Basically, you just need to provide them with optimum water quality, a highly nutritious diet with proper enrichment, and a stress-free environment, and then let nature take its course. Make sure they have enough hitching posts and shelter to provide them with a sense of privacy, yet adequate space and swimming room to perform their courtship displays, conduct their mating dance, and carry out the copulatory rise and transfer of the eggs.
A great many factors influence courtship and breeding in the aquarium, ranging from hours of daylight or photoperiod to water depth to diet and nutrition. Breeding may be inhibited in shallow tanks or by ambient noise and vibrations, disruptive tankmates, stress, poor water quality, or even inappropriate aquarium decor. Some of these factors are discussed in more detail below:
Surprisingly, it isn’t falling water temperatures alone that determine the breeding season for many seahorses in the wild but rather decreasing temps combined with the decreasing hours of daylight that control their reproductive activity. Dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus zosterae) are a perfect example of this, breeding best when the days are longer than 12 hours (Strawn 1953; Strawn 1954; Strawn 1958). They stop breeding altogether when the period between sunrise and sunset is less than 11 hours (Strawn 1953, 1954, and 1958). So you may have literally been turning off your seahorse’s breeding instincts with the flick of a switch if you are in the habit of switching off your aquarium reflector after 8-10 hours each day! Keep your aquarium lighted for 12 hours a day and your breeding problems may be a thing of the past.
To understand why the photoperiod is so important, we must first understand how the light-dark cycle regulates the levels of key hormones that control breeding. Gonadotropin (GtH) is a hormone that stimulates the growth and activity of the gonads and thus controls reproductive activity in vertebrates. It is secreted by the pituitary gland and stimulates the growth and function of the ovaries and testes. The levels of gonadotropin in the body are in turn regulated by melatonin, a hormone secreted by the light-sensitive pineal gland in response to darkness. Among a great many other functions, melatonin switches on a recently discovered enzyme known as gonadotropin inhibitory hormone, thus reducing the levels of gonadotropin in the body and shutting down reproduction (Sanders, 2005).
In other words, when the days are shortest and there is less sunlight, melatonin secretion is high and the levels of gonadotropin are reduced accordingly, causing the gonads to shrink and turning off reproduction. Likewise, when the days are longest and there is more sunlight, melatonin secretion is low and the levels of gonadotropin are high, stimulating the gonads and triggering reproductive activity (Sanders, 2005).
For best results, I recommend going beyond simply lighting your aquarium for 12+ hours every day. The best option is to provide your seahorses with a natural photoperiod that changes will the seasons (Indiviglio, 2002) and includes twilight periods at "sunrise" and "sunset." The simplest way to achieve this is to use power compact (PC) light fixtures. Choose a dual ballast fixture that includes two bulbs — one actinic tube and one daylight fluorescent tube – each controlled separately by its own ballast (Jennifer Myerscough, pers. com.). Each ballast can be placed on a separate automatic timer, making them perfect for this application. Adjust the timers so the bluish actinic tube comes on before the daylight tube and stays on after the daylights go off, thereby providing your seahorses with a simulated dusk and dawn (Jennifer Myerscough, pers. com.). You can also adjust the timers to lengthen or shorten the daylight periods in accordance with the changing seasons, which will help the seahorses maintain a natural reproductive cycle (Indiviglio, 2002). Since courtship is conducted primarily in the twilight hours just after dawn, a photoperiod of 2 hours half-light (actinic only)/12 hours full light (actinics + daylights)/2 hours half-light (actinic only)/8 hours darkness is highly recommended. If you cannot afford PC lighting, the half-light periods can be easily arranged by positioning a room lamp a short distance away from the tank instead, which comes on before and remains on after the aquarium reflector does.
Some breeding projects are doomed to failure from the moment the aquarist picks out the aquarium for his seahorses (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). This can happen when a hobbyist selects a tank that is simply too shallow for the type of ‘horses he wants to raise (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). Seahorses are vertically oriented, and their upright swimming style is best suited to tall aquaria. More importantly, they rise vertically through the water column in order to mate, and if the aquarium is too shallow, they may be physically unable to copulate and transfer the female’s eggs into the male’s pouch for fertilization (Vincent. 1995b). This is an important consideration when breeding the largest species such as Hippocampus ingens, H. abdominalis, H. erectus and H. reidi. For instance, Australian breeders report that reducing the water level to below 500cm or about 20 inches deep can completely interrupt reproduction in Potbelly seahorses (H. abdominalis; Michael Dickson, pers. com.).
