Re:Trouble at the Dinner Table

Pete Giwojna

Dear Howard:

Yes, sir, that is a bit unusual. As you know, highly domesticated Ocean Rider seahorses are ordinarily very gregarious, social animals that very much enjoy the company of others of their kind. But when mouthwatering Mysis are up for grabs, our galloping gourmets are not always big on sharing or waiting turns.

Occasionally the dominant seahorse in a herd will develop a bad habit like monopolizing the feeding station, and driving one or more of the subordinate seahorses away until it’s had its fill. In the aquarium, seahorses do often work out a dominance hierarchy of sorts within the herd, but it’s unusual for a pair of alpha females to emerge and indulge in a little bullying, as seems as seems to be a situation in your case.

Rest assured that, as long as the stallions are still getting their fair share of the Mysis when all is said and done, this sort of jostling and jockeying for position at the feeding station is nothing to be concerned about, sir. . Because of the seahorse’s bony plates and body armor, even when a tail is wrapped around the neck or snout of a herdmate, there is no real danger of strangulation, asphyxiation or injury. Seahorses breathe through their gills so their respiration isn’t impaired in such situations. They don’t like it one it, mind you, and will certainly struggle and do their best to break free, but they’re not really in any danger. (It’s not unusual for seahorses to use their tails aggressively as you describe under certain circumstances, Howard, and that sort of agonistic behavior is often seen when rival males are competing over the same female. Observers often referred to these harmless encounters as tail wrestling, but it is certainly uncommon for the female seahorses to be the aggressors.)

I suspect things will even out for your harassed males when the seahorses get serious about courting and breeding. When the hormones start flowing, the testosterone-crazed stallions will become more aggressive and single-minded in their attempts to breed, and the females will eventually submit to their advances and come to look on them more as mates and life partners and less as competitors for food.

In the meantime, Howard, there are a few things you could try to ease the tension at feeding time. For instance, you might try feeding your seahorses a little more often, if possible. That way, perhaps the seahorses won’t get us hungry between meals and the overeager females won’t be inclined to bowl over the males in order to get at the Mysis first.

Or you might try setting up a second feeding station (perhaps the other half of the clamshell you have been using as your feeding tray) away from the first feeding station, and putting about half of the usual portion of frozen Mysis in each station. That way, if the females insist on monopolizing one feeding station, the subordinate seahorses could gravitate to the other feeding station and still get their fill.

You might also consider target feeding the seahorses for the time being to assure that each of them gets enough to eat at mealtime. That’s a little more work, of course, but it can be a lot of fun and quite rewarding for both you and the seahorses.

Best of luck managing the matriarchy that has evolved in your seahorse tank, Howard!

Pete Giwojna

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