Re:Seahorse Breathing Question

Pete Giwojna

Dear Grant:

The presence of cirri is certainly not a dominant trait in most seahorse species, but I don’t know if it conforms to the classic laws of Mendelian genetics and is a simple recessive trait that can be inherited from the parents if both of them carry the gene and pass it on, or not, sir. But I suspect it is quite a bit more complicated than that.

For example, the development of cirri often seems to have more to do with the environment than with genetics. Many researchers assume that the cirri are simply epidermal projections that grow in response to external stimuli for the purpose of camouflage (Todd Gardner, pers. com.). Some of the habitat features that are believed to promote the growth of cirri are a weedy environment and fast water flow. I suspect that in order to develop cirri a seahorse must have both a genetic predisposition for the trait and the right environment to stimulate the development of the dermal appendages.

Lucy Woodall has been researching the population genetics of H. guttulatus and H. hippocampus, and has observed elaborate cirri in both species, but thus far has not found any genetic correlation for the trait. However, it is interesting to note that the branching of the cirri is different in specimens of H. guttulatus as opposed to specimens of H. hippocampus (Woodall, pers. com.).

Further confounding the matter is the fact that cirri are often a transitory trait. Most seahorses that possess them lose the cirri over a period of weeks or months as they grow. Cirri are thus seen much more often on juvenile seahorses and are fairly rare on adult seahorses of the species.

Be that as it may, I can assure you that shaggy seahorses with the elaborate cirri will mate readily with seahorses of the same species that lack cirri altogether, and vice versa. So you don’t necessarily need to find another shaggy seahorse to pair with your female, Grant.

In home hobby tanks, where different species of seahorses are often mixed freely, crossbreeding or interspecific hybridization does occasionally occur, but it is quite uncommon, especially when seahorses have potential partners of their own species available to them. The prolonged, elaborate courtship ritual that seahorses go through before mating occurs generally prevents seahorses from different species from breeding successfully. Suffice it to say that seahorses are much, much better at species recognition than we are, and that given a choice, they almost always prefer to mate with their own kind. Almost always.

However, the urge to reproduce is very strong in seahorses. For example, solitary males often go through the motions of courtship when there are no other seahorses present in their aquarium. They may court their own reflection and sometimes even direct their courtship displays toward their keepers. Dwarf seahorse stallions in particular are irrepressible in that regard, and a hitching post may suffice for them as a surrogate, when no better alternative is available! Homosexual mating attempts (both male and female) are also common when no member of the opposite sex is present. (Fielder reported a case where two male Hippocampus hippocampus courted one another for over two hours and unsuccessfully attempted at least 20 copulatory rises together.)

Now, where a male and female seahorse of different species are confined together, they most often simply ignore one other when it comes to breeding. But other times the instinct to breed overwhelms any interspecific inhibitions, and with no other available partner, the male will attempt to flirt with the female regardless of their differences. Results vary when this occurs, but the resulting offspring are generally perfectly viable.

In your case, Grant, I would suggest pairing your seahorse with an H. erectus stallion. The body build and profile of your seahorse most closely resembles H. erectus, and that is a species that occasionally develops extravagant cirri. It’s possible that your female may be H. erectus or that, if she is not, she may accept an erectus stallion as a mate.

At this point, I would also like to say that you have a very attractive mini reef flourishing in your Biocube. That’s a very colorful, natural setting for your seahorse and she certainly appears to be happy in her little patch of Paradise.

However, when keeping seahorses in an appropriately elaborate environment such as your nano reef, it is imperative that you feed them properly! Domesticated seahorses thrive on enriched frozen Mysis as their staple, everyday diet. But the worst thing you can do when feeding the seahorses in a intricate reef or live rock environment is to scatter a handful of frozen Mysis throughout the tank to be dispersed by the currents and hope that the hungry horses can track it all down. Inevitably some of the frozen food will be swept away and lodge in isolated nooks and crannies where the seahorses cannot get it (Giwojna, 2005). There it will begin to decompose and degrade the water quality, which is why ammonia spikes are common after a heavy feeding. Or it may be wafted out into the open again later on and eaten after it has begun to spoil. Either outcome can have dire consequences (Giwojna, 2005).

