Deb Susan’s Romantic Ritual of the Sea

  Most of you know I have a marine aquarium focused on seahorses. (OK, technically all of you know it now.) Far fewer of you probably know that seahorses have rituals too.

The most visible, and most dramatic, centers on courtship.

Most seahorses mate for life (though some, like my female Ceti, decide to somewhat literally change horses in midstream). The courtship and mating process involves tail-holding, mid-water “dancing” and often dramatic color changes.

My large male seahorse, Cygnus, is usually black (see the photo, left). During his ongoing courtship of Ceti, however, he frequently shifts to grey or even white. Ceti’s color changes are less dramatic – she usually opts to increase the contrast between her dark body scales and her white saddle markings.

When the seahorses mate – about once a month – they leave their usual “hitches” and swim together around the tank. They perform a watery dance called a “carousel” where they circle one another, sometimes holding tails.

The dance is important because seahorses mate in mid-water, with the female depositing eggs into the male’s pouch while swimming beside him.

This takes quite a bit of coordination. “Dropped eggs” are common – and Ceti takes it personally when Cygnus accidentally drops the clutch. She sulks and refuses to look him, no matter how dramatically he changes colors and tries to get her attention.

Fortunately, her temper (or maybe her memory) doesn’t last long.

Within a day or two they’re hitching and swimming together again, practicing for the next month’s ritual dance.

Most people consider seahorses strange, unearthly creatures with little or no “personality,” but you don’t have to watch them for very long to realize what unique, individual creatures they really are. Cyg and Ceti are very attached to one another. They practice their ritual dances all the time. They also “hold tails” while sitting together or swimming, and they hate to be separated for very long.

Like humans, seahorses use bonding rituals to strengthen and maintain their relationships – though unlike humans, they don’t much like to share their dinner!

Do your pets have rituals? Have you ever seen animals impressing one another with ritual dances? Hop into the comments and let me know!!

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17 thoughts on “Deb Susan’s Romantic Ritual of the Sea

  1. Wowsa!! My daughters (and biologist husband!) will go nuts for this post, Susan! I can’t wait to share it with them. I think seahorses are unbelievably cool and the only thing cooler is that you have some! Keep the updates coming–I’m hooked! (Or should I say: Hitched? 😉 )

    • Thanks Erika! I hope they like it as much as you did. It’s funny – I’d wanted seahorses all my life, but now that I have them they’re even more fun than I anticipated. I didn’t expect them to have vibrant little personalities and quirks, or to be such unique individuals. It’s like a living soap opera. So glad you like them too!

  2. Cyg and Ceti are gorgeous! How fascinating it must be to observe all their rituals. Thanks for sharing the pictures here, and for educating us in ways of seahorse love. 🙂

  3. I don’t have pets, but my kids have rituals. Do they count? Wake up, jump on mama’s bed, beg for cereal and cartoons. Whine about getting dressed…okay, I’ll stop now. 🙂 We’re all just a pack of animals, aren’t we? Another fun post, Susan!

  4. I just realized I forgot to comment yesterday when I read – and loved – this post. I remember discovering seahorses in the encyclopedia as a child – instant fascination. I look forward to all the pics and stories you can share. : ) Actually, I just want a web cam on your tank, with you as commentator narrating amusing incidents. Can we arrange that?

    • I had the same reaction to seahorses as a child. My great-grandmother lived on Balboa Island in Southern California, and had a private pier (and her front yard was a beach…coolest childhood vacation spot ever). The first seahorses I ever saw were living on the reef that grew under the pier. I was fascinated. I spent hours on my stomach, leaning out over the water, watching them. I always wanted one of my own but I knew they wouldn’t live in a bucket so I had to make do with watching. Many years later, I’m so glad to finally have real ones that I don’t have to hang upside down off a dock to watch!

  5. This is so fascinating! Before reading this, I knew next to nothing about seahorses, other than the fact that they’re pretty. I love that they actually have “relationships”!

    • Thanks Dana 🙂

      It surprised me too, actually. Most exotic fish have individual traits (fishonalities? fish-personalities?) but I was surprised by how interactive the seahorses really are. They’re all three very different. The female is the boldest, and will gladly grab my hand as a hitch if I put it near her. The males are more shy, but that’s normal because they brood the babies and are even more shy when they’re pregnant.

      As an aside: if you really want to freak out the guys in your life, use the masculine pronoun in connection with “pregnant” – gives my guys the heebies every time.

      • Hahaha, next time I’m going through some pregnancy-related issue, I’ll have to remind my husband that if he were a seahorse, HE would be going through this right now!

  6. A little late, but so glad I read this post! I think I mentioned this previously, but seahorses are one of my favorite marine creatures. Just love them. Beautiful creatures and beautiful rituals!

    I have a dog (Luna) and a cat (Trio). Once or twice a week the cat elects to go on a dogwalk with Luna and I. When we first set out out, Trio runs ahead and goes into stalking position behind a bush. Luna is a rescue dog with one eye, and Trio inevitably hides on Luna’s blind side. By now Luna knows what’s going to happen, so she slows down. Trio wiggles his butt and then leaps into a run toward Luna, skids to an almost-halt, and jumps over Luna. Luna blinks up at me with her big Pekingnese eyeball, like, Okay, that’s over with, can we get on with it now?

    It’s hilarious, and always the same routine. Secretly, I think Luna likes it.

    • That’s hilarious. I can totally imagine Trio stalking Luna. I bet they both enjoy it – animals are so funny about games. Luna sounds like a cutie – I love Pekes, and I have a special place in my heart for rescues. My Oobie is a rescue, too – the woman who rescued her pregnant mother decided to find homes for all of the kittens instead of aborting them, and the minute we saw little two-week old Oobie (we called her Bumblebee then but she barely recognizes that name now) it was love at first sight!

      • I hear you about love at first sight! It was love at first sight for both of mine. Luna because she’s adorable and no one wanted to adopt her because she’s not perfect (which I still find a sad thing), and Trio, the cat, because he came right up to me and plopped himself over my shoulder. So I guess Trio actually chose me–the person at the rescue place said he’d never seen Trio do that before. Yay for our pets!

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