Re:What Happened

Pete Giwojna

Dear Grant:

No, sir, I don’t think you have a "bad" male or that you messed up. It sounds like your female is playing hard to get right now and your male is doing his best to impress her by performing vigorous pouch displays. That’s normal behavior and suggests to me that, while your stallion is certainly not pregnant at this time, he is trying very hard to get himself that way. He is doing his best to persuade your female to give her eggs to him. The type of courtship that is going on between your pair is a sure sign of healthy seahorses with an active interest in breeding, which is not a bad thing at all.

In short, Grant, the 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, 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, but he is actually in perfect health and putting on a performance for the benefit of the female.

Not to worry, sir, the contractions are actually signs of a normal, happy seahorse with a healthy interest in sex! In other words, Grant, your seahorses are doing some serious courting right now.

Here is an excerpt from my new book (Complete Guide to Greater Seahorses in the Aquarium, unpublished) that describes the pouch displays of courting stallions in more detail: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, Grant, your seahorses are actively courting and getting ready to breed. If all goes well this time, they may soon present you with a brood of young to raise.

With regard to your green button polyps, it’s quite possible that the zoanthids could be releasing toxins into the tank that are having an adverse impact on the other corals.

As you know, Grant, soft corals such as polyps have very little stinging ability and generally make good choices for a modified reef tank that will include seahorses. Good choices include the zoanthid polyps (genus Zoanthus), which are tolerant of any light level and tolerate a wide range of water currents, meaning they will do well under the relatively low light and moderate water flow conditions that seahorses prefer. They grow very fast and are a great starter coral for beginners.

Equally desirable are the button polyps (genus Palythoa, etc.). They are extremely hardy and are an excellent starter coral. They prefer low to medium water flow, and will tolerate low light levels, making them another good choice for a seahorse setup. They come in a wide variety of colors and are readily available for a modest cost.

Clove Polyps Star Polyps or Daisy polyps (genus Clavularia) are another good choice. They are good starter corals that tolerate most any light level and do well under a variety of water currents. They are extremely hardy and relatively undemanding.

In short, Grant, zooanthids and polyps in general are seahorse-safe and your ponies won’t mind a tank housing several species of polyps. As far as their stings go, zoanthids and other polyps should be perfectly safe for your seahorses. But, as I am sure your already aware, zoos and polyps produce a toxic slime and you’ll want to observe a couple of precautions when you’re handling the zoanthids, placing in your aquarium, or working in the tank. This is what I normally advise hobbyists in that regard, sir:

First of all, zoanthids and other soft corals such as mushrooms may wage border battles if you place them in close proximity to each other (and the zoanthids almost always lose out to the mushrooms in these skirmishes). So be sure to allow adequate space between the colonies.

Secondly, "Zooanthus and Palythoa both contain very toxic chemicals, that can be dangerous to both reef inhabitants and humans. The most well known is Palytoxin, which has been documented as one of the most poisonous marine toxins known (Mereish et al, 1991). Palytoxin can affect the heart, muscles, and nerves leaving its victim in paralysis, and possibly death. Because of the toxin, you should never handle Zoanthus or Palythoa with open wounds, nor should you touch your mouth or eyes after handling the species. (We recommend the use of disposable latex gloves) When propagating either of the species, it is critical to remember that the slightest rub of an itchy eye, or even a small cut from a hang nail, might be enough to land you in the hospital. In the aquarium, some rapid growing Zoanthus colonies can be aggressive to stony and soft corals, but in general, they are very peaceful, and you can slow the growth rate by the controlling the overall nutrient load of your tank."

In general, aquarists need to handle any polyps from the genus Zoanthus and Palythoa with care, Grant. Here’s what James Fatherree advises in that regard:

<Open quote>

There are several types of commonly available zoanthids, including all of the palythoans, that can produce a deadly toxin (appropriately called "palytoxin"). It is found is the mucous coat that they cover themselves with, and if you get enough of it in an open wound, or your eye, mouth, etc. – it just might kill you. Many hobbyists have reported cases of numbness, sickness, and/or hallucinations, but the stuff is actually strong enough to kill, as well.

Handling them when you have a wound is an obvious no-no, but when you touch a colony and get the slime on your fingers (which is unavoidable with these things), it is imperative that you don’t rub your eyes, suck your fingers, or even pick your nose until you have washed your hands thoroughly. Really, you should never handle these without wearing protective gloves. Some hobbyists (including me) have handled zoanthids without gloves many, many times in the past, but it is now well-known that things can go very wrong when this is done, even if you have no wounds you know of and plan on washing your hands immediately after touching a specimen.

Wear the gloves! (James W. Fatherree, M.Sc., 2005)
<close quote>

So this is one of those cases when it’s better to be safe than sorry and err on the side of caution. When in doubt, don’t take chances — wear gloves and handle all colonial and button polyps with all due care. I would also wear gloves in any aquarium with bristleworms as a precaution — those spicules can be extremely irritating and bristleworms larger than 2-3 inches are capable of delivering a nasty bite.

So if your green button polyps are dying back, they could indeed be releasing chemicals that are harmful for your other corals, Grant. I would suggest carefully removing the declining colony of green button polyps — wearing gloves, of course, and observing the precautions outlined above — and then performing a water change in conjunction with filtering the aquarium water through fresh activated carbon and/or a Polyfilter Pad, sir. Prepare the fresh saltwater ahead of time so there is no delay in making the water change after you remove the polyps in question.

Best wishes with all your fishes (and invertebrates), Grant. Here’s hoping that your corals are soon back to normal and that your seahorses are successful in completing the egg transfer, resulting in an uneventful pregnancy this time around.

Pete Giwojna

America's Only Seahorse Aqua-Farm and One of Hawaii's Most Popular Attractions

Ocean Rider seahorse farm is a consistent Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence Award Winner and "Top 10 Things To Do" Kona, Hawaii attraction. Our "Magical Seahorse Tours" are educational and fun for the whole family.

Tour tickets are available for Purchase On-Line. Space is limited and subject to availability.

small seahorse Ocean Rider, Inc. is an Organic Hawaiian-Based Seahorse Aqua-Farm & Aquarium that Follows Strict Good Farming Practices in Raising Seahorses and Other Aquatic Life.

Seahorse Hawaii Foundation

Inspiring ocean awareness by saving the endangered seahorse and sea dragons around the world from extinction through conservation, research, propagation, and education.

Help us save the seahorse and the coral reefs they live in with a tax deductible contribution to the Seahorse Hawaii Foundation. You will be helping to protect and propagate over 25 species of endangered seahorses, sea dragons and friends.

Make A Tax-Deductible Donation Today!

A Different Kind of Farm (Video) »

Ocean Rider Kona Hawaii

Ocean Rider Kona Hawaii
Seahorse Aqua-Farm & Tours

73-4388 Ilikai Place

Kailua Kona, Hawaii 96740

Map & Directions


Contact Ocean Rider

Copyright ©1999-2023
All Rights Reserved | Ocean Rider Inc.

My Online Order Details

Purchase Policy

Site Terms and Conditions