Re:Strange Tail Position

Pete Giwojna

Dear Pittsburgh:

Yes, indeed, your young Hippocampus erectus stallion is performing pouch displays as part of the mating ritual for this species. The color changes and dancelike displays you have noticed are also part of the courtship displays for H. erectus.

In short, the tail-bending contractions you noticed are perfectly normal and indicate a healthy stallion in breeding condition that is performing pouch displays to impress the female and persuade her to mate. This mating ritual is called “pumping” because the male inflates his pouch like a balloon and jackknifes his body with a rapid pumping motion that forces water in and out of the brood pouch. With his pouch swollen to the bursting point, the male carries out a series of vigorous pelvic thrusts that are very similar to the contractions he goes through when giving birth.

These pouch displays are performed with great vigor, while the brood pouch is fully inflated with water, and can be quite alarming the first time you see them. It looks almost as if the male is performing abdominal crunches or experiencing severe abdominal cramps. With it’s abdomen grossly distended, its pouch swollen up like a balloon ready to burst, the male’s contortions make it look very much as if it’s suffering from a severe bellyache, and I’ve received several emergency messages from concerned hobbyists who were convinced their courting males were having convulsions, literally in the throes of death.

Not to worry, sir, the contractions and "convulsions" are actually signs of a normal, happy seahorse with a healthy interest in sex! In other words, Pittsburgh, your seahorses are courting. Your stallion isn’t pregnant yet, but he is trying hard to get that way.

The pale coloration you noticed is typical of the courtship colors for Hippocampus erectus. When seahorses are courting, they brighten in coloration in order to signal their intentions to a prospective mate. When they brighten this way, the head and back (dorsal surface of the seahorse normally remain quite dark while the rest of the body becomes lighter and dramatically intensifies in color (Vincent, 1990). When H. erectus goes a-courting, the stallions will typically adopt a pale cream color or pearly white coloration all over with the exception of their heads and backs, which normally remain dark in stark contrast to their much lighter bodies. Seahorses flaunt their bright courtship colors in order to impress prospective mates and the overall effect of this change in coloration is to make the seahorse much more conspicuous.

Here is an excerpt from my new book (Complete Guide to Greater Seahorses in the Aquarium, unpublished) that describes the pouch displays of courting stallions in more detail:

<Open quote>
Pouch Displays: Pumping and Ballooning.

Pumping and Ballooning are pouch display performed to some extent by all male seahorses regardless of species. The energetic display known as "Pumping" is a vital part of the courtship ritual in all seahorse species that have been studied to date. Temperate and tropical seahorses alike, from the smallest pygmy ponies to the largest of the "giant" species, it appears that all male seahorses perform such pouch displays.

Pumping requires a series of coordinated movements. Bending vigorously, the aroused male jackknifes his tail to meet his trunk, thereby compressing his inflated brood pouch in the middle. The male then straightens up again, suddenly snapping back to “attention” so as to relieve the pressure on his severely compressed midsection. This rapid pumping motion has the effect of forcing water in and out of the brood pouch in a manner that is virtually identical to the way the young are expelled at birth (Vincent, 1990).

The strenuous pumping action is the stallion’s way of demonstrating his pouch is empty of eggs and that he is a strong, healthy, vigorous specimen capable of carrying countless eggs (Vincent, 1990). By so doing, he assures the female that he is ready, willing, and able to mate, and that he can successfully carry and deliver her entire brood.

The energetic pumping also helps prepare the male’s brood pouch for pregnancy. It flushes and cleanses out the interior of the marsupium, helps increase the blood supply to the lining of the pouch, and expands the elastic pouch to its fullest extent, in order to prepare it to receive a new batch of eggs. This flushing action is also believed to release special chemicals called pheromones and waft them towards the nearby female to stimulate her all the more. The hormone prolactin is probably the most important of these chemical triggers.

Courtship in many temperate and subtemperate seahorses is dominated by such pouch displays. In addition to pumping, these cold-water ponies also engage in a different type of pouch display known as “Ballooning.” This is a simple display in which they inflate their brood pouches to the fullest possible extent and parade around in front of the female in all their glory as though trying to impress her with the sheer dimensions of their pouches. The pumped up paramours perform proudly, putting on quite a show for the flirtatious fillies. (All you ladies out there are surely all too familiar with this act. No doubt you attract the same sort of attention and elicit the same type of behavior every summer at muscle beach, where all the macho men pump up their biceps, suck in their guts, and throw out their chests whenever you stroll past.)

Often all the males in the vicinity will compete for the attention of the same female, chasing after her with their pouches fully inflated this way. When all the boys are in full-blown pursuit of a female ripe with eggs, they look like a flotilla of hot air balloons racing to the finish line.

Hippocampus abdominalis, H. breviceps, and H. tuberculatus, in particular, have developed enormous pouches that are all out of proportion to their bodies when fully expanded. Their oversized pouches look like over-inflated balloons ready to burst when these stallions come a courting. Take the tiny Hippocampus breviceps, for example. With its brood pouch expanded to the maximum, a courting male looks like a fuzzy 3-inch pipe cleaner that swallowed a golf ball! Courtship in temperate/subtemperate species generally centers around pouch displays more than color changes, dancing or prancing.

Pumping is one of the final stages of courtship and it indicates the seahorses are really getting serious (Vincent, 1990). Mating will take place shortly, as soon as the female hydrates her eggs, unless something intervenes in the interim.
<Close quote>

In short, Pittsburgh, your seahorses are actively courting and getting ready to breed. If all goes well, they may soon present you with a brood of young to raise.

Perhaps you would be interested in participating in the Ocean Rider seahorse training program, in order to help prepare for the big event if all goes well. It’s a correspondence course conducted entirely via e-mail, consisting of 10-separate lessons comprising over 180 pages of text with more than 100 full-color illustrations, and it will explain the latest thinking regarding the care and keeping of seahorses in comprehensive detail. One of the lessons is devoted entirely to courtship and breeding in seahorses and the following lesson is devoted completely to raising the babies. It’s completely free of charge and I would be happy to get you started with the first lesson right away if you feel it could be helpful under your circumstances.

If you would like to give the training course a try, Pittsburgh, just contact me off list ([email protected]) with a brief e-mail that includes your full name (first and last), and I’ll get the first lesson to you immediately.

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna

Post edited by: Pete Giwojna, at: 2009/11/28 07:37

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