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Cuttlefish Husbandry: Part II - Where can I get a cuttlefish?

<< Cephalopod Articles | Photographs and text by Dr. James B. Wood

I never said getting a cuttlefish would be easy. . .

Part one of this four part article described the relationship between cuttlefish and life, the universe, and everything. Briefly, cuttlefish are related to octopuses and squid and distantly related to clams, snails, oysters, nudibranchs and other mollusks. Cuttlefish are intelligent and make fascinating pets for advanced aquarists. This instalment covers methods of cuttlefish acquisition.

There are several ways to acquire a pet cephalopod; pick one out at your local pet store, order one from a marine supplier, order one from a scientific cephalopod breeding program, trade a six pack for one with friendly local fishermen or go out and catch your own.

If there is a good marine store near you that has cuttlefish for sale or is willing to order them, that is by far the easiest way to acquire a pet cephalopod. Picking one up at a local pet store is almost always the least expensive of the first three options as you don't have to directly pay for shipping (pet stores get things shipped in bulk and pay less), may not have to buy the animal if it arrives in bad condition, or worry about your cuttlefish slowly cooking/freezing on a tarmac at some airport. The only drawback, and one that is minimal to most people, is that you may not be able to find out where your new pet is from or what species he/she is supposed to be. Some pet stores will not be willing to order a cuttlefish because of the risk of inking in transit.

The next two possible sources involve (shudder) shipping, something that I recommend avoiding if possible. Cephalopods don't ship well, especially if those who send them don't know what they are doing. If they get startled, say when their box is thrown onto a truck, drop kicked off the airline's loading cart, punted across the tarmac, etc. they may ink. The ink will coat their gills and make it hard for them to breath. Cephalopods need a lot of oxygen and this also puts a limit on how long they can stay alive in transit. I would strongly advise that you get the way bill number when your animals are on their way and harass the shipping company incessantly until your animals have arrived. Also, don't cut corners and go with unreliable shipping companies. I prefer FedEx because they haven't failed me yet and since they have a web page that can easily be used to track their packages. Much better than some companies that put you on hold for 45 minutes or longer while forcing you to listen to them tell you how wonderful they are over and over again as your cuttlefish spend their 7th day in a small box somewhere in North America. It would also be a good idea to tell the supplier that you wouldn't mind paying a little more for a larger size shipping box so that your cephalopod will get a bit more room and oxygen. Finally, smaller species or juveniles are easier to ship then larger specimens for the simple reason that it is easier to provide a higher ratio or water and oxygen per weight of animal. Surprisingly, eggs are remarkably tough and ship very well. Cuttlefish eggs don't need to be artificially brooded upon arrival like octopus eggs. However, if you have eggs shipped to you, make sure that they are not due to hatch soon as the stress will likely make them hatch prematurely in transit. A draw back to this method is that when the eggs hatch, the hatchlings are not as easy to care for as older specimens—see the section on rearing hatchling cephalopods.

There are a growing number of mail order companies that will ship live animals including cephalopods. If you are unable to buy a cephalopod locally and are unable to collect your own, this is the way to go. I have created a list of companies here that I know about (UPDATE: SINCE THIS ARTICLE CAME OUT IT HAS BECOME EVEN HARDER TO OBTAIN A CUTTLEFISH). Like most marine creatures, these animals are wild caught. However, the National Resource Center for Cephalopods (NRCC) (addresses at the end of this article) offer their excess laboratory reared cephalopods for sale to the public (UPDATE: NOT CURRENTLY!). There are several advantages from ordering from such places. First of all, you can be sure of the species that you are getting. Secondly, they will likely be able to give you an approximate age of your new pet(s) - this can be very useful down the road if you are trying to figure out if your cuttlefish isn't well due to something in its environment or is simply at the end of its natural life span. Also, the folks at NRCC have been shipping cephalopods for years so you can be sure that they will do it right. Finally, these animals come from lab reared populations and were not taken from the wild. The folks at NRCC may or may not have excess animals at any given moment so you may have to wait or look elsewhere if their stocks are low. Another possible drawback if you want to breed your cephalopods is that eggs from laboratory raised cephalopods seem to have a fertility rate of 10% of so. Scientists are not sure what causes this though it doesn't seem to be diet or environment as young animals taken from the wild and reared in the same system lay eggs that are 100% fertile. John Forsythe, a scientist at NRCC, hypothesized that the loss of fertility could be due to something like the animals not getting a symbiotic bacteria in the lab. An interesting hypothesis; wild Euprymna scolopes is known to get an infection with its symbiont, a bioluminescent Vibrio bacteria, when young.

