Seahorses are one of the most unique little creatures in the sea, and that intrigue extends to
their mating patterns. But are they the unsung true lovebirds of the sea?
Maybe you came to this page out of a love for marine biology or seahorses specifically.
Maybe you wanted to prove a point in an argument or had an errant curiosity.
Or perhaps you may even be like me-searching for examples of monogamy in the animal kingdom to
ascertain a deeper personal question- should two persons faithfully commit to only each.
other for life? Is it natural?
Well regardless of what brought you here if you thought seahorses do mate for life you,
Well…you would be seen as correct in some areas of the scientific
community. Sometimes. Frankly, there may be a bit of a debate on the issue.
To better understand the answer to this question, we need to better understand seahorses, or rather what we know about them so far. To put it plainly from what we can tell so far from research, some species do indeed mate for life or at least monogamously.
You must be thinking, “But aren’t mating for life and monogamy the same thing?” Well…
But before getting ahead of ourselves let’s start with…
Some Basic Seahorse Facts
The seahorse, scientific name hippocampus, is a very unique fish in its equine shape possibly to a fault.
While their snout-like nose, upright posture, and cute prehensile tail make them a fascination to the eyes, it is actually these factors that make them awful swimmers.
They move forward in the water primarily through the propulsive force of a small fin on their back that flutters up to thirty-five (35) times per second. Two smaller fins located behind each cheek do help with swimming but are largely used for steering.
They also have a small fin under the belly but no tail fin. In case it wasn’t clear -this would mean that a creature variant in size between 0.6 and 14 inches long- has largely one fin to swim with and no truly helpful body movement to compensate for this in its swimming style. That makes the life of a seahorse largely sedentary.
Their tails are useful in this like style by anchoring them to corals and seagrass as they would die from exhaustion quite easily in stormy waters.
What’s more, even though they have a wide global habitat- many tropical to temperate shallow waters around the world- their size and chameleon-like abilities (many species of seahorses blend in with their surroundings wholesome are even capable of changing their color for camouflage) make them hard to identify in the wild and subsequently hard to study, especially as it regards distribution.
While there are seahorse conservation efforts like ‘Project Seahorse’, we are aware that of the 35 known species, there are possible countless others either never before seen or misclassified because it can be difficult to differentiate between species.
What about Seahorses and Mating?
The most anomalous thing about seahorse mating is that it is the male seahorse-THE MAN who carries the offspring. The male and female of the species court before copulation where the male seeks the attention of the female.
They engage in synchronized movements while holding each other’s tails for about two mornings before copulating- there’s quivering and some quick side-to-side movements that resemble a kind of dance. It’s actually quite beautiful to watch.
On the day of copulation after a bit more dancing and displays of protruding stomachs on the part of the males- the female of the species deposits the eggs directly into his brood pouch after a quick mid-water copulation for them to be fertilized (this is how we know he is the male-as it is he who fertilizes the eggs). “
Then in an unprecedented phenomenon of the animal kingdom-the male of the species undergoes a period of ‘gestation’ similar to that of a human woman. He carries the fertilized eggs in his front pouch (like a womb) for 2-5 five weeks, wherein the female visits him each morning, and they ‘dance’ to affirm their bond.
When the children are set to arrive, the male seahorse goes into a sort of ‘labor’ complete with contractions and gulping and then ‘births’ several (up to a thousand) mini seahorse replicas. You would think this would mean a high density of the animals for future breeding, but seahorses have a high infant mortality rate of about 90% and even without that, they are a popular ingredient in traditional Asian medicine, making some species endangered, and distribution densities low.
Difference Between ’Mating for Life’ and Monogamy
The way we as people view the idea of ‘mating for life’ is the same way we view ‘soulmates’ or marriage. That means being with one person and one person only. When we talk about monogamy in zoology, however, it means having one partner for a breeding season.
Unlike some animals (i.e., cats) who have multiple partners in a breeding season and thereby birth broods with multiple fathers, seahorse males are ensured of being the only father to their young as they fertilize the eggs themselves.
So, a more accurate description of mating for life in the wild would be ‘lifetime monogamy’ as being monogamous would only mean being with the same mate for a period of maybe two weeks in our case with seahorses, to then find another mate a month later.
So, is it for Life?
Okay, okay, I know what you’re asking now. SO, WHICH IS IT? Are they soulmates or not? Well, all in all, some species do mate for life- like the Australian Hippocampus White. We attribute this possibly due to bonding-and possibly as a result of the low population densities in their habitats and their largely sedentary lifestyle.
This may make it dangerous to try finding another mate. This means many species do mate for life, or at least several successive breeding cycles. However, it is to be noted that some monogamous pairs have separated, when one of the two finds a more attractive mate.