The best way to avoid such problems is to target feed your seahorses or set up a feeding station for them. See my online article in Conscientious Aquarist for a detailed discussion explaining exactly how to set up a feeding station and train your seahorses to use it:

Click here: Seahorse Feeders

Personally, I prefer to target feed my seahorses instead. The individual personalities of seahorses naturally extend to their feeding habits. Some are aggressive feeders that will boldly snatch food from your fingers, while some are shy and secretive, feeding only when they think they’re not being observed. Some like to slurp up Mysis while it’s swirling through the water column, and some will only take Mysis off the bottom of the tank. Some are voracious pigs that greedily scarf up everything in sight, and some are slow, deliberate feeders that painstakingly examine every morsel of Mysis before they accept or reject it. Some eat like horses and some eat like birds. So how does the seahorse keeper make sure all his charges are getting enough to eat at mealtime? How does the hobbyist keep the aggressive eaters from gobbling up all the mouth-watering Mysis before the slower feeders get their fair share? And how can you keep active fishes and inverts with seahorses without the faster fishes gobbling up all the goodies before the slowpoke seahorses can grab a mouthful (Giwojna, unpublished)?

Target feeding is the answer. Target feeding just means offering a single piece of Mysis to one particular seahorse, and then watching to see whether or not the ‘horse you targeted actually eats the shrimp. Feeding each of your seahorses in turn that way makes it easy to keep track of exactly how much each of your specimens is eating (Giwojna, unpublished).

There are many different ways to target feed seahorses. Most methods involve using a long utensil of some sort to wave the Mysis temptingly in front of the chosen seahorse; once you’re sure this has attracted his interest, the Mysis is released so it drifts down enticingly right before the seahorse’s snout. Most of the time, the seahorse will snatch it up as it drifts by or snap it up as soon as it hits the bottom (Giwojna, unpublished).

A great number of utensils work well for target feeding. I’ve seen hobbyists use everything from chopsticks to extra long tweezers and hemostats or forceps to homemade pipettes fashioned from a length of rigid plastic tubing. As for myself, I prefer handfeeding when I target feed a particular seahorse (Giwojna, unpublished).

But no doubt the all-time favorite implement for target feeding seahorses is the old-fashioned turkey baster. The old-fashioned ones with the glass barrels work best because the seahorses can see the Mysis inside the baster all the way as it moves down the barrel and out the tip. By exerting just the right amount of pressure on the bulb, great precision is possible when target feeding with a turkey baster. By squeezing and releasing the bulb ever so slightly, a skillful target feeder can keep a piece of Mysis dancing at the very tip of the baster indefinitely, and hold the tempting morsel right in front of the seahorse’s mouth as long as necessary. Or if the seahorse rejects the Mysis the first time it drifts by, a baster makes it easy to deftly suck up the shrimp from the bottom so it can be offered to the target again. In the same way, the baster makes it a simple matter to clean any remaining leftovers after a feeding session (Giwojna, unpublished). (You’ll quickly discover the feeding tube is also indispensable for tapping away pesky fish and invertebrates that threaten to steal the tempting tidbit before an indecisive seahorse can snatch it up.)

In short, target feeding allows the hobbyist to assure that each of his seahorses gets enough to eat without overfeeding or underfeeding the tank. And it makes it possible to keep seahorses in a community tank with more active fishes that would ordinarily out-compete them for food, since the aquarist can personally deliver each mouthful to the seahorses while keeping more aggressive specimens at bay (Giwojna, unpublished).

The key to keeping active specimens like firefish and occelaris clownfish or cleaner shrimp successfully with seahorses is to feed the other fish and inverts with standard, off-the-shelf aquarium foods first, and once they’ve had their fill, then target feed the seahorses (Giwojna, unpublished).

Best of luck finding a mate for your female, Grant!

Pete Giwojna

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