Dear Anna Marie:
Congratulations on witnessing the courtship and mating of your new seahorses! A healthy interest in breeding is indeed a good sign that your seahorses are comfortable in their new surroundings and feeling very much at home right now. You’ve done an excellent job of creating a suitable set up for your new ponies.
It’s not at all uncommon for a new, inexperienced pair to spill some eggs when mating, Anna Marie. The mating embrace, which sometimes takes place with the partner’s tails entwined, is quite fleeting. As discussed below, it takes only a few seconds for a female to deposit hundreds of eggs in her mate’s brood pouch, so it’s certainly possible that your male received some are most of the eggs during the exchange even though many may have been spilled.
This is how the copulatory rise — the actual mating that is the culmination of the elaborate courtship ritual — normally takes place.. It is the climax of the entire affair during which the partners meet in midwater for the transfer of the eggs (Vincent, 1990). The female initiates the rise by pushing up from the bottom in mid-Point and the male immediately follows her lead. They ascend through the water column facing each other, with their heads raised high and their abdomens thrust forward (Vincent, 1990). At this point, the female’s genital papillae or oviduct will be everted and protrude slightly from her vent, and the male’s brood pouch is usually fully inflated (Vincent, 1990). As they ascend, the female often continues to Point and the male may continue to Pump (Vincent, 1990). They will meet at the apex of their rise for the nuptial embrace.
The actual transfer of eggs takes place while the couple is suspended in midwater or slowly descending toward the bottom — a maneuver that is every bit as tricky as it sounds. Coitus is marked by an extremely awkward, fleeting embrace, aptly described as little more than a brief belly-to-belly bumping (Vincent, 1990).
As you can imagine, many difficult and delicate maneuvers are required to bring the pair into proper position for this most improbable merging, and inexperienced pairs often struggle to get it right. The female will attempt to insert her oviduct into the gaping aperture of the male’s inflated brood pouch. An inexperienced pair will often end up misaligned, perhaps at right angles to one another or with one of the partners too high or too low to join. This is very typical of the many false starts and abortive attempts that are ordinarily involved. The frustrated couple will separate to rest on the bottom prior to successive attempts. They may require many such rises before the proper positioning is achieved and the crucial connection is finally made.
The female will eventually succeed, with the full and active cooperation of her mate. He positions himself slightly below his mate, with the aperture of his pouch fully dilated and gaping open, ready to receive her eggs. The female will hover directly over the aperture until she can actually insert her oviduct into the opening at the top of his brood pouch or drop her eggs into the basket while hovering directly above the pouch. Pairs occasionally entwine tails when joined, but more often than not their tails will be stretched back behind them, out of the way.
If she makes a good connection, she will extrude her eggs in one long, sticky string, and the pair will hang together in midwater while the transfer is completed, drifting slowly downward as the eggs surge downward deep inside the pouch (Vincent, 1990). The entire clutch — up to 1600 eggs — is transferred in one brief embrace lasting a mere 5-10 seconds (Vincent, 1990). Sperm stream from the male’s urogenital pore into the pouch opening as the eggs are deposited (Vincent, 1990). The couple separates as they descend, drifting slowly toward the substrate. Exhausted by their efforts, the pair seek out comfortable hitching posts for a well-deserved rest. One almost expects to see them light up cigarettes at this point.
The pregnancy-sustaining changes in the male’s pouch begin the moment the last egg is tucked safely away inside this protective pocket. The male’s pouch deflates, compressing the eggs against the pouch lining in order to facilitate implantation. The male then perches and attempts to settle the eggs properly in his pouch, often undergoing a series of agitated contortions, swaying, twitching, or wagging his tail from side to side, and perhaps stretching as though trying to rearrange the eggs more comfortably (Vincent, 1990). He is dispersing the eggs uniformly throughout his pouch, giving each one the best chance to be fertilized and implant in the septum or wall of the marsupium.
Meanwhile, the female’s belly slims down noticeably as she transfers her eggs. She may lose up to 30% of her body weight after depositing a large clutch of eggs (Vincent, 1990). As a result, her abdominal plates or belly rings will be concave or pinched in for the next couple of days.
