In The Act - A Hobbyist's Guide To Pairings In Aquaria
have officially branched out into porn filmography. I feel
both dirty and elated.
A few months back I purchased a beautiful red ”scooter”
dragonet (Synchiropus ocellatus). Since I'd had luck
with a more commonly colored scooter in my first reef tank,
I couldn't pass this one up. It had a stubby, but colorful
dorsal flag, and I had assumed at that time it was a male
based on its coloration.
A little more than a month later I realized it was a female
when I saw my first adult male red "scooter" dragonet.
This fish had an enormous dorsal flag that was strikingly
marked and vibrantly colored. Since the female was doing well
in my tank on small fauna and Cyclop-Eeze (doing well = fattening
up) I, of course, had to get the male.
After rushing home and performing my most elaborate acclimation
to date, I was looking forward to witnessing either some “magic”
or a fight...
I got neither. My assumption at the time was that if they
were both male (one being immature), they would fight as the
majority of male dragonets are prone to do when placed in
the confines of our tanks. I was certain that if this were
the case, I would have to remove one, or barring that, it
would be love at first sight...
I was crestfallen.
The smaller female made a few gestures of dominance towards
the newcomer. The newcomer ignored the gestures, and then
they both went about their business and continued to ignore
one another for a couple months. Occasionally, I’d see
them come into close proximity to one another and get all
jittery, thinking to myself, “This is it; they’ll
notice each other this time,” only to be left wanting.
This past November all of that changed!
The scooter dragonet pair with the smaller female in the
Maybe it took some time for them to warm up to one another.
Maybe he was just fattening himself up first to make certain
he had the… stamina… necessary to ‘introduce’
himself to her properly. Maybe it was love at first
sight, but he was too shy to make the move. Maybe she was
shy. Maybe there are fishy-protocols that must be followed
and then paperwork signed, dated and filed. Whatever the case,
when the mood struck these two became nearly inseparable.
I watched fervidly for nearly two hours that night and again
for another hour a few days later.
To begin their little love-dance the two would come together
at the bottom of the tank, or in some more spectacular instances,
meet in the water column and then chase one another around
in a circle (See the .)
During this time the male would display his dorsal fin (more
like a flag, really). After a few laps around one another
in a very tight circle, they come together and hold fins.
The fin-holding consists of the two coming together, side
by side, and they then seem to grip or lock a pair of pectoral
fins. While holding tightly to each other they now slowly
make their way toward the water’s surface by using the
fins not entangled with one another. During their trip to
the surface they seem to convulse or gyrate a bit as well.
This dance may be much longer-lasting in their native environments,
but seems too short a journey from the sand to the surface
in my little 75-gallon tank. Once at the surface the two release
their fin-lock and spiral toward the bottom again or, in some
cases, the back wall of the tank. This is the point at which
their behavior most differs. Once ”finished,”
the male either returns immediately to the sand to begin hunting
for a snack, or simply chooses to lie still as if dozing off
to a restful slumber. The female, on the other hand, rests
still for a few short moments (perhaps to bask in the glow)
and then seeks out the male to begin the dance again. She
is truly insatiable.
Top: female scooter dragonet with dorsal fin displayed.
Bottom: male scooter dragonet with dorsal fin lying
left of center.
This was something of a long prelude, but I know there are
a number of us reefkeepers who can really appreciate the story.
Not all of us certainly, but I’ve run into at least
a half-dozen locals who are willing to talk openly about their
“icthy-voyeuristic” ways. It’s not even
always fish. My own personal sickness extends to crustacean
pairs and even into the “dark” realm of fish-to-crustacean
Personal obsessions aside, these pairings also have been
anecdotally deemed indicators of good health for the entire
ecosystem of our tanks. I once read something along the following
three lines paraphrased from Dr. Ron Shimek:
“Organisms first need food enough to sustain their
lives in an environment that is non-toxic. If more food
is available than is required for simple sustenance and
the environment is acceptable, then an organism will grow.
When presented with enough food and a pleasing environment,
an organism is more likely to mate and produce offspring.”
Many people report or inquire about the breeding of snails
or worms as their first voyage into the realm of “reef-voyeurism,”
often without knowing what it is they are witnessing. Many
broadcast spawning events are simply recorded on the boards
and through clubs as something along the following lines:
“Something weird happened in my tank last night –
looked like something was blowing smoke out of the rock!”
Other aquarists first witness the more visually spectacular
release of young larvae from the previous mating of crustaceans
such as a cleaner or peppermint shrimp. From those simple
beginnings still others look to keep the more promiscuous
fish in hopes of witnessing the courtship, mating and rearing
of the young. Some of these more easily bred fish are also
those which hobbyists have the most luck raising to young
adulthood: cardinals and clownfish, for instance. Virtually
all the invertebrates, and the vast majority of the fish we
keep, however, simply can’t be reared accidentally,
and the aquarist must dedicate special systems and commit
a great deal of time even to attempt to raise the offspring.
For the typical hobbyist these spawnings not only provide
an interesting show or act that can also be an indicator of
their tank’s health, it can also supply fresh, living
food in the form of lavae to the rest of the tank’s
inhabitants. While this not necessarily a major fraction of
food for the tank, it is almost certainly an appreciated treat.
In my own tank I often praise the happy couples for providing
a nice late-night snack for their tankmates.
A couple of early morning shots of the male scooter; note
the sand still covering his head from spending the night buried.
