Seahorses, with the head of a horse, a pouch like a kangaroo, a tail like a monkey and males that give birth, have long captured the imagination of people. The generic name for seahorses – Hippocampus – literally means ‘sea monster’.
There are several distinct families in the suborder Syngnathoidai, to which seahorses belong. This suborder includes sea moths, pipefishes, trumpetfishes, cornetfishes and snipefishes.
These creatures have unique characteristics that distinguish them from all other fishes. Physical features include external armor in the form of bony plates, tufted gills, and an elongated snout. This upright fish swims by means of a dorsal fin that is translucent and often nearly invisible.
Some 32 distinct species of seahorses are found around the world. They live in both warm, tropical seas and chilly waters. The animals favor grass beds, kelp forests, mangroves and corals. Seahorses are slow swimmers. They have a prehensile tail (adapted for seizing or holding, especially by wrapping around an object), that they use to grasp onto sea grasses.
The smallest member of the seahorse family, the Dwarf Seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae) is found in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida, west to Texas, as well as in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Bahamas. The species is beige, yellow, green, or black with white markings that mimic splashes of paint. It is found in shallow grass flats, as well as among floating vegetation.
The Lined Seahorse (Hippocampus erectus) is found in the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Atlantic. The species varies in color from orange or brown to yellow, red or black. White lines are found on the head and neck. Lined seahorses live in shallow water.
The Longsnout Seahorse (Hippocampus reidi) also lives in the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Atlantic. It is often covered with brown spots and tiny white dots, especially on the tail. The Longsnout Seahorse has a long, thick snout.
Seahorses must eat almost constantly in order not to starve. They use their snouts to suck in foodâ€”small shrimp, plankton, and fish larvaeâ€”whatever will pass through the tiny mouth.
Seahorses often change color. They do so to hide from predators, to show aggression, and to engage in courtship rituals. Each eye can rotate independently from the other; consequently, one eye can look in one direction while the other is scouting out a completely different area.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of the seahorse is that the male gives birth. The male seahorse’s pregnancy begins with a greeting ritual dance that is initiated by the female. Their elegant courtship includes the pair changing color, entwining around one another, and promenading together.
Eventually, the female points her snout up and starts rising in the water. The male then begins to force water in and out of his abdominal brood pouch. They connect as the female positions her egg duct over the opening of the male’s pouch. They lock together and the female transfers strings of eggs into the pouch, where they are fertilized. Depending on the species and the water temperature, pregnancy lasts from two to six weeks, and the male will give birth to up to 1500 tiny seahorses.
Could we lose these incredible animals?
Although seahorses are found worldwide and throughout the Caribbean, there is growing concern over declining populations. Their natural habitats are typically areas that are often heavily exploited by man. Human population explosion, global warming and destructive fishing methods are destroying many of these areas.
Compounding the problem is the use of seahorses in Oriental medicine, where the dried bodies of these creatures are believed by some people to be useful for treating such ailments as intestinal disorders and pain. Millions of seahorses are harvested every year for these purposes.
Project Seahorse is an international effort aimed at educating people about these animals. The Project is working to expand knowledge about the proper care of seahorses in the aquarium industry, as well as managing seahorse fisheries.
International protective legislation can help save the seahorse from extinction. Aquafarming can help solve the global problem of overfishing for food and the consequent habitat destruction. Although the aquarium trade represents only a fraction of all seahorse harvesting, the marine hobbyist can help alleviate the pressure on wild populations by choosing a farm-raised seahorse for a home aquarium.
The seahorse is a marvel of the animal kingdom. Observing this animal go about its daily routine awakens a sense of mystery in persons who appreciate the wonders of nature, yet at the same time generates an inner sense of contentment.
Seahorses are unmatched in style and beauty. Enjoy, but please be mindful of the fragility of nature.
For more information, visit: http://seahorse.fisheries.ubc.ca
A native of Topeka, Kansas, and a freelance writer, Joe Zentner attended the Universities of Wisconsin, Missouri and California. He summers in the Caribbean.