Another way to get a cephalopod, and my favorite option, is to collect your own. Collecting a cephalopod can be both fun, educational and challenging. Before you head to the great outdoors, be sure to check the local fishing regulations for your area. A fishing licence is almost always needed and in some areas cephalopods can not be collected. Divers (especially those that dive at night), fishermen, and professors of invertebrate biology are likely to know if cephalopods are in your area. Some species are nocturnal and/or are active at dawn and dusk so you may have to be up in the wee hours to find them. Some species, like E. scolopes, can be collected in very shallow water while other species are easier to collect while snorkeling or diving. I typically use a dive net, the kind that has clear plastic sides around an aluminum frame and screening at the bottom. I also use a tickle stick. My partner's job is to keep a light on the critter and try not to drown herself by inhaling water while laughing at my efforts.... Unfortunately, there aren't any 'true' cuttlefish (those with a cuttlebone) like Sepia spp. off of North America. There are some close relatives like E. scolopes and Rossia spp. though.

Once you have captured your critter, place him in a cooler. If you are going to be near the ocean for a while, do some water changes, especially if your cephalopod inks. If your trip home is going to be more than a few hours long and you have room, take some extra containers full of sea water in case your ceph inks on the way. Running a portable air pump will help keep the oxygen levels up. Also, try to keep your cephalopod out of the sun - cooler water holds more oxygen plus your ceph will need less oxygen at lower temperatures. Products that scavenge ammonia and balance pH, such as Stress Coat, can be used to help keep the water quality stable. If you have to keep your cephalopod in a sealed container for more than 6 or so hours use oxygen.

Sometimes live cephalopods can be bought from fishermen, shrimpers or (sniff) fish mongers for very reasonable prices. While the price may be very good the animals condition may range from excellent to very poor.

Now you know what cuttlefish are, why every serious marine aquarist should have at least one, and how to purchase them. What? You want to know what size tank to use, what to feed a cuttlefish, which tankmates are safe, what type of filtration and lighting is needed, etc. Well, you will just have to wait till next month's issue.

Part III - How do I keep a cuttlefish?


Boyle P.R. (ed) 1987 Cephalopod life cycles, vol 2. Academic Press, London.
DeRush R.H., Forsythe J.W., DiMarco, F.P. and Hanlon R.T. 1989 Alternative diets for maintaining and rearing cephalopods in captivity. Laboratory animal science. 39(4): 306-312.
Hanlon, R.T., Claes M.F., Ashcraft S.E., and Dunlap P.V. 1997 Laboratory culture of the sepiolid squid Euprymna scolopes: A model system for bacteria-animal symbiosis. Biol. Bull. 192: 364-374.
O'Dor R.K. and Webber D.M. 1986 The constraints on cephalopods; why squid aren't fish. Vie Milieu 35: 267-271.
Wood, J.B. 1994 Don't fear the raptor; an octopus in the home aquarium. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium Magazine. 17(4).

Articles Reference

Wood, J. B. 1998 Cuttlefish Husbandry. Part II - Where can I get a cuttlefish? Freshwater and Marine Aquarium Magazine. vol 21, no 8. Reprinted in: The Cephalopod Page. Wood, J. B. Ed.

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The Cephalopod Page (TCP), © Copyright 1995-2018, was created and is maintained by Dr. James B. Wood, Associate Director of the Waikiki Aquarium which is part of the University of Hawaii. Please see the FAQs page for cephalopod questions, Marine Invertebrates of Bermuda for information on other invertebrates, and and the Census of Marine Life for general information on marine biology.