In my own display system I have eight intentional pairs of
animals (counting all viable combinations) and below I note
some interesting pairing or spawning behaviors:
Synchiropus ocellatus (“Red Scooter Dragonet”)
– confirmed spawning and breeding behavior nearly
every night just after the metal halides turn off around
10PM (EST). I am told these fish are broadcast spawners,
and their behavior seems to support that view. That being
the case, I have very little hope of ever seeing a tiny
dragonet swimming about – unless it survives for
weeks swirling around in the skimmer and then manages
to escape the maelstrom. Once bonded, these two can’t
seem to get enough of each other. After the halides turn
out for the night and while the actinics remain on, this
pair ”dances” the hours away.
Halichoeres chrysus (“Yellow
Coris Wrasse”) – no confirmed spawning to
date, but they do feed together and even though both are
still very immature, one has already started displaying
”male” markings (red and green striping on
the face and fins) and “flashes” often in
the other’s presence.
Stonogobiops yasha (“Yasha Haze” or
“White-rayed Shrimp Goby” - photos above)
– no confirmed spawning, but the larger of the pair
disappears from regular view for weeks at a time. Perhaps
this is to take care of egg masses or perhaps she’s
vacationing at a remote back-door entrance obscured from
view. I have yet to find information available on the
breeding habits of these small gobies.
Stonogobiops nematodes (“Hi-fin Banded Goby”
or “Black-rayed Shrimp Goby”- photo left)
– no confirmed spawning, but the smaller of the
pair neglects eating openly more often than not (I suspect
she eats “bugs” at night) and disappears even
more frequently than the S. yasha “female.”
I don’t necessarily suspect this is a breeding behavior,
but can’t rule out that possibility; she may simply
be really shy.
Alpheus randalli (“Candy-stripe” pistol
shrimp) – breeding confirmed through the carrying
of eggs; I seem to recall reading that the A. randalli
are sexually dimorphic. Even if they are not (and both
carry eggs) they definitely seem to follow a dominant/subordinate
order in the burrow. The larger, more yellow highlighted,
shrimp can often be found up to several inches away from
the burrows entrance with his "watchfish" always
near. The smaller and less brightly colored (less yellow
as well) shrimp never seems to venture more than an inch
from the burrows entrance and then only if the dominant
shrimp is already out and about.
Alpheus randalli – pair #2
- Same as above. It should be noted as well that
there is a ‘rogue’ A. randalli who
never bonded with any of the other shrimp and chooses
instead to live alone in the rear-center area of the tank.
I’m not sure what that it says anything definitively
about the group dynamics or breeding of these small, colorful
pistol shrimp, but I like to think of him as the curmudgeonly
neighbor to the other two young couples.
Stomatella varia (Cap snails) - not a pair,
but instead a small horde. I would recommend acquiring
these little troopers whenever possible. Not only are
they excellent herbivores, but they are also a great food
(as larva) for some corals, some fish and the cleaner
shrimp (which finds them a treat at any stage in the Stomatella's
Thor amboinensis (Sexy shrimp- photo below)
– I have never observed a spawning or release of
larvae from either, but it seems they are never more than
a couple inches from one another and are ”dancing”
with each other more often than not.
Thor amboinensis - Sexy shrimp pair.
Trying to obtain breeding pairs from separate, unpaired,
fish is a risky venture at times especially with fish that
are not visibly sexually dimorphic (those fish where the two
genders are indistinguishable). To confuse matters further,
many species of fish have the ability to change sexes in one
direction or another or, in some cases, both directions. The
conditions which may cause those changes are unique to each
species as well. The most disastrous pairing to date in my
tank/experience failed, I think, because the ”female”
was actually in transition to become a male. The much prettier
“ultra-male” social wrasse (Cirrhilabrus rubriventralis)
was brutally harassed before he could be removed. The fish
also may have been a male of another species that looks very
similar to the female of the social wrasse. Confused yet?
This example isn’t meant to dissuade
anyone from trying, but instead simply to give some basis
for how confusing it can be, and how harmful it can be to
the creatures as well.
left: female coris wrasse. Bottom left: male coris
wrasse (note that this image does no justice to the red and
green highlights seen in person). Right: the
pair on the hunt in the zoanthid garden.
Aside from the neat little interactions and sense of interspecies
voyeurism, there is something else to these encounters that
makes them especially exciting for me. These events are short
glimpses into real reef happenings. These little moments give
the aquarist the chance to play Jacques Cousteau and witness
the behavior of these creatures as it might happen in their
natural habitat. Feeding in our systems is rigged. Rarely
is the water movement even close to that of the real reefs.
Aggression is too common in spaces too small. But these short-lived
moments of pure instinct are probably little changed from
the method of continuation of the species in the wild.
I don’t know of any one specific parameter that helps
to trigger these events reliably. There has to be an endless
myriad of possible variables that can make pairing and breeding
more likely to occur, including ”good quality”
water, temperature, food in abundance, etc.. There are most
probably an equal number of factors, perhaps even more, that
prohibits or restricts such events from occurring. Until we,
and more importantly, the experts, narrow down the stimuli
necessary, try to enjoy every one of these little magic moments
when you are lucky enough to bear witness.
Articles of Interest:
- Reefkeeping Article by Henry Schultz III “You May
Call Me 'Yasha,' King of the Stonogobiops" http://www.reefkeeping.com/issues/2004-01/hcs3/
- Fishbase (Halichoeres chrysus “Yellow Coris
Wrasse”) - http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.cfm...=chrysus
- Fishbase (Synchiropus ocellatus “Red Scooter