As a general rule of thumb, seahorses must have a minimum of 2-3 full body lengths of open water (top-to-bottom swimming space) above the substrate in order to mate comfortably (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). This will allow them to swim upwards for at least one full body length when they rise from the bottom and attempt to transfer the eggs. In other words, if you want to breed that prize 10-inch Potbelly seahorse of yours, you will need to provide him and his mate with a tank that is at least 20-inches tall; 24-30 inches of height would be safer (Giwojna, Jan. 1999).
When selecting a breeding tank, bear in mind that the ”two-to-three-body-lengths” rule applies to the depth of the water in the aquarium, not the height of the tank per se (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). If you keep the water level in the tank an inch from the top and have an inch of calcareous gravel or crushed coral on the bottom, a 12-inch tall aquarium only has 10 inches of vertical swimming space. With such a tank, the hobbyist would thus be restricted to one of the small or medium-sized species that attain an adult height of no more than 3 to 5 inches from the tip of their coronet to the tip of their tail. For example, a pair of 7-8 inch Hippocampus erectus may have difficulty mating in a tank that is only 16-inches high, since they need around 15 inches of vertical swimming space for the copulatory rise, and you must account for the air space at the top of the tank as well as the depth of the substrate (Giwojna, Jan. 1999).
The urge to breed is very strong in Hippocampus, however, and if kept in a shallow tank, pairs will do their best to improvise, adapt, and overcome such depth limitations. I have seen pairs whose copulatory "rise" was more horizontal than vertical, yet which managed to mate successfully. Typically, the shallower the tank, the more difficult coitus is to achieve and the more likely it becomes that eggs will be spilled during the transfer. Eventually this reaches the point where entire clutches are being lost, which is when most pairs cease trying and no longer attempt to breed (Giwojna, Jan. 1999).
Worse still, shallow tanks increase the danger that an overripe female may become egg bound. In a tank with inadequate water depth, a courting female that has hydrated her clutch may be unable to make the egg transfer, yet she will be reluctant to dump the eggs while a receptive male is still standing by eager to receive them. If she is overly optimistic and retains her clutch too long, hoping to pull off the tricky egg transfer despite the lack of depth, she may become egg bound. Her lower abdomen will become very swollen and prolapsed tissue may protrude through the vent as the pressure builds up. If she is unable to release the eggs at this point and relieve the pressure, death will result. An egg-bound female is thus a very serious complication of depth limitations (Leslie Leddo, pers. com.)
Seahorses are shy, secretive creatures that rely on camouflage as their sole means of protection. During courtship and breeding, however, they suddenly become quite conspicuous, exchanging their drab, cryptic coloration for bright courtship colors. The couple is at their most brilliant at the climax of courtship when they rise to mate.
Needless to say, the brightly colored seahorses are extremely vulnerable and entirely defenseless as the female transfers her eggs to the male’s pouch while hanging suspended in midwater, and they will not put themselves in this vulnerable condition if they feel threatened in any way (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). Unruly tankmates are one such threat. As always, aggressive or territorial fishes must be assiduously avoided. In a small tank, even the normal day-to-day activities of harmless, nonaggressive tankmates may be enough to inhibit courtship and mating if they are active fishes that are always on the move, constantly swimming back and forth (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). Certain wrasses and tangs or surgeonfish fall in this category.
Hippocampus relies on camouflage and remaining hidden for its very survival. Seahorses can thus become distressed and agitated if their tank is too barren to provide adequate cover (Vincent, 1995b). This is particularly true during courtship and mating when the increased activity level and heightened coloration make them highly conspicuous and vulnerable, and breeding may be severely inhibited under these conditions (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). As discussed in greater detail in the chapter on setting up an aquarium for seahorses, it’s important to keep their need for privacy in mind when aquascaping their tank. Be sure to provide enough shelter and sight barriers to allow them to completely conceal themselves from view should they want to be alone.
In order to accommodate them, I like to use an amphitheater-style arrangement when decorating my seahorse setups that provides plenty of cover at either end of the tank, while leaving the center of the aquarium relatively bare to act as a sort of ”dance floor” for the seahorses’ breeding ballet. On the other hand, a sparsely furnished, utilitarian design scheme, perhaps with nothing more than a few holdfasts and a bare bottom, is to be avoided (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). (Such sterile environments are commonplace when seahorses are being maintained under laboratory conditions.) A Spartan setup such as this facilitates feeding, water changes and maintenance, in general, but it can adversely affect the behavior of the inhabitants and prevent seahorses from breeding (Giwojna, Jan. 1999).
