Seahorses have much to attract aquarists – armor plated and prehensile tailed, and with independently-moving eyes and wing-like fins, they can also change color as well as grow and discard filamentous appendages. And, of course, the males become “pregnant”.
My first contact with seahorses came in the mid 1960’s when my grandfather, long in awe of these unusual fishes, mail-ordered a group of dwarf seahorses, Hippocampus zosterae, from a dealer in Florida. The shipment included several males carrying eggs, and I was hooked – so much so that I wound up writing a book on seahorses.
Texas A&M researchers are now learning the male seahorse’s pouch is far more than a mere container for eggs, and are trying to discover just how such a unique organ managed to evolve. Tissue from within the pouch actually grows around the eggs and functions in a similar manner to a mammalian placenta. Through it the seahorse father is able to keep blood flowing around the eggs, and to provide them with oxygen and nutrition. Amazingly, he also makes minute adjustments to the salinity of the water within his pouch, gradually increasing it as the embryos’ needs change. By hatching time, the salinity of the pouch water matches precisely the salinity of the surrounding ocean.
The male seahorse fertilizes the eggs once they have been deposited into his pouch by the female. From that point on, the reproductive roles of the sexes are reversed. The researchers at Texas A&M are also looking into the effect this has had on mate selection and other aspects of seahorse reproductive behavior. In certain species of pipefish (close relatives of the seahorses) females have the bright coloration usually associated with male fishes, and they compete for access to the egg-incubating males. Seahorses are, as far as we know, monogamous. They form long-term pair bonds which are reinforced, in many species, with daily “greeting” rituals (the pair clasps tails, swims together, etc.), but much about how role-reversal has affected mate selection is unknown.
In other related news, the Georgia Aquarium has announced that one of its male weedy seadragons is carrying eggs, only the third time such has been recorded in a US aquarium. Weedy seadragons, and the larger and even more flamboyantly decorated leafy seadragons, are close relatives of the seahorses and pipefishes and also exhibit similar reproductive strategies.
You can read more about the Georgia Aquarium’s seadragon breeding program and see a seadragon video at:
Please also take a look at my seahorse book if you have a chance (see above) – I would greatly appreciate your feedback.
I’ll write more about keeping seahorses and their relatives in aquariums in the future. Until then, please forward your comments and questions.