Amorous seahorses: Underwater love at London Zoo

Conservationists encourage animals to mate by supplying the fishy couples with their own private tanks


Sometimes all a seahorse needs is a little privacy. Conservationists have discovered that the secret to the fish's mating success lies in creating private "honeymoon suites" for breeding.

Seahorses are a protected species in the UK, and London Zoo is managing to boost populations of native short- and long-snouted varieties by providing couples with their own private tanks. This technique has allowed the institution to give more than 300 seahorses to breeding and research projects across Europe.

The zoo's work in breeding the declining fish has been taking place in a hidden warehouse behind the public aquarium since 1996. Now, for the first time, the public can watch the conservationists in action at a special exhibit, which opened yesterday.

Brian Zimmerman, curator of the aquarium at London Zoo, said: "We noticed when we kept the seahorses in bigger groups, a pair would start a courtship dance, and another male – or sometimes a female – would try to muscle in and disrupt their ability to complete courtship."

"Now we put a mixture of males and females in a larger courtship tank, then, when we observe a couple pairing off, we give them their own individual tanks. It's their honeymoon suite."

Seahorses give very clear indications of their chosen partner before they actually mate. At first light in the spring they will perform an elaborate flirtation, entwining tails, twirling each other round in a dance and promenading along the bottom of the tank. When their keepers observe this behaviour the fish are quickly removed to their own private breeding tank.

To keep more of the offspring, known as fry, alive, London Zoo has also pioneered the use of spherical tanks with a current running through them to replicate ocean life. After birth, they are immediately removed, allowing their parents to get on with making a new batch. The fry are later moved into the mixed tanks, where they can select a mate.

Seahorses often mate for life, so once paired off, they can be kept in the same tank indefinitely. It is the males that carry the eggs to gestation, after the females deposit them in their brood pouch.

Conservationists believe seahorse populations are dwindling rapidly. The zoo's work is part of Project Seahorse, a worldwide breeding and conservation programme which it has been involved with since 1996.

Dr Heather Koldewey, field conservation manager of Project Seahorse, who travels the world to boost populations of the endangered fish, said: "Seahorses provide a focus for us to address some of the ocean's major threats – getting it right for seahorses will mean we have helped most marine life... Every year, millions of seahorses are stripped from the sea by shrimp trawlers as their nets rake the bottom; they are overfished by small-scale or subsistence fishers; their inshore coastal habitats are subject to pollution, dredging, mining, blasting, farming, and other human damage."

Scientists from around the world will meet in Faro, Portugal, next month to discuss what many believe is a grave situation for seahorses across the planet.

Dad's left holding the babies as mum's out dancing with the girls!

* Unlike most other animals, pregnancy is left to the men. Male seahorses have a brood pouch into which the female deposits up to 1,500 eggs. Though more than 1,000 can be born at once, fewer than 0.5 per cent of infants survive adulthood in the wild.

* Many seahorses are monogamous and mate for life – but they still like to flirt, and not necessarily with the opposite sex: both males and females are happy to twine tails and do a bit of synchronised swimming with fish of either gender.

* Seahorses are rather weak swimmers and often die of exhaustion in stormy seas. They propel themselves using a fin on their back that flutters up to 35 times per second.

* They anchor themselves by curling their tails around sea grasses and corals.

* Seahorses may be tiny but they have a big appetite; they graze continually and are able to consume 3,000 or more brine shrimp a day.

* Coastal habitat depletion, pollution and harvesting have made several species vulnerable to extinction.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Nurse and Room Leader - Hackney

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a qualified childcare p...

Recruitment Genius: Agency Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Network Support Engineer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Network Support Engineer is r...

Recruitment Genius: Account Director - Tech Startup - Direct Your Own Career Path

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent