|Image: Nick Hobgood|
I've never really understood Seahorses. For me, they occupy a strange, ambivalent realm where they can appear charmingly eccentric or nightmarishly crippled depending on how I feel at the moment.
Thorny Seahorse (H. histrix)
Not good at being a fish
Seahorses are different. I can't escape the feeling that they were meant to have arms. Their body is bent and broken out of shape and then covered in bony plates to make sure they stay that way. They are indeed close relatives of pipefish, except they look like they've spent too long bent double down a mine.
|Image: WoRMS for SMEBD|
Maned Seahorse (H. guttulatus)
Go home, scary Seahorse. You're drunk.
On second thoughts... drown your sorrows, mate.
White's Seahorse (H. whitei)
The googly eyes of a monster?
"Take this THING back to Baltimore"
|Image: Andrew Dunn|
Hippocampus. Back when they ate liver
Unfortunately for them, Seahorses don't have half a dozen men in uniform to take them around the place. Instead, they must rely on a tiny dorsal fin which flutters pathetically in the water. Pectoral fins on either side of their head are used for steering, and they're so tiny and badly placed that they only really work because the Seahorse is so depressingly slow.
|Image: San Diego Shooter|
Dwarf Seahorse (H. zosterae)
World's Slowest Fish, 2009
At 5 cm (2 in) long, not the smallest
|It's our old friend the Pygmy Seahorse! Some of them are just an inch long|
|Image: richard ling|
Big-belly Seahorse (H. abdominalis)
One of the biggest at 35 cm (13 in) long
This is where the prehensile tail comes in. Other fish have a tail with a fin attached, and they use it to power through the water and do amazing things like go from one place to another place. Seahorse tails are completely different. They're curly-wurly and are wound around a branch of coral, a plant stem, or something else that doesn't go anywhere. This helps our woebegone Seahorse be in a place and not go to another place.
|Image: Hans Hillewaert|
Short-snouted Seahorse (H. hippocampus)
Surrounded by copepods/lunch
|Image: Andreas MÃ¤rz|
Slender Seahorse (H. reidi)
Time to boogie
And so it's time... for The Forbidden Dance.
Video: Daragh Owens
Seahorses are famous for the elegance and grace of their courtship dance. They follow each other around, synchronising their movements, they hold tails (they can't hold hands) and whirl around each other, they grasp a bit of coral and spin around it (the kind of thing I think was mandatory in musicals whenever a happy couple passed a lamppost).
It's all thoroughly delightful! And it's pretty cool that the Seahorse is so rubbish at swimming around that they use the act of swimming around to demonstrate the profundity of their love. That's sacrifice!
You will also notice that carrying a little extra weight is no excuse when it comes to strutting your stuff. The male of the species has a brood pouch...
Which he opens up to demonstrate the gaping emptiness within. This is, of course, utterly obscene, but it always is when you're on the outside looking in. Er... outside of the relationship, I mean.
Then again, this pouch is exactly where the female deposits her eggs once they've been fertilised. There may be anything from a hundred to a couple thousand eggs in there, all cosy in their father's swelling belly.
Big-belly Seahorse demonstrates its name.
Some Seahorses get more pregnant than others
Thing is, not all Seahorses are as faithful as others. Some species may well mate for life, others only for a single season. There are some that breed in groups (a love polygon, I suppose) and at least one species, the Big-belly Seahorse, seems happy to flirt and court any male or female of its own species who happens to be around. Sort of like a nightclub.
|Image: richard ling|
Shame on you!
After fooling around with every Tom, Dick and Harriet, even the most promiscuous of Seahorses will eventually produce or incubate a whole gut full of eggs.
They hatch within the male's pouch and once they're ready to be released into the wild, their dad contracts his heaving belly with the kind of violence usually reserved for seasickness. The babies are rudely thrust into the sea like bubbles from a... thing you blow bubbles out of. A circle on a stick, or whatever you call it (I'm going somewhere with this).
And just like bubbles, almost all of them are destroyed (this is the Art of writing, dear reader. Honestly, it's a burden). Their father secures the eggs from predation but the vast majority of baby Seahorses still get eaten or whisked away on the currents, and it may be months before they reach adult size. And then they can STILL get whisked away on the currents. All of which is why the male Seahorse is soon ready for a whole new pouch of eggs.
Shortsnout Seahorse (H. breviceps)
And I still think they would appreciate some extra limbs..