Ambient Noise — Shock and Mechanical Vibration:
Hippocampus has excellent hearing and the medium of water transmits sound wonderfully well — far better than air, in fact — so it’s not surprising that seahorses are acutely sensitive to ambient sound, external noises, and outside sources of shock and vibration. Certain frequencies can completely shut down breeding.
Excessive noise and vibration must be eliminated from the breeding tank no matter what the offending device may be — a clunky air pump or compressor, the buzzing ballast from an aquarium reflector, the rattling impeller from a noisy power filter or something totally unrelated to the aquarium, like a nearby clothes washer/dryer, dishwasher, stereo, television or some such appliance (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). The successful breeder must therefore choose the location for his seahorse tank with care. All potential sources of shock and vibration should be dampened. A cushioning pad placed beneath the tank will serve to deaden vibrations and soften any shocks that might otherwise be absorbed through the base of the aquarium (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). The aquarium pad should consist of a sheet of cork or Styrofoam at least 1/4-inch thick that extends slightly beyond the base of the aquarium on all sides (Giwojna, Jan. 1999).
Balky air compressors are best kept in another room while running a separate airline from there to the aquarium (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). Other damping measures include mounting noisy equipment such as air pumps on thick blocks of foam rubber. Try using a 4-6 inch block of foam with a shallow 1-2 inch deep cut out area that conforms to the contours of the device in question to hold it securely in place (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). Raise the aquarium reflector above the rim of the tank so that it is not in direct contact with the cover or the rim of the aquarium itself (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). The reflector can either be suspended over the tank or propped up on shims of cork, Styrofoam, or heavy cardboard. The idea, as far as possible, is to isolate the seahorse-breeding tank from outside noise and vibration (Giwojna, Jan. 1999).
Airstones and the like can cause buoyancy problems for courting males during their pouch displays, effectively preventing mating. Such setbacks can easily be avoided by shielding or guarding these devices so seahorses cannot come in contact with the air stream (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). Enclose the airstone and bubble stream within a length of large diameter plastic tubing that has been well perforated or screen it off behind a cylinder of plastic window screen (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). Easier yet and less unsightly, the airstone may simply be anchored just below the surface. That way, it can still provide surface agitation and promote efficient gas exchange, but there will be no room for an inquisitive seahorse to play in the bubbles.
As I noted in "Seahorse Breeding Secrets" (Giwojna, Jan. 1999), "That seemingly innocuous stream of bubbles rising lazily from your airstone or bubble wand has probably broken up more seahorse romances in the aquarium than hurricanes have in the wild. Airstones are widely used in seahorse setups to provide aeration and gentle circulation, but they can wreak havoc in the breeding tank. When courting, male seahorses perform a maneuver known as ”Pumping,” in which they inflate their brood pouches to the bursting point and alternately pump water in and out of the dilated opening with their tails anchored to a holdfast. Troubles arise when bubbles are drawn into the brood pouch during this process, causing buoyancy problems. This often happens when a courting male attaches itself to the airline tubing connected to an airstone and begins pumping in the stream of bubbles. For instance, Dr. Amanda Vincent found ”It’s a good idea to hide airstones. Seahorses are subject to many buoyancy problems that may result from or be exaggerated by sitting in airstone bubbles. This problem is especially prevalent around courtship periods and occurs if males dilate the pouch opening in air streams (Vincent, 1995b).”
Airstones are particularly troublesome because seahorses seem to relish basking in the stream of bubbles. They appear to enjoy the tactile stimulation they provide and actively seek them out for that purpose (Giwojna, Jan. 1999).
This is how Kirk Strawn describes the problem in an article called ”Keeping and Breeding the Dwarf Seahorse:"
”Unguarded airstones disrupted many courtships. A courting male pumps up his brood pouch with water until it appears ready to burst. When this action occurs in the stream of bubbles above an air stone, a bubble is likely to be sucked into the pouch producing a disastrous effect on courtship. The male swims over to meet the female. When the air bubble in the brood pouch shifts, he loses balance and floats tail first to the surface. With great effort he swims down to a perch and wraps his tail around it. Firmly anchored, he resumes an upright position. The female comes over and wraps her tail around his. When she moves away he follows, loses his balance, and shoots to the surface. Finally the pair give up trying to breed. These bubbles remain in the pouch unless removed. In nature death would surely result either by the male’s being washed ashore or from its being exposed to predators. In the aquarium a floating male can live indefinitely (Strawn, 1954).”
