If you were to encounter this sight while snorkelling in the waters off New South Wales in Australia, it’s likely you wouldn’t know what was happening.
Poetically, this is how it was described by the University of British Columbia where the researchers were working:
The expectant father clings to seagrass and soon tiny creatures resembling filaments of string begin to emerge from deep within a pouch on his abdomen. Within seconds the newborn seahorses are swept away by the fast moving water.
The researchers are part of a marine conservation group based out of UBC and the Zoological Society of London called Project Seahorse when Clayton Manning, one of the master’s student with the group said the birth was caught on camera.
“We were doing a survey and found a very, very pregnant male that had a tiny tail sticking out of his brood pouch,” said Manning. “I had just finished getting his measurements and a baby shot out of the opening. So we sat back and watched the father for a while.”
Manning and Meagan Abele, a Project Seahorse research assistant, are working on a seahorse conservation project in Port Stephens, Australia. They dive and search for seahorses living in the protected waterway to learn about the habitats that best support seahorse populations. The species living in these waters is known as the White’s or Sydney seahorse or by its Latin name Hippocampus whitei.
While seahorse reproduction is well documented, most existing videos of seahorses giving birth are from aquariums. Fortunately Abele had a camera on hand and captured the special moment in nature.
“This is their time to breed,” said Abele, a UBC alumna. “Many of the males we’re finding are super pregnant and ready to burst. It’s surreal to watch it happen.”
Males give birth after females deposit eggs into pouch
Unlike most other animals, female seahorses deposit eggs into a pouch on the male’s adbomen. The males then fertilize, carry and nourish the developing embryos in a form of pregnancy. White’s seahorses carry the babies for three weeks before they are released from the pouch fully formed; about 100 to 250 babies are born at a time.
Worldwide seahorse populations face pressures from fishing, particularly bottom trawling, and habitat degradation. While it is known that seahorses live in many shallow ocean areas around the world, we don’t know a lot about the specific habitat characteristics the affect their numbers.
Seahorse population declining dramatically in parts of the world
Manning hopes to better understand how the seagrass, sponge and soft coral habitats of Port Stephens help support the seahorse population in the area. While seahorse numbers have declined precipitously in many parts of the world, Australian populations are generally doing well, providing important research opportunities and reference points.
Project Seahorse works to protect seahorses in order to support ocean conservation more broadly, generating cutting-edge research and using it to inform highly effective conservation interventions.