lead to problems associated with husbandry. Is that 2" cuttlefish fully grown or is it a baby of a species that will be fully grown at 36"? There are several species which it could potentially be but so far S. bandensis has been the most common.

There are two main problems associated with wild caught cuttlefish and this applies to S. bandensis; firstly, as you possibly know, our cephalopod pals are not all that long-lived; with less than 12 months being about the normal for longevity. Originally, lots of pictures that got posted online of a newly purchased cuttlefish were of sexually mature adults. This means that they have very little of their natural lifespan left to live. Apart from anything else this purchase is not exactly good business sense as they have been seen for sale at up to $100 each! It can be an expensive way to keep a cuttlefish for a couple of weeks!

Problem number two; they don't ship well at all! 90% of the 'Wayhey, I just got a cuttlefish!!!' threads posted on TONMO.com will end in disaster after only a day or two when they seem to die 'all of a sudden'. Perhaps it is capture technique, shipping stress, the quality of a LFS's water? Who knows? There are just too many variables. But the sad fact remains that they don't do well for very long! This is a common problem associated with all cuttlefish, no matter what species that have had to endure long distance haulage. But there have been some exceptions where the cuttlefish did adapt to captivity.

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If you live in the Old World, it can be easier and much less stressful obtaining a cuttlefish as this is where some species naturally occur. If you are in the UK and want cuttlefish get in touch with me as I can source them or can at least point you to reputable dealers (depending on season). It is often a totally different species that we are dealing with here; the common European cuttlefish is Sepia officinalis and is a species that is going to get BIG!

Sepia officinalis is naturally found around the Southern parts of the UK, Europe and down to South Africa. It can be easily bought as a juvenile or even as an egg and hatched out. They are about 12mm long when they hatch and are easy to feed. (That is, as long as you can provide a constant supply of live shrimps/crabs!!!).

As mentioned above, S. officinalis is becoming easier to get in the USA after harvested eggs are shipped across, but it is necessary to point out some drawbacks with the species.

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The drawbacks with Sepia officinalis...

  • They get big! You are looking at an animal with the potential of about 45cm (18") An aquarium of about 200 gallons is needed.

  • It can be very expensive to buy all the necessary equipment. They need large tanks with large filters and large protein skimmers!

  • Its not just one tank either! You will probably have to set up another tank with necessary equipment for keeping their food alive too.

  • Live food is a necessity, especially when they are young. Even when large it should make up the bulk of their diet.

  • They need space to swim and move about. A lot of their time is spent hovering at the front glass watching you; typical reef tanks are not suitable.

  • They are not a tropical species; tropical temperatures make them more skittish and can greatly decrease life expectancy.

  • If they get a fright and jet off backwards into a rock or the side of an aquarium they will damage themselves! It's called 'butt burn' and basically involves the cuttlebone being exposed right through their back end! Nasty! Lots of space and no sudden frights will prevent this.

  • If they get a fright and ink; a large individual will eject so much ink that you cant see one inch into the tank, hence the large skimmer is needed with plenty carbon.

  • They eat a lot of food. An individual that is half grown will eat two 5cm (2") wide crabs per day and more on top of that. 12mm long babies can and will eat up to five 12mm (1/2") long shrimps each day. This also necessitates the big filters, skimmers and suitable clean up crew.

  • It can be very expensive to source and provide a suitable diet. They eat a lot of shrimps and crabs. Fresh is preferred over frozen and live fish (goldfish) is not a suitable substitute.

  • If you keep several together you'll obviously need an even bigger tank. They will fight over food and occasionally spook each other; it is quite common to see bite marks and two cuttlefish normally end a minor dispute by spraying ink everywhere! (Note this can also include the wall behind your tank!!!)

  • Baby S. officinalis will not accept dead food until they are about 5 - 7.5cm long (2-3")

  • Just like an octopus, don't try and keep a cuttlefish with fish, shrimps or other similar animals. Some animals you can include in a cuttlefish tank are hermits, brittlestars and possibly some polyps.

  • Cannibalism can be a possibility. Don't feed squid if you are keeping several together as cuttlefish seems to taste like squid to another cuttlefish! It can encourage them to 'taste' each other. Often with disastrous consequences.

  • They can spit water out the top of their tank by using their siphon. Worth considering where you keep all your associated electrical equipment.

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    Captive bred
    Cuttlefish were once like the Holy Grail in the USA. Made worse by the fact that the NRCC keeps and breeds them in Texas? However, THEY ONLY SUPPLY CUTTLEFISH TO UNIVERSITIES AND SCIENTISTS. My advice is to not even bother asking them for cuttlefish. They are very strict about supply and TONMO.com can't support anyone trying to get them via erroneous claims of being affiliated with universities etc...

    Since this article was originally written there have been some great advances with CB cuttlefish. In 2005 there were several captive breeding cases of Sepia bandensis both in the USA and in the UK. There were even fresh imports of wild collected eggs, which travel so much better than hatched young one.

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    Have a look at some of the back posts on the TONMO.com Cuttlefish Care forum and have a look at this article by TONMO.com member Richard Ross entitled, 'Keeping and Breeding the dwarf cuttlefish Sepia bandensis'.

    So, it can be done and should be encouraged at all times. Bring on the next wave of cuttlefish keepers and breeders!

    On occasion Metasepia pfefferi has been imported into the USA. The record price I have seen was $200 dollars. Just like some of the original S. bandensis the cuttlefish have been about to die of old age! Avoid buying these and discourage exporters and catchers from pursuing them. Perhaps by the next time the article is updated we can discuss Metasepia eggs and breeding?

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    In closing, Sepia bandensis are an ideal species of cuttlefish for captive husbandry. They don't grow as large as other species with a total length of about 10cm (4") and they also seem quite willing participants as a breeding project, even for beginners. They can be kept in aquariums similar to reef tanks and are a great introduction to cephalopod keeping.

    Sepia officinalis is a much larger beast, expensive to cater for but worth it if cash isn't an issue!

    Cuttlefish need to have a lot of consideration regarding their diet. It can get expensive feeding them and if you can't supply the correct food in the right volume then they might not be for you.

    If you would like to ask any questions about the information here, please feel free to post on the forums.

    Picture credits-

    Joel Ang
    Mike Irving
    Colin Dunlop

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  • Published:
    Dec 28, 2013
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