Seahorses Marine Biology

Seahorses in General

Order: Syngnathiformes
Family: Syngnathidae – Seahorses and Pipefish
Sub Family: Hippocampinae Seahorses
Sub Family: Syngnathinae – Pipefish

Distinct in their general appearance many Syngnathidae remain undescribed in the Indo Pacific region. Found worldwide in tropical and temperate waters.

A Seahorse will anchor themselves in  place using their tail
A Seahorse will anchor themselves in
place using their tail

Most live on shallow reefs, sea grass beds or on the substrate of sheltered bays and lagoons in various depths.

We have observed individuals in 6 inches of water and deep sea trawlers have bought up species living at depths of 500m.

The family Syngnathiform are generally separated into the sub families by the presence or absence of a caudal (tail) fin the seahorse does not possess one, instead they have a tail which they use to anchor themselves in place, illustrated left.

Tube like snout of the Pipefish
Tube like snout of the Pipefish

A Pipefish looks like a straight seahorse and usually has some form of caudal fin.

A dorsal fin is always present and is their main form of locomotion. Ventral fins are never present.

Both have a tube-like snout and trumpet-like mouth, which can not be opened.

Instead they hoover up their food of small crustaceans from crevices and holes.

A series of bony rings encase the body of seahorses and pipefish making it quite difficult to out-swim most predators.

They are therefore very well camouflaged by colour and body form with appendages, which disrupt the body outline.

Their adult size ranges from 1.5cm to almost 40cm in length.

Seahorses

Sub Family: Hippocampinae

The unique reproduction system of the Seahorse means that the male becomes pregnant.

He has a pouch called a marsupium into which the female seahorse lays her eggs.

A well camouflaged creature forming  appendages which disrupt the body outline
A well camouflaged creature forming
appendages which disrupt the body outline

He will fertilize them, then incubate them for about 2/3 weeks, during which time they develop into perfect miniatures of their parents, and will finally release them.

Most seahorses mate for life displaying affection morning and night, during the day they separate to feed, although some may hunt together or remain stationary as a pair.

Their adult size ranges from 1.5cm to almost 40cm in length.

Sadly as many as 20 million seahorses are captured each year for the Chinese Traditional Medicine Market.

The belief is that the creatures contain aphrodisiac powers and because of it, many have been hunted close to extinction.

Scuba divers also have a part to play for the creatures survival, as they are very sensitive and suffer a lot of stress if disturbed.

When observing them, good buoyancy control is vital and photography should be unobtrusive.

Such delicate creatures require unobtrusive observation
Such delicate creatures require
unobtrusive observation

If the animal begins to move it should be left alone, otherwise it may attempt to rehome itself, thus making it more susceptible to predation.

Seahorses and Pipefish are favorites among the aquarium trade but should never be captured from the wild as they will not survive. Those bread in captivity fair much better in tanks.

For this reason, many have been hunted close to extinction. SCUBA divers also have a part to play in the survival of these creatures, by not disturbing them when discovered, as they are sensitive and could suffer a lot of stress.

When observing seahorses, good buoyancy control is vital and photography should be unobtrusive. If the animal begins to move it should be left alone, otherwise it may attempt to rehome itself, thus making it more susceptible to predation.

Seahorses and pipefish are favorites among the aquarium trade but should never be captured from the wild as they will not survive. Those bread in captivity fair much better in tanks.

Pygmy Seahorse

Sub Family: Hippocampus Bargibanti

The distribution of the Pygmy sheahorse ranges from Southern Japan to Northern Australia. Preferring deeper waters of 20m+ and current prone areas, this tiny creature associates with the Muricella spp – Gorgonian Sea Fan.

H.Bargibanti associates with  Muricella sp Sea Fan
H.Bargibanti associates with
Muricella sp Sea Fan

Unknown to man until the late 60’s, Pygmy seahorses were discovered by accident when a biologist collected a sea fan sample.

