Forget long walks on a moonlit beach. Our idea of romance takes place beyond the surf, where each day seahorse pairs perform a morning minuet to renew their bonds.
Seahorses are among the few fishes that mate for life. During the daily greeting ritual, the female swims toward the male and when they meet, they change color. They entwine their prehensile tails around a holdfast such as a blade of seagrass, as our lined seahorses above are doing, and twirl like maypole dancers. Letting go of the holdfast, but with tails still linked, they promenade across the seafloor. This display of devotion lasts six to 10 minutes, ending when the female swims away to forage. The male often returns to a stand of seagrass, where he anchors. They remain apart for the rest of the day.
The greeting ritual not only reinforces the pair’s relationship, but it also appears to bring the male and female into reproductive synchrony. As soon as the pregnant male gives birth, the female can be ready with ripe eggs to re-mate, often on the same day. During a longer, more involved dance, the female deposits long strings of yolky eggs in the male’s pouch, where he fertilizes them. Up to 300 offspring develop in the pouch. After a gestation of about three weeks, the babies are explosively expelled and dispersed on ocean currents, tiny but fully formed and ready to hunt.
The dancing seahorse partners remain faithful, even when one is injured or is no longer able to reproduce. If one of the pair dies, the remaining seahorse might take many weeks to find a new mate.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor