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My "finny" Valentine
From amorous turtles to seahorse courtship,
love is in the air at the Tennessee Aquarium

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Jan. 21, 2004) – If you think your Valentine brings out the animal in you, take a look at the mating game going on at the Tennessee Aquarium. From the top of the Appalachian Cove Forest to the depths of the seahorse gallery, it’s love aquarium style for many of the animals in Chattanooga’s downtown aquarium.

Who’s your daddy?
It’s an important question if you’re a seahorse because it’s the males who carry the babies.

It all begins with a slow, dance-like promenade through the sea grass. The male, head bowed, performs an elaborate dance around the female, often wrapping his tail around her or mimicking her movements. The male often changes color, his body becoming lighter while his spine area darkens. During this mysterious mating dance, the male opens his empty pouch to the female. The female then raises her head and intertwines her tail with his.

“The ritual can last up to nine hours and resembles a sort of ballet,” said Thom Demas, curator of fishes at the Aquarium. “The seahorse pair travel up the water column as she transfers eggs to the male seahorse’s pouch on his abdomen, where he fertilizes the eggs and goes through the pregnancy.”

Most seahorse pairs are monogamous – once a male and female form a pair bond, they mate exclusively during the breeding season.

Be mine, you slimy Valentine
It’s not Valentine’s Day that gets the Aquarium’s creatures cruising on the love boat. Changes in temperature and light cycles, along with some deeply ingrained instincts, can trigger an upsurge in courtship rituals.

Some of the most interesting courtship rituals take place in the Aquarium’s Mississippi Delta Country, home to many freshwater turtles. Admittedly, turtles may not be the first animals many associate with romance, but they’ve survived thousands of years, so they must be doing something right.

Male red ear sliders and southern painted turtles go to great lengths to express their intent. With Edward Scissorshands-like appendages, the persistent male swims in front of or just above the female and waves his long nails in her face.

You can see this behavior throughout the spring and summer, and sometimes in the fall and winter if the turtles are bored, say aquarium herpetologists.

The male map turtle is a little subtler in his display. With a head bobbing routine, at varying speeds and occasionally with a little cheek-to-cheek caressing, he turns the head of an interested female.

The temperature of the turtle’s nest determines the sex of the hatchlings; lower temperatures produce males and higher temperatures produce females.

Want to go back to my place?
For the male longear sunfish, found in the Aquarium’s Discovery Hall, the female is most impressed by a nice “home.” Male sunfish spend a great deal of their time creating cozy nests, and are very protective of this territory. Visitors can see male sunfish guarding their turf by chasing away would-be trespassers.

Courtship in the Gulf
In the Aquarium’s Gulf of Mexico exhibit, the male sergeant majors establish territories for reproduction and become quite aggressive when protecting their “turf.” Males often turn a deep shade of blue to attract females.

For the damselfish, courtship is not so straightforward. Some damselfish change sex over their lifetimes, beginning as a male and becoming female as they grow.

The male southern stingray uses external “claspers” – elongated organs found at the base of his body – to grasp and mate with the female. Southern stingrays are ovoviviparous – a long word that means the female carries eggs internally but does not actually nurture fetuses. The young hatch from the eggs while still in the mother’s body. The stingray then gives birth to approximately three to five “pups.” Like adult stingrays, the pups have long, spiny tails and large fins. To make the birth easier, the pups’ spines remain flexible and the “wings” of the baby stingray remain folded – much like a folded newspaper.

It takes a sharp and patient eye and good timing to see the Aquarium’s courtship displays. Some species may court for an hour or two in the morning, then spend the rest of the afternoon searching for food, basking on a log or just swimming around.

During the month of February, the Aquarium is offering a “Finny Valentine” special. Log on to for cool animal facts, games for kids and a “Finny Valentine” discount coupon
good for half price admission with the purchase of an adult ticket.


Tim Walsh
Tennessee Aquarium

A male river cooter, Pseudemys concinna, waves long “fingernails” to attract the attention of a female. River cooters are found throughout the Southeastern states in large rivers, streams and lakes. They can grow to 12.6 inches in length.

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The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder and appreciation for the natural world. Admission is $14 per adult and $7.50 per child, ages 3-12. Each ticket purchased helps support Aquarium conservation programs. The IMAX® 3D Theater is next door to the Aquarium. Ticket prices are $7.75 per adult and $5.25 per child. Aquarium/IMAX combo tickets are $18 for adults and $10.50 for children. Advance tickets may be purchased online at or by phone at 1-800-262-0695. The Aquarium, located on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, is a non-profit organization. Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Aquarium and IMAX are accessible to people with disabilities. Members enjoy unlimited visits and other benefits. Call 267-FISH to join.

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