Dear Undersea:

Pete Giwojna

Dear Undersea:

It’s very difficult to say why the mating attempts that you have witnessed have yet to result in a pregnancy but I would be happy to share my thoughts on the matter with you.

Sometimes when seahorses go through all the motions of courtship and a male and female swim up from the bottom together for the copulatory rise, no eggs are transferred from the female to the male’s brood pouch. Of course, unless the eggs are transferred successfully, they cannot be fertilized and implanted within the male’s marsupium, and no offspring will result. So that’s one possibility, Undersea-your ponies may be going through the motions of courtship, but may not actually be exchanging the brood of eggs for one reason or another…

But judging from your post, Undersea, it sounds like you believe you have witnessed the mated pair of seahorses go through all of the motions of courtship and breeding, rise together, and successfully complete the exchange of eggs on two separate occasions, yet no pregnancy has resulted.

In other words, it appears as if your male and female were able to complete their courtship and successfully transfer the eggs during the copulatory rise, but that your stallion was unable to complete the gestation for reasons unknown.

My best guess is that you’re gravid male was stressed during his gestation, causing his pregnancy to fail. And, of course, stress is always a concern because it weakens the immune system of the seahorse, making it susceptible to disease, and that may also account for the subsequent demise of your stallion, Undersea.

With that being the case, your job is now to try to identify the source of the stress so you can eliminated or corrected in order to assure that none of the surviving seahorses will be affected.

In order to determine what may be happening with the pregnant male you lost, Undersea, let’s review how the implantation of the eggs and gestation ordinarily takes place during a normal pregnancy, and then go over some of the factors that can influence gestation and disrupt the pregnancy.

As you know, male seahorses nourish the developing young in a special brood pouch. Often called the marsupium, this remarkable organ is much more than a simple sack or protective pocket or a mere incubator for the eggs. Think of it as an external womb, which undergoes placenta-like changes throughout the pregnancy in order to meet the needs of the fetal fry. Its internal architecture is surprisingly complex. In fact, the male must begin preparing his pouch to receive his next brood long before gestation begins (Vincent, 1990). The elaboration of the internal pouch anatomy that is necessary to support the developing young is triggered by the male hormone testosterone. The development of these structures is thus under testicular control and takes place primarily in the offseason when the seahorse is not breeding (Vincent, 1990). The four layers of tissue that comprise the pouch undergo increased vascularization at this time (Vincent, 1990) and a longitudinal wall of tissue or septum grows up the middle of the pouch, separating it into left and right halves. This increases the surface area in which fertilized eggs can implant, and enriches the blood supply to the lining of the pouch in which they will imbed. Just before mating occurs, this is enhanced by a surge in the active proliferation of the epithelial tissue that forms the innermost layer of the pouch (Vincent, 1990).

These placenta-like changes accelerate after the actual mating and transfer of the eggs take place. The male releases his sperm as the eggs are deposited. The moment the last egg is nestled safely inside, the male’s pouch deflates, compressing the eggs against the pouch lining in order to facilitate implantation. The male then perches and attempts to settle the eggs properly in his pouch, often undergoing a series of agitated contortions, swaying, twitching, or wagging his tail from side to side, and perhaps stretching as though trying to rearrange the eggs more comfortably (Vincent, 1990). He is dispersing the eggs uniformly throughout his pouch, giving each one the best chance to be fertilized and implant in the septum or wall of the marsupium. The fertile eggs implant in the wall or septum of the pouch, triggering a spongelike expansion of its tissues as the capillaries and blood vessels swell and multiply. Epithelial and connective tissue proliferate around the embedded eggs, enveloping each ovum within a tiny chamber or alveolus of its own (Vincent, 1990). Eventually 7/8 of every embryonic sac is embedded in the spongy tissue lining the pouch (Vincent, 1990). Each compartment or alveolus opens into the central cavity of the pouch. About 1/8 of each embryo remains exposed, protruding through this opening, and is immersed in a special placental fluid within the pouch (Vincent, 1990).

