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Marine Head and Lateral Line Disease

The following excerpt has been taken from the Reef Notes series of books featuring questions answered by Julian Sprung and have been printed here with his full permission. Please check back frequently as we will be adding different topics on a regular basis. All previously printed topic will be held in an archive link.

Topic: Head and Lateral Line Disease
Q: Any advice you have regarding prevention or reversal of erosion (lateral line disease) would be greatly appreciated.

A: I'm sure I won't have to tell you to listen up folks, because it seems the mere mention of lateral line erosion commands everyone to a hushed attention. Let me start off by telling you a few things. It is not my intention here to give you a difinitive answer and, as you will soon understand, there is none. I also do not intend to discourage you either, for there is hope for your plight, as you should see in the variety of perspectives concerning this ailment which I will present. I know that I generate more questions here than answers, but I hope that this is what is needed to inspire a serious attempt at understanding the many aspects of head and lateral line erosion. After all, this is the topic that got me into this magazine (see FAMA December 1982 Disease prevention and control, and April 1983 editorial).

The study of lateral line erosion presently consists of a little bit of science and a whole lot of speculation based on anecdotal observation. Furthermore, while we ascribe to one conceptual ailment the syptoms of pigment and tissue los in the face and lateral line, it is clear that there are several distinct ailments which effect different fish, and even the same fish; likewise these have distinct causes. Blasiola (FAMA May 1990) covered that aspect quite well and offered some suggestions for dietary improvement, with particular emphasis on vitamin c. He also described a supposedly irreversible condition, a kind of tumor, which affects the nerves in the face of certain fish. Remember always that the symptoms of head and lateral line erosion in your fish could be the result of many different factors, and could actually be several different ailments, some of which I will briefly discuss now.

I am aware of at least three qualified pathologists who claim to have found an organism associated with the condition in certain fishes. This is most encouraging since it offers the possibility of a theraputic cure in come instances. Two of these prople are apparently preparing papers on their findings, so we will soon have more practical advice on this subject. Personally, I am curious about the slowly progressing, smooth-edged form of fin rot which often accompanies the head and lateral line erosion, especially since I have often (I didn't say always folks) witnessed such erosion beginning on the fins before spreading to the face and lateral line. I feel that this suggests the involvement of an organism.

Diet often plays a role in the onset of this condition, and sometimes it may be the key factor which can be modified to effect a cure. Many of the fish most commonly afflicted with the condition are herbinorous, or have diets with substantial intake of plants... this may not be so obvious as in the case of, say, the butterflyfishes, which eat corals as a substantial part of their diet. As they consume the coral animal, so too do they consume the symbiotic Zooxanthellae algae. Many hobbyists have observed spontaneous cures of symptoms shortly after there is a lot of algae to graze on, or shortly after the inclusion of more algae in the diet via frozen or fresh foods. Still, this does not work a miraculous cure everytime, and not all afflicted fish are herbivores. Which leaves the aquarist baffled and doubting the word of those who emphasize the dietary link to this problem. A dietary link for carnivorous fishies could include vitamin deficiency or a special requirement for certain amino acids only contained in live foods.

Trace Elements
If dietary improvement alone can lead to spontaneous cure in some cases, a question arises concerning the exact property of the algae which effects a cure. Perhaps the algae provide a natural form of antibiotic which helps the fish fight an organism causing these syptoms, perhaps it is just vitamins, as suggested by Blasiola... or perhaps the algae contains one or more essential elements, or compounds that are otherwise lacking in the aquarium and fish's diet.

Certainly more can be said about head and lateral line erosion too, bt I leave it up to you all to keep on trying and let me know of your successes and failures... good luck!