Even today, Pygmy seahorses are quite difficult to find due to their choice of habitat. Divers soon run short of bottom time at depth when searching the fans, especially in the presence of strong currents.

A Diver looks within a Muricella sp seafan

Highly cryptic to fascinating proportions, the tiny bodies of Pygmy seahorses are covered in small, rounded, projecting outgrowths (tubacles) to match the colour and texture of the red polyps of their sea fan host.

Pygmy seahorses can perfectly camouflaged themselves among retracted red polyps.

With open polyps the fan has much bushier appearance, thus hiding the seahorse even deeper inside its branches.

Pygmy seahorses have a shorter snout than most seahorses and grow to a maximum size of 2.5cm – 3cm in length.

Open polyps of the seafan
Open polyps of the Sea fan

Once found, photographing the fascinating Pygmy seahorse is also a challenge. A good macro lens is required, supported by a steady hand in strong currents.

Unfortunately we have been witness to photographers breaking coral branches and attempting to move the creature in order to obtain the desired shot. This behaviour is deplorable – rest assured they were told in no uncertain terms.

Here are a few photo tips:

  • speak to your guide and ascertain where you will find your Pygmy seahorse subject;
  • choose slack tide or low current times to conduct your dive;
  • if possible, visit the site on several occasions for the best chance of finding it in a favourable position;
  • select your macro photo equipment, for example 105mm lens, or switch to macro function;
  • be mindful of the creature and surrounding coral, taking only four or five shots to minimise their disturbance;
  • be patient and have a patient buddy;
  • remember a contented Pygmy will stay in the same fan for many months making revisits possible;

Pygmy Seahorse

Sub Family: Hippocampus denise

Typically displays a lighter orange colour
Displays a typically lighter orange colour

In January 2003 a new species of Pygmy seahorse was described.

It is commonly known as Denise’s Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus denise).

This delightful little critter bears many similarities to H. bargibanti (a very close relative), but is much smaller in overall size.

It is also highly mobile, moving freely around the host seafan.

The animal characteristically displays less tubercles than its cousin H. bargibanti and typically inhabits shallower depths.

Denise’s Pygmy Seahorse will also tend to be less host specific associating with a wider variety of seafans.

Although relatively uncommon, Denise’s Pygmy seahorse’s distribution is thought to be widespread throughout the Indo Pacific region.

It has been documented from Pulau to Borneo and Indonesian waters.

Hippocampus cf kuda - Hairy Seahorse

Hairy Seahorse

Sub Family: Hippocampus cf kuda

Hairy seahorses can be found in sandy bays and lagoons.

The Hairy seahorse is distinguished for its well camouflaged hairy-looking filaments.

This particular seahorse can grow up to 15cm in length, but the individual photographed here was a juvenile of approx. 2cm.

This hairy seahorse was photographed in 5m of water in the South China Sea, Sabah.

New Species of Pygmy Seahorse Discovered in Malaysian Waters!

Hippocampus sp

New Species of Pygmy Seahorse Discovered - Hippocampus sp

To date we have been unable to conclude the identity of the Pygmy Seahorse seen here.

This example was extremely small, smaller infact than any H.bargibanti that we have seen before, as a result it was extremely difficult to photograph.

It bares close resemblance to one found by an Indonesian guide named Pontoh in Manado which also remains unidentified.

New Species of Pygmy Seahorse Discovered - Hippocampus sp

A very thin species with two branching appendages on the back, our find is different in colour to that currently described by Pontoh.

There appears to be habitat differences: Pontohs associates with a Hydroid (Sertularella sp) found in a sheltered location, whereas we found ours anchored to a Muricella sp Gorgonian Sea Fan in a current prone area.

Pontoh is said to prefer shallow water where as ours was found at 26m. Both are very mobile creatures.

With a cream coloured spot on the snout and a mane like stripe beginning between the eyes and running along the dorsum the full length of the body, it is visibly different in appearance to Pontoh’s although some similarities do exist.

We welcome any assistance in identifying this elaborate species.

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