Reply To: Ok to have 3 seahorses?

Pete Giwojna

Dear dkblilie:

I’m very sorry to hear that you lost your male Sunburst. All of my condolences on your loss!

However, his mate should be just fine in the long run. Although it’s certainly true enough that a widowed seahorse can be traumatized by the loss of its mate, such tragedies do not necessarily doom the survivor of the pair by any means.

Over the years, I have heard many anecdotal reports that indicate that the health of a pair-bonded seahorse often suffers when it loses its mate. Widowers are thus said to languish, experience loss of appetite, and lapse into a general state of decline. Many hobbyists equate this to a state of depression or melancholy. While it’s safe to say that widowed seahorses don’t die from a broken heart, there may well be a kernel of truth at the heart of such accounts. It’s very likely that a pair-bonded seahorse suddenly separated from its mate will experience altered hormonal secretion as a result. This can cause low levels of certain hormones that are known to have a profound influence on both mental state and physical well-being in humans and animals alike, affecting everything from the immune response to sperm production and sex drive.

So this is not a life-threatening development for your female, dkblilie, but domesticated seahorses like Mustangs and Sunbursts are highly social, gregarious animals that very much enjoy the company of others of their kind, and your mare may be happier in the long run if you can provide her with some company. Chances are that your Sunburst female would be perfectly comfortable and compatible with a new pair of Sunbursts to share her aquarium, and it’s likely that the new male may eventually pair up with both females at various times.

In the meantime, if you are concerned about your solo seahorse becoming lonely by itself, you might consider taping a mirror up against the aquarium glass where your pony can get a good look at herself. Seahorses will often interact with their own reflections in the aquarium glass, so having a mirror-image seahorse that moves in response to her own actions can be very reassuring for a single seahorse and perk up the isolated individual dramatically. It’s an effective technique for a situation like yours and can fool the lonely seahorse into thinking he or she is still in the presence of other seahorses.

Hobbyists often report that not only do cultured seahorses switch partners freely when kept in a group situation, when different species are kept together, it is not uncommon for them to cross species lines and interbreed to produce hybrid offspring.

It thus appears that captive-bred seahorses are far-different animals than their wild conspecifics when it comes to their breeding habits. They are raised at far greater population densities than wild seahorses ever experience, and are accustomed to living in close proximity to others of their kind and to having a selection of possible partners to choose from when mating. As a result, farm-raised seahorses are highly social animals and appear to be far more gregarious (and promiscuous) than their wild counterparts.

Captive-bred seahorses do indeed pair bond, but the attachments they form are by no means permanent. A couple may stay together for a single mating or for several breeding cycles (Cozzi-Schmarr, May 2002). When provided with a choice of mates, however, they are apt to swap partners for no apparent reason after any given mating, and generally seem to enjoy exploring different pairings (Cozzi-Schmarr, May 2002). One sees this all the time when adding new specimens to an established tank. The introduction of the new arrivals triggers a renewed flurry of greetings and other interactions and kicks the general activity level up a notch as all the seahorses reassess the shifting social dynamics of the herd and check out prospective new mates. Chances are great the next breeding cycle will see some new pairings.

Here is how Carol Cozzi-Schmarr describes the mating patterns of captive-bred seahorses at the Ocean Rider aquafarm in Hawaii:

<quote> “As far as the monogamy in seahorses, it has been my experience that seahorses are not monogamous in the true sense of the word which implies mating with the same mate for its entire life, but do tend to “pair up” for “mating periods.” A mating period maybe one mating or it may be for several matings (Cozzi-Schmarr, May 2002).

For example, I have witnessed a female successfully mate with the same male for 6 months in a row and then suddenly stop. When a new male is introduced she begins mating with the new male. Happy as can be!! The rejected male definitely goes into a state of depression!! However, if I now introduce a new female, more than likely the old boy will try and pair up with the new girl!! Why does this happen?? I can only guess that this behavior is a very natural occurrence in the wild and that this is a type of natural selection and a necessary part of genetic selection (Cozzi-Schmarr, May 2002)!” <end quote>

Rudie H. Kuiter, a world-renowned wildlife photographer who has spent more time observing seahorses in the wild that anyone I know of, shares her viewpoint. This is what he says regarding monogamy in his book Seahorses, Pipefishes and Their Relatives: a Comprehensive Guide to Syngnathiformes:

“Each species needs to be studied in its own right and until now only few species have been studied in detail. Most studies have been selective and involved few species. Findings are often generalized and may wrongly suggest to apply to other species. Claims of monogamy in seahorses [are] either misinterpreted or overstated and I have avoid[ed] using this term, as these fishes simply pair-up like many other fishes do, and the level of devotion varies from strongly-bonded to casual, depending on the species, and partner swapping occurs in all at some stage.” (Kuiter, 2000, p13)

I agree with Carol’s observations and Rudie’s assessment of the matter. It has certainly been my experience that when seahorses are provided with a group of potential mates to choose from, they will take advantage of that situation to try different pairings. It is very possible that this polygamous behavior may simply be an artifact of captivity, the inevitable result of keeping seahorses in small closed-system aquaria where they cannot maintain anything approaching the large territories they are said to enjoy in the wild. But it is a fact that polygamy is the norm for seahorses in the captive environment when they are maintained in groups, and that monogamy tends to break down in such situations.

Interestingly, it is fairly easy to predict which couples are likely to remain together and which pairs are apt to wind up with new partners next time around. Pairs that continue to conduct daily greetings in the aquarium are very probably going to re-mate when the male delivers his next brood. But all bets are off when a fickle filly proceeds to flirt with males other than her mate while he is carrying young. She is liable to bestow her eggs with one of the other available males when the next breeding cycle begins. It is the female who initiates daily greetings, and if she chooses not to renew her bonds with her current mate each morning, it’s a very good sign that this mare is moving on to greener pastures.

Eventually, these brazen broodmares are apt to give all the studs in the stable a roll in the hay. Presented with the option, it is sound genetic policy to diversify and try different combinations of genes. I suspect the only reason this doesn’t occur more often in the wild is a lack of opportunity.

In short, I think it would be just fine for you to keep your seahorses as a threesome, and your lucky stallion is liable to mate with both of the available females at one time or another, so I think everything will work out just fine in the long run if you keep the trio of Sunbursts.

Best wishes with all your fishes, dkblilie.

Pete Giwojna

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