In this way, the brood pouch is prepared to maintain the pregnancy by carrying out the following vital functions:

Protection. The brood pouch protects the young in a number of ways. It shields them from harmful ultraviolet radiation, which can destroy unprotected eggs and larvae (Vincent, 1990). It shelters the eggs and fetal fry from predators, and protects them from siltation and suffocating algae (Vincent, 1990).
Aeration. A dense network of capillaries forms in the connective tissue that surrounds each of the embedded eggs, delivering oxygen to the fetal fry through the membrane of the embryonic sac (Vincent, 1990) and carrying away their metabolic wastes in the same manner.
Control of osmotic pressure. The sealed pouch creates a watertight environment for the developing young and, over the course of the gestation, the male adjusts the osmotic pressure from that of his bodily fluids to that of seawater (Vincent, 1990). The young are thus gradually acclimated to full-strength saltwater over the course of the pregnancy, so the newborns will be right at home when they are expelled from the pouch. This is crucial for the survival of the delicate fry, since sudden changes in osmotic pressure are known to cause stunting, breathing abnormalities, and physical deformities in teleost fish larvae (Vincent, 1990).
Nourishment. A portion of each embryonic sac is bathed within a nourishing placental fluid containing calcium and other inorganic ions contributed by the male (Vincent, 1990). The placental fluid also contains organic ions derived from the female via the yolk. The male secretes enzymes that dissolve away the outer covering of the eggs known as the chorion shortly after incubation begins (any infertile eggs that fail to implant are normally resorbed in the same manner), and the organic ions thus contributed by the female diffuse across the exposed membrane of the embryonic sac into the pouch fluid (Vincent, 1990). There the inorganic ions are transformed into amino acids by a special enzyme (protease) secreted by the pouch epithelium (Vincent, 1990). These amino acids eventually become proteins incorporated within the embryos (Vincent, 1990). The calcium provided by the male is similarly taken up by the embryos and infused into their skeletons (Vincent, 1990).

In short, the brood pouch enfolds, protects, aerates, osmoregulates, and nourishes the developing embryos as the male undergoes a true pregnancy (Vincent, 1990). After the fertilized eggs implant in the walls of the marsupium, the normally soft, flaccid pouch firms up and often darkens in coloration due to the placentalike changes taking place within. And as the embryonic young and fetal fry grow and develop, the pouch typically becomes increasingly distended as the pregnancy progresses, especially when the stallion is carrying a large brood of young.

Okay, Undersea, that’s what should take place during a normal pregnancy. It appears that, in your case, the eggs are transferred properly to the male but then fail to develop properly, so let’s examine some of the many factors that can affect gestation and cause a pregnancy to fail.

To begin with the basics, gestation in seahorses is largely determined by water temperature, is controlled by the levels of key hormones, and can be influenced to a lesser degree by diet and nutrition.

In general, the warmer the water the shorter the gestation period, and vice versa. Relatively cool water temperatures are generally desirable during pregnancy, since they prolong the incubation period and the newborns are larger and better developed when they are subsequently born.

Aside from water temperature, gestation may vary due to hormonal influences as well. For example, in seahorses, a hormone known as fish isotocin, which is the equivalent of oxytocin in mammals, triggers parturition or giving birth. Thus anything that stimulates excess secretion of isotocin can result in premature births, whereas anything which decreases or delays the secretion of isotocin can postpone delivery and prolong a pregnancy abnormally.

In a similar manner, disruption of other hormones can cause a male to spontaneously abort a pregnancy or to actually resorb the eggs. The placenta-like changes that take place in the brood pouch, the development of the embryonic young, and the pregnancy itself are all controlled by various hormones — testosterone, adrenal corticoids, prolactin, and isotocin — so basically anything that influences the secretion of those key hormones can have a profound effect on the pregnancy

Some of the factors that influence these hormonal responses are the presence of the female, low oxygen levels, diet and, of course, stress. The presence of the female most definitely influences the gestation and brood success of her mate. Numerous studies indicate that the presence of female fishes visually or hormonally stimulates male sexual activity such as courtship, nest building, and the development of androgen-dependent sexual characteristics (Vincent, 1990). Research has also shown conclusively that male seahorses which have been with the same female for more than one mating cycle are markedly more successful in brooding young (Vincent, 1990). It is believed that one of the reasons for this is that the presence of their mate stimulates the secretion of the corticoids (steroid hormones produced by the adrenal cortex) and prolactin that control the pouch environment and maintain the incubation (Vincent, 1990). The male is thought to further expand his pouch and develop the placenta-like internal structures to a greater degree as a result (Giwojna, Feb. 2002). More of the eggs can then be successfully implanted and carried to full term (Giwojna, Feb. 2002). Separating a gravid male from his mate can therefore have a negative impact on his pregnancy and should be strictly avoided.

Low oxygen levels during pregnancy can likewise be disastrous. They result in respiratory distress for the gravid male, putting the embryonic young at risk, as well as directly altering the hormones we have been discussing, which can further disrupt the pregnancy.

Poor water quality — especially ammonia and/or nitrite spikes — are one of the most common aquarium stressors that can disrupt hormones and interrupt a pregnancy. Stress hormones such as cortisol will be released in response to such stressors, at the expense of other adrenal hormones, which can have a negative impact on the pregnancy and the developing fry.

