Wow, that’s a fascinating project and I do think that seahorses are very well suited for the sort of training that you have in mind. They are relatively smart, easy to work with and, unlike most fish, they can be handled readily and often enjoy interacting with their keeper. They should make fine subjects for a project such as yours.
In fact, I have found seahorses to be a surprisingly intelligent. I can tell you that Hippocampus is definitely capable of learning and remembering, as anyone who has ever trained to seahorses to come to a feeding station at a certain time and place everyday can attest. They have complex social interactions and engage in intricate behaviors between mated pairs and other members of the herd, and will often develop a social hierarchy of sorts when they are maintained in groups.
They will also often interact with their keepers, and quickly learn to recognize the one who feeds them as the giver of gourmet delights, whereupon they will ignore all other humans but become excited the moment they spot their keeper approaching the tank. They have good eyesight and color vision, and can see you coming clear across the room.
Hippocampus is one fish that can become a true pet, Diane, and I’m convinced this is because they are more intelligent than most fishes. Seahorses are real personality fish and many of them actually enjoy being handled. Unlike most other fish that back off when you approach the aquarium and flee in terror if you place your hand in the tank, seahorses soon learn to recognize their keeper and will come out to meet you. They quickly learn to take food from your fingers, and having your pet ponies literally eating out your hand is a very rewarding experience. When one of these shy, enchanting creatures — whose very survival in the wild depends on concealing itself from predators at all times — comes trustingly up to the surface to eat right out of your palm, it’s a thrill you won’t soon forget. The training sessions and daily feedings required for this tend to forge a close, personal relationship between the aquarist and his charges, and hand-fed seahorses often become special pets. Many times they will even include you in their daily greeting, flashing their recognition colors and parading back and forth and at the front of the tank, performing their dancelike displays for your benefit.
The first pair of captive-bred seahorses I ever owned were Mustangs (Hippocampus erectus), and my ‘stangs quickly learned to recognize me as their feeder, whereupon they would often interact with me at dinnertime by turning on their greeting colors. As I mentioned, I prefer to target feed (i.e., handfeed) my seahorses, which allows me to observe them closely on a daily basis, monitor their health, keep track of exactly how much each specimen is eating, and remove any leftovers immediately.
Led by the female-by far the bolder and most outgoing of the two-the Mustangs were soon literally eating right out of my hands. (I know, I know-sensible aquarists should always strive to keep their mitts out the aquarium as much as possible, but handfeeding is a thrill I find difficult to resist, and hey — nobody ever said I was sensible!) Of course, I’m very well aware of the risks involved and extremely diligent about taking all the necessary precautions beforehand.
As much as feeding time brightens up my day, I have no doubt it livens things up for my seahorses even more. They genuinely appear to enjoy interacting with me, and I believe in enriching their captive environment as much as possible. No doubt it’s the food they’re looking forward to, not the food giver, but our daily encounters are always eagerly awaited and they like to linger on my hand long after all the food is gone. They would allow me to lift them out of the water when I withdraw my hand if I didn’t gently shoo them away first. There’s a lot of puppy dog in your average seahorse and no doubt that’s a big part of their appeal, too. One almost expects to see them wagging their tails as they beg for handouts.
After I’d had them a week or so, my Mustangs were beating me to their feeding station whenever I approached their tank, betraying their eagerness and excitement by flashing through a series of bright color changes as soon as I opened the aquarium cover. Needless to say, I was delighted to find my Mustangs were such aggressive feeders. They have never had a health problem, and I’ve been equally pleased with the results of Piscine Energetics frozen Mysis enriched with Vibrance as a long-term diet.
The only thing I don’t like about this extremely nutritious diet is the obligatory fast day. The problem with fasting is that the Mustangs don’t seem to realize it’s good for them-that it’s absolutely in their own best interests, essential for their long-term health. Whenever I make an appearance on fast day, they insist on parading back and forth in front of the glass in their greeting colors, begging for a handout. Before my butt hits the upholstery, both of them will be dancing at the feeding station, impatiently awaiting their gourmet shrimp dinner. When it doesn’t materialize, they forlornly abandon their post at the lunch counter, and come up to stare at me through the front glass. When I still don’t take the hint, the female paces back and forth at the front, looking her brightest and most conspicuous, as though trying to attract my attention, while the male reverts to his drab everyday attire and dejectedly resumes his futile vigil at the feeding station. If not for their well-rounded cross-sections, one would think they were dying of hunger, making it difficult to resist their puppy-dog antics. Just sitting there ignoring them makes me feel like a first-class heel. Sheesh–talk about your guilt trips Dang! I hate fast days.
I feel Hippocampus is intelligent enough to become bored or jaded in captivity at times, and for this reason I try to provide a little behavioral enrichment for my seahorses whenever possible. The handfeeding sessions I’ve already described are an example of this, and I also try to provide my seahorses with live foods regularly so they have an opportunity to experience the thrill of the hunt and the chase once in a while as they do in the wild.
Since I despise the obligatory fast days so much, I’ve worked out a a way around that which offers my seahorses an interesting change in their routine once a week rather than on empty belly. It’s a fun alternative to fast days that I feel is far easier on the hobbyist and his pampered pets alike. Nowadays, rather than fasting my seahorses, I offer them a meal with a nutritional value that’s virtually nil instead: unenriched, unfed adult brine shrimp. As you can imagine, brine shrimp in this condition have very little fat content and should be considered nutritionally barren for all intents and purposes.
So once a week, instead of depriving my seahorses, I now serve them up a generous portion of unenriched adult brine shrimp. They get the thrill of hunting and eating live food and I get the fun of watching them chase after it. Instead of going hungry, my seahorses get to fill up on empty calories, while I get to avoid a guilty conscience. It’s a win-win situation. Everybody’s happy.
It’s a neat way of "fasting with a full belly," which I feel is healthy for the seahorses in more ways than one. Not only does it help guard against hepatic lipidosis from a high-fat diet, it also provides a little extra excitement for the seahorses and helps improve their quality of life in captivity.
In short, Diane, seahorses learn readily, retain what they have learned, and are relatively intelligent animals for their size. Their complex behaviors make them fascinating to observe. You might even say they are the brainiacs among aquarium fish.
You will not be able to train them to change color on command, but you will no doubt find they can be trained to perform a number of basic tasks. Dancing is a definite possibility, since their courtship rituals include a number of dancelike displays such as the parallel promenade, carouseling, and the Maypole dance, so I am sure you could develop some of those behaviors into an interesting choreographed display. You should have no trouble teaching them to swim through hoops or to perch on your finger or to come to a particular spot on cue.
I would recommend that you complete the Ocean Rider seahorse training program, Diane, which will teach you everything you need to know in order to give your educated seahorses the best possible care, and will also explain some of their unique behaviors that could be molded or adapted to suit your purposes via behavioral conditioning. For example, Lesson 7 in the training course is devoted to courtship and breeding in seahorses and discusses all of their elaborate courtship displays in some detail. If you would like to complete the seahorse training program, which is a correspondence course conducted entirely via e-mail and is completely free of charge, just contact me off list ([email protected]) with your full name and I will get you started on the first lesson right away.
Best of luck with your most interesting project, Diane! Please let us know if your ponies turn out to be good puppeteers!