"…Although removing such bubbles does not permanently damage the fish, it is much easier to put a fence, such as a cylinder of plastic screen, around the air stone and its rising stream of bubbles” (Strawn, 1954).
As with all fishes, even trace amounts of toxic ammonia and nitrite can be harmful to seahorses and prevent mating. Although nitrate is relatively harmless, high levels of nitrate will also affect breeding. In my experience, breeding is inhibited in many species once the concentration of nitrates rises above 20 ppm.
To assure ongoing reproductive success it is important to maintain optimum water quality and keep nitrate levels as low as possible. For best results, consider adding live rock, a live sand bed (preferably situated in your sump), and a good protein skimmer to your seahorse setup. Don’t overstock, don’t overfed, remove leftovers promptly, grow and harvest macroalgae, practice good aquarium management and maintain a sensible schedule for water changes. If necessary, add a denitrator to keep your nitrate levels low.
As a rule, the better your water quality, the healthier your seahorses will be and the better they will breed.
As we all know, chronic stress can put a strain on even the strongest relationship, and that holds true for Hippocampus as well as Homo sapiens. There are a great many things besides water quality can be stressful for captive seahorses. These factors must also be addressed if you expect to have success breeding these amazing animals. Suffice it to say stressed seahorses will have little interest in breeding.
Obtaining healthy, well-conditioned broodstock is a vital first step for anyone who hopes to breed these fascinating fish (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). This was a major problem for breeders back in the Dark Ages of seahorse keeping when wild specimens were the only option. By the time they finally arrive at your local dealers, wild seahorses have spent a long time in the collector’s holding tanks followed by an indefinite stay at a wholesaler and then a long trip to a local retailer. Due to their need for live foods, they are very likely to have gone unfed during this entire period, and they are often malnourished by the time they reach your neighborhood fish store (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). Fattening them up and keeping wild-caught seahorses in top condition is equally problematic, since they are finicky eaters that require hard-to-provide live foods in large amounts on a daily basis.
Fortunately, the advent of captive-bred seahorse has made obtaining well-conditioned broodstock a great deal easier. Tank-raised seahorses that have been born and bed for life in captivity through several generations make ideal broodstock. Such specimens reach the hobbyist in prime condition, at the very peak of health and stamina, and are already accustomed to eating aquarium fare and well adjusted to aquarium life.
Nevertheless, it is still important to assure that your breeders receive a nutritious diet rich in highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFA) and other lipids. Producing clutch after clutch of eggs, and churning out brood after brood of fry, is very energetically demanding and places a serious strain on the bodily resources of breeding seahorses (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). Pairs that are receiving a marginal diet won’t be able to keep up and will thus lose interest in breeding sooner or later as a result (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). To avoid this, use a variety of good enrichment products to fortify their food and liberally supplement their staple diet of frozen Mysis with choice live foods, if possible. Remember a pregnant male is not just eating for two, as the cliche goes — rather, he must keep up with the metabolic demands of several hundred embryos.
It is equally important to make sure that gravid males receive adequate amounts of bioavailable calcium (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). Seahorses and pipefish that receive a diet deficient in calcium suffer from "soft plate" syndrome, which is characterized by decalcification of the bony plates that cover their bodies like a suit of armor (Greco, 2004). In the olden days, seahorses commonly developed this condition after being fed a diet consisting solely of Artemia, which contain inadequate levels of calcium and an imbalanced ratio of calcium to phosphorus (Greco, 2004).
For example, the New York Aquarium reports that pipefish and seahorses that are fed Artemia salina (brine shrimp) as a major portion of their diet, exhibit shortened lifespans, decalcification of their exoskeleton, and poor survival rate amongst their fry (Greco, 2004). Seahorse fry are known to incorporate calcium provided by their father into their skeletons (Vincent, 1990), so if Dad is deficient in calcium, his offspring will lack it as well. In that event, the rapidly growing fry will thus suffer high mortalities due to a condition akin to rickets in human children.
Breeding seahorses can be provided with adequate levels of calcium in either of two ways — by enriching their food supply or by enriching the aquarium water itself (minerals can be obtained by fish directly from the water). For instance, Heather MasonJones was successful breeding Hippocampus zosterae by enriching the brine shrimp she fed them with Kalkwasser (MasonJones and Lewis, 1996). Other aquarists prefer to add Kalkwasser (calcium hydroxide) directly to the breeding tank via an automatic doser in the same manner as many reef keepers enrich their systems (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). Many commercially made calcium supplements are available for reef aquaria that should work equally well.
Best of luck with your new kuda, sir! Here’s hoping you will have a baby boom on your hands real soon!