Heat stress is doubly bad news for gravid males. Not only can abnormally warm temperatures disrupt the secretion of these key hormones and shut down breeding, they can also directly denature long chain polymers and macromolecules (e.g., proteins, enzymes and hormones) by altering certain bonds and changing the three-dimensional shape of the molecule on the atomic level. And, of course, water temperature also directly affects the metabolism of the seahorse and therefore its gestation period. Up to a certain point, increasing water temperatures will shorten the normal gestation period, just as decreasing water temperature will prolong or extend gestation.

Past a certain point, however, when the increasing temperatures exceed the comfort range for the seahorses, elevated temperatures will bring reproduction to an abrupt halt. For example, the Mexican population of H. ingens begins breeding in late September when the water temperatures decreases below 81°F (27°C), and keep breeding until late May when the water temperatures increase above 80°F again (Eliezer Zúñiga, pers. comm.).

An inadequate diet can also be detrimental to a gravid male for obvious reasons. Maintaining a large brood of developing young can be a big drain on the male’s bodily resources, and a nutritious diet rich in HUFA and essential fatty acids is necessary at this time to help the male keep up his strength. That is why male seahorses have an intestinal tract that’s 50% longer than that of females (Tamaru, Aug. 2001). They need the extra food absorption ability and digestion a longer intestine provides in order to sustain the metabolic demands of up to 1600 rapidly growing fry.

So the actions of the aquarist and the aquarium conditions can have a big effect on how well a pregnancy progresses, and whether or not the fetal fry develop normally and are brought to full term, or are aborted, delivered prematurely, or resorbed as embryos. In short, Undersea, it’s important to handle your gravid male with care during his pregnancy, to keep him and his mate together, and to provide him with a nutritious diet, optimal water quality, and a stress-free environment at all times.

And that’s why I always advise home hobbyists NOT to transfer a pregnant seahorse to a nursery tank in order to give birth, as discussed below.

Whether to allow the pregnant male to give birth in the main tank and then to transfer the fry to the waiting nursery, or to transfer the expectant father to the nursery tank ahead of time so he can delivery his brood there is a very important decision. There are two schools of thought on this issue. Some hobbyists feel it’s best to use the nursery tank as a paternity ward, since the delicate newborns never need to be handled if the male gives birth directly in the nursery. Other breeders feel it’s better to disturb the pregnant male as little as possible and prefer to have him deliver his brood right where he is, in the familiar surroundings in which he’s most comfortable.

That’s a no-brainer, Undersea. In my opinion, it’s ALWAYS better to assure the well-being of the male and safeguard your broodstock. A pair-bonded couple will soon establish a regular breeding cycle in the aquarium, producing a new brood every two, four, or six weeks. (The gestation period varies with the species and is often correlated with the lunar cycle so that the fry are delivered during the highest tides, which helps disperse the young; Vincent, 1990.) A healthy pair-bonded male will deliver a new brood of young every month or so during the breeding season, producing countless offspring over the course of its life. But if you lose a breeding male, you lose all of his future progeny with him, as well as the superior genetic traits he carries. It is folly to jeopardize the health of a pregnant male for the sake of the brood he is carrying at the moment.

Handling a gravid male, especially when the pregnancy is well advanced, should be avoided at all costs. At best, it will be stressful for the male to be captured, separated from its mate, and transferred to a strange new environment (Giwojna and Cozzi-Schmarr, Feb. 2002). At worst, rough handling and stress can trigger premature delivery or cause the pregnancy to be aborted altogether, adversely affecting the health of the male and his brood (Giwojna and Cozzi-Schmarr, Feb. 2002). Stressing a pregnant seahorse has many detrimental effects, including decreased appetite, adverse hormonal changes, impairing the immune response and lowering disease resistance.

Separating the expectant father from his mate at this crucial time can also prevent him from re-mating with his chosen partner and may even break up a pair-bonded couple (Giwojna and Cozzi-Schmarr, Feb. 2002). Throughout his pregnancy, the male maintains daily greeting rituals with his mate that serve to strengthen and reinforce their pair bonds and keep them physiologically attuned to one another. When the male gives birth, his mate is normally waiting nearby, ready to hydrate her clutch and rise for the exchange of eggs as soon as he has recovered. Many times they will resume their mating dance and re-mate moments after the male delivers his latest brood.

Isolating the male from his partner during the pregnancy effectively puts an end to all of that. They are preventing from conducting morning greetings, their carefully orchestrated breeding cycle may be disrupted as their hormonally regulated reproductive synchrony is lost, and the pair bond is weakened accordingly (Giwojna and Cozzi-Schmarr, Feb. 2002). Their bonding may even be broken as a result. That’s not what a successful home breeder should strive for!

