Seahorse

Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti). Pic by PacificKlaus

The seahorses are a group of marine fishes comprising 55 species of the genus Hippocampus. Seahorses can be mainly found in tropical and warm waters around the world, seeking shelter in seagrass beds, estuaries, coral reefs and mangroves.

Morphology

Seahorses range in size from the smallest seahorse, the Satomi’s Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus satomiae) of just 1.4 cm in size to the largest seahorse, the big-belly seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis) of up to 35 cm. Seahorses are bony fish without scales that have a very thin skin over a series of bony plates arranged in rings throughout their body, the number of rings varies by species. The horses head is crowned with bumps that help distinguish each individual.

Seahorses swim upright, another characteristic that is not shared by their closest relatives, such as pipefish, which swim horizontally. The neck of seahorses is flexible and well defined, another distinctive feature compared to other fish. Seahorses are very slow swimmers and move stirring rapidly the dorsal fin (up to 35 times per second) and use the pectoral fins, located behind the eyes, as a rudder. Since their swimming skills are not very good, they are often found resting, with their prehensile tails clinging to corals or algae. The long snout of the seahorse, which is responsible for the common name given to these fish, is used to absorb their prey and have eyes capable of moving independently of each other, like chameleons do.

Reproduction

One of the most striking features of seahorses is that is the male is the one that gives birth to their young. The male has a brood pouch able to hold up to 1,500 eggs that the female lays in this bag. The male then incubates them from 9 to 45 days until the tiny seahorses emerge fully developed. Once seahorses are released into the water they are completely independent but less than 0.5% of those horses reach adulthood because they are likely to be eaten by countless predators or washed away outside the safety of Neptune’s grass or coral reefs, dying of exhaustion due to their poor ability to swim.

Male seahorse giving birth to 1,800 pups 

Feeding

Seahorses are carnivorous fish that feed primarily on small crustaceans floating in the water or crawl along the bottom. They aldo feed on larvae, other fish and invertebrates. Their hunting technique is based on camouflage and ambushes to absorb tiny organisms with their mouth. Although it may seem otherwise, they’re very voracious fish, able to eat 3,000 brine shrimps every day!

Pontoh’s pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus pontohi). Pic by prilfish

Conservation

The difficulty to study seahorses, along with its unknown population, precludes an evaluation of their status and risk of extinction. What is known is that some of their habitats, such as seagrass beds and coral reefs, are being severely degraded, something that is directly affecting these fish.

Seahorses are also suffering from the pillaging by aquarium enthusiasts, who buy or catch these fish without knowing they may die very quickly because they only eat live prey and suffer much stress on aquariums falling ill easily.

One of the greatest threats to seahorses is their capture for use in traditional Chinese medicine. It is estimated that 20 million seahorses are caught each year in the wild because they believe that the ones raised in captivity are not good for these «medicinal» practices. 

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