Life history and ecology of seahorses: implications for conservation and management

We present the first synthesis of the life history and ecology of seahorses, compare relationships for seahorses with other marine teleosts and identify research needs. Seahorses occurred primarily amidst temperate seagrasses and tropical coral reefs. Population densities were generally low, ranging from 0 to 0·51 individuals m−2, but reached 10 m−2 in some patches. Inferred life spans ranged from 1 to 5 years. Seahorses consumed live prey and possibly changed diet as they grew. Growth rates are poorly investigated to date.

Reproduction and mating systems are the best-studied aspects of seahorse ecology. The relationship between size at first maturity and maximum size in seahorses conformed to that for other marine teleosts. All seahorse species were monogamous within a cycle, but some were polygamous across cycles. Direct transfer of clutches to the brood pouch of the male fish made it difficult to measure clutch size in live seahorses. After brooding, males released from c. 5 to 2000 young, depending on species and adult size. Newborn young measured from 2 to 20 mm in length, which was a narrower size range than the 17-fold difference that occurred in adult size. Newborn body size had no relationship to adult size. Both eggs and young were larger than expected among marine teleosts, even when considering only those with parental care, but brood size at release was lower than expected, perhaps because the young were more developed. The size of adults, eggs and young increased with increasing latitude, although brood size did not.

Considerable research is needed to advance seahorse conservation and management, including (a) fisheries-dependent and fisheries-independent abundance estimates, (b) age- or stage-based natural and fishing mortalities, (c) growth rates and age at first maturity, and (d) intrinsic rates of increase and age- or size-specific reproductive output. Current data confirm that seahorses are likely to be vulnerable to high levels of exploitation.

Foster, S.A. & A.C.J. Vincent (2004). Life history and ecology of seahorses: implications for conservation and management. Journal of fish biology, 65(1), 1-61.