If you are concerned about the filtration in your main tank “eating” the newborns, modifying your filter to prevent this is a much better alternative than transferring the male to a paternity ward (Giwojna, Feb. 2002). Just screen off the intakes or cover them with sponge prefilters. Or you can simply switch off the skimmer and any supplemental powerhead(s) when his due date arrives and delivery is imminent. (Just don’t shut down your primary biofilter!) That way, the male can remain with his partner through the pregnancy and deliver his brood in a stress-free environment.

Here are Carol’s thoughts on the matter:

“As Pete mentioned, probably the most stressful thing one could do to a pregnant (gravid) male that is close to giving birth would be to “handle” him by moving the male from his normal environment (home!!) to a new and unfamiliar environment like a different holding tank. (hotel room!!). This unnecessary “transfer” and ” handling” will force him to adapt to a strange environment causing a general increase in his stress level causing many possible negative outcomes such as decrease in appetite, lowering of the immune system causing opportunistic pathogens currently present in the aquarium but not at high levels to take a hold on the sea horse causing health problems, and sadly may prevent him from re mating with his mate.

You see, the male will continue his bonding rituals (such as Pete has described) with his mate during the birthing process and immediately after giving birth. The pair will begin the treasured mating dance that will hopefully result in a successful egg transfer from the female to the male often within hours after giving birth!! Remember that with many sea horse types the older the male the larger the size of his pouch and therefore the greater the number of sea horse babies in the pouch!! For example, a 5 year old adult H.reidi male may give birth to as many as 2000 babies with each spawn!!!! A young 6 month old juvenile male may only give birth to 10 or 20 babies!!! It is also more likely that the older male has been mating with the same female all is life!! Imagine the stress of not being with his ” beloved” during this time!

This unnecessary “handling” or “transfer” is, of course, extremely hard on wild caught males and may cause his death immediately after giving birth. One should avoid purchasing wild caught pregnant males at all costs. It is easy to feel sorry for him in the pet store, but his purchase only encourages the collectors to take additional pregnant males the next time causing further devastation to the already highly threatened wild sea horse populations.

Certainly this “handling” or “transfer” stress is greatly reduced with the farm raised pregnant males but the general concept still applies. If you purchase a farm raised pregnant male you should not expect a male that is almost ready to give birth but one that is within 2 weeks of giving birth. The normal gestation period averages at 30 days depending mostly on species and environmental parameters such as temperature and diet.

If these conditions are not optimum and the general stress level of the male is too high, the male will simply re-absorb the eggs or abort them. You will sadly think that he was never pregnant

If, however, you are able to keep these parameters optimum, you will have a much greater chance of being successful with your pregnant male so that you can enjoy this amazing phenomena of the pregnant male sea horse!! With a little more patience you will surely be rewarded with the great performance of the sea horse mating dance followed by the most precious site of all……the fat bellied pregnant male sea horse!!!”

Aloha, Carol Cozzi-Schmar

In short, I am thinking that something stressed out your gravid male, causing his pregnancy to fail, and ultimately costing him his life, Undersea, but there’s no way for me to know what that stressor may have been, and that’s something you will need to try to figure out and correct for the safety and well-being of your remaining ponies.

Pete Giwojna, Ocean Rider Tech Support

America's Only Seahorse Aqua-Farm and One of Hawaii's Most Popular Attractions

Ocean Rider seahorse farm is a consistent Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence Award Winner and "Top 10 Things To Do" Kona, Hawaii attraction. Our "Magical Seahorse Tours" are educational and fun for the whole family.

Tour tickets are available for Purchase On-Line. Space is limited and subject to availability.

small seahorse Ocean Rider, Inc. is an Organic Hawaiian-Based Seahorse Aqua-Farm & Aquarium that Follows Strict Good Farming Practices in Raising Seahorses and Other Aquatic Life.

Seahorse Hawaii Foundation

Inspiring ocean awareness by saving the endangered seahorse and sea dragons around the world from extinction through conservation, research, propagation, and education.

Help us save the seahorse and the coral reefs they live in with a tax deductible contribution to the Seahorse Hawaii Foundation. You will be helping to protect and propagate over 25 species of endangered seahorses, sea dragons and friends.

Make A Tax-Deductible Donation Today!

A Different Kind of Farm (Video) »

Ocean Rider Kona Hawaii

Ocean Rider Kona Hawaii
Seahorse Aqua-Farm & Tours

73-4388 Ilikai Place

Kailua Kona, Hawaii 96740

Map & Directions


Contact Ocean Rider

Copyright ©1999-2023
All Rights Reserved | Ocean Rider Inc.

My Online Order Details

Purchase Policy

Site Terms and Conditions