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Sea Horses - Natural Non-Conformists

Monday, January 22nd, 2007 at 09:55 by Sue Stewart

You might think that there aren‚??t many mysteries left in the world, but you‚??d be wrong. The natural world is frequently baffling and one of the most baffling creatures in the natural world is the tiny, strangely lovable, seahorse.

Seahorses are small and pretty and almost fairylike - sort of a cross between My Little Pony and Tinkerbell. (And The Little Mermaid, I suppose, if I‚??m going to take this analogy to its full limit. Or possibly strain it to breaking point. Oops. Sorry - there it goes….)

They‚??re also - well, they‚??re odd. It‚??s the male seahorse that has the babies - the only species in the whole world (as far as we know) that does this. So not only are they fascinating, they‚??re heartening. Seahorses show that no matter what sexist blather you may hear, there is a male of a species somewhere that really cares. You may have to go to ridiculous lengths - well, depths, or at least set up an aquarium - to prove it, but you can.

Speaking of which, Katrien van Look and colleagues at the Institute of Zoology in London have done just that to study seahorse reproduction. (Hang on - so seahorses don‚??t conform to sexual stereotypes. Is that any reason to subject them to such intense scrutiny? Oh. Scientifically, it is. Sorry. My mistake.)

They have found that although fertilisation takes place inside the brood sac, the sperm aren‚??t released straight into it, like they always thought. The sperm actually goes into the seawater surrounding the male before being quickly taken into the brood sac to fertilise the eggs. This means that seahorses are much more vulnerable to environmental pollution than everyone thought.

Seems rather tough on the little seahorse, several species of which are already listed as vulnerable and one as endangered, as they are taken from the wild in large numbers to populate aquariums. (Aquaria? All right, fish tanks.) Not to mention those that are bycatch in shrimp nets. And the 20 million or so a year that are used in Chinese medicine. Thank goodness the scientists seem to be researching seahorses bred in captivity or our curiosity might finish them off altogether.

They have also discovered that seahorses have 2 different types of sperm, called - catchily enough - type 1 and type 2. Tim Birkhead, an evolutionary biologist at Sheffield University said, “That’s a real puzzle. All the other animal species with multiple sperm types are promiscuous.” But seahorses aren‚??t.

Seahorses mate for life. Ahhh. Of course, some scientists speculate that this is because they aren‚??t strong swimmers and having chosen the ideal piece of seaweed or coral to hang onto, Mr and Mrs Seahorse are reluctant to let go and swim away to find a new mate should they find they have irreconcileable differences. (Perhaps that shows that differences are always reconcileable, which is heartening. Or perhaps we should be grateful they can‚??t speak, or we‚??d hear them saying, ‚??Well, just leave, then.‚?? ‚??No, you go.‚?? ‚??No, you go.‚?? ‚??Why should I? I found this branch.‚?? ‚??Well, I made it fit to live on….‚??)

I don‚??t think so, though. I think that seahorses are happily bucking every trend and proving us wrong at every turn. More power to them. I just hope we don‚??t fish and poison them to extinction while they‚??re doing it.

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One Comment on “Sea Horses - Natural Non-Conformists”

  1. Rhys Wilcox Says:

    Sounds like the plot for the next Pixar film.

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