This charming courtship ritual and delightful displays are a wonder to behold. The grace and beauty of the courtship dance, with its carousel-like ballet and elegant parallel promenade, the rhythmical swaying and passionate performances of "Pointing" and "Pumping," and the fabulous midwater finale all combine to create an unforgettable spectacle that’s unprecedented in all of nature.
Here are some other indications to look for that indicate mating has occurred and that the pregnancy is progressing normally:
Indications of Pregnancy.
If you witness the copulatory rise and exchange of eggs there is no doubt that mating has occurred and, knowing the date of conception, you can confidently begin the countdown toward the maternal male’s delivery date. Knowing approximately how long the gestation period will be allows plenty of time to prepare nursery tanks, set up a battery of brine shrimp hatcheries, and culture rotifers and ‘pods for the insatiable fry.
But what if you missed the big moment? How do you proceed if you missed the actual mating and transfer of eggs, and you’re not sure if you will soon be dealing with a gravid male and hordes of hungry newborns?
There are no aquatic obstetricians, underwater ultrasounds, blood tests or over-the-counter pregnancy tests to perform, and I shudder to think how one might go about collecting a urine specimen to dip! No worries. Fortunately, there are subtle signs and suggestions that indicate a pregnancy is underway. There are number of changes in the parents’ appearance and behavior to look for. For instance, the male and female will still continue to flirt, but the nature a their displays will change from full-blown courtship to regular greeting rituals.
After mating, in subsequent days the couple will continue to change colors and brighten up when in close proximity and dance together in an abbreviated version of courtship known as the Morning Greeting or Daily Greeting. The pair exhibits the same basic behaviors and maneuvers as when they were courting with one big difference — the male never "pumps" and the female does not "point."
In addition, as the pregnancy progresses, the male’s pouch darkens due to the proliferation of epithelial and connective tissue and the placenta-like changes taking place in the wall of the marsupium, and the pouch gradually swells and expands according to the number of young developing within. The latter is not always a reliable indicator, however. Inexperienced couples often spill eggs during the exchange and a male’s first few broods are often inordinately small. The brood pouch of a male that is carrying only a few fetal fry is hardly any larger than normal, and hobbyists have often been surprised by unexpected births under such circumstances.
On the other hand, an experienced male carrying a large brood can be easily distinguished by his obviously expanding pouch. These mature breeders may carry broods numbering over 1600 fetal fry, depending of course on the species. A stallion incubating hundreds of fry will have an enormously distended pouch by the time his due date approaches.
Gravid males often become increasingly reclusive and secretive as their pregnancy advances. When the onset of labor and birth is imminent, the male will begin to shows signs of distress and his respiration rate will increase to 70-80 beats per minute. The fully developed young become very active and shake loose into the lumen of the pouch shortly before delivery. In some cases, the writhing of the young can be detected through the stretched membrane of the pouch, which causes the male considerable discomfort. He may become restless and agitated as a result, swimming slowly to and fro and pacing back and forth like, well — an expectant father. The fry are usually born in the early morning hours between midnight and dawn, arriving all at once or in multiple batches 24 hours apart.
So if you happen to miss the exchange of eggs, watch closely for the following indications that mating has occurred:
(1) A change in the physical appearance of the parents. The gravid male’s pouch will change from a light opaque color to a dark brown due to the elaboration of the internal structures and thickening of the walls of the pouch. It will enlarge steadily over the next few weeks as the young grow and develop, and the aperture will change from fully dilated to a tightly closed vertical slit. The female’s trunk will change from rotund, full with ripe eggs, to noticeably shrunken and pinched in immediately after the exchange of eggs.
(2) A change in the seahorses’ courtship displays. The pair will continue to flirt and dance and brighten in coloration as part of their Daily Greetings, but the male will no longer pump (no pouch displays) and neither the female nor the male will point. The pair will make no more copulatory rises.
(3) A change in the behavior of the male. He may become increasingly shy and reclusive. Gravid males may go off their feed as the delivery date approaches, missing meals or even going into hiding. When birth is imminent, he will become agitated and distressed and his respiration will increase markedly.
When you notice these telltale signs of pregnancy, it’s time to kick your brine shrimp hatchery into high gear and start some microalgae and rotifer cultures brewing.
Best of luck with your courting pair and their future progeny, Anna Marie!