Seahorses: Our Misunderstood Friends
By: Michael Phife
Seahorses are some of the most fascinating creatures in the ocean. They are named for their horse-like appearance from how their heads slant down and their body’s curvature.They are found on ocean floors and reef beds, holding onto some type of branched coral or seaweed / kelp / mangrove. They are, in a sense, an adapted form of a pipefish. Their tails become prehensile instead of having complete vertical symmetry, which is what ultimately separates the two species. Seahorse species are found in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. However, the larger species of seahorses are found in the Pacific and the dwarf species of seahorses are found in the Atlantic. Shockingly, they are able to eat for a total of 4 hours a day on average! Think about how much time you spend eating meals every day, then compare it to that time frame. In regards to the seahorse as a species of fish, they are very immaculate to observe, and almost become mesmerizing to watch in an oceanic aquarium.
Breeding and Reproduction
As many people know, when seahorses breed, the male will carry the eggs in its pouch until they are ready to hatch. The male is not necessarily pregnant, nor should be considered the birth bearer, but more like that of a kangaroo holding a Joey in its pouch. However, what you may not know is that the male will do a dance to court the female. This dance involves the male seahorse bobbing side to side while holding onto a branch, and even change its own pigmentation. The male will then show the female that it’s pouch is empty to entice the female into mating with him. If both court successfully, they will go into a unison courting dance which can last an entire day, but on an average of 8 hours. While the male carries the eggs in his pouch, they are protected by an almost sponge-like tissue on the inner layer of the pouch, and will even give nutrients (prolactin) to the eggs. The female will sometimes come back and check on the eggs to make sure they are being appropriately incubated by the male… and I’m honestly not sure what she would do if they were not being well taken care of. The eggs are carried by the male for an approximate total of one to seven weeks, depending on the species, before they are hatched. The seahorse can give birth to 5 – 2,500 babies at once… yet less than one percent of them will even live to adulthood. This is because once the fry (baby fish) are hatched, they are literally on their own to fend for themselves, as the adult seahorses do not provide for them any longer.
Sea dragons are a various form of a seahorse, and can only be found in one location in the world… Southern Australia. They are in a genus all by themselves (phycodurus), so they are technically separate from seahorses, yet related just like pipefish. The sea dragon looks very similar to a plant or some type of leafy coral, which is a unique yet remarkable adaptation they went through via evolution. They are larger than most seahorses, and can get to an average length of 10 inches when fully grown. They are also not all found grasping onto a branch like their relatives, and will freely swim around the ocean instead. Their fins help them steer in the water, yet their body is not properly made for locomotion, which limits their ability to swim at higher speeds like typical fish. Some will even remain in the same spot for days on end, hardly moving whatsoever. They reproduce the exact same way as seahorses with the male being the brood carrier. Unlike many fish, though, the sea dragon is one of the most protected fish worldwide. Hunting them is highly illegal, and only a very few countries are allowed to host them in licensed aquariums.
Conservation and Endangerment
Sadly, a lot of genus’ of seahorses are becoming endangered. This happens through changes in ocean sustainability, poaching for use in Eastern medicines, the use in jewelry, and the deterioration of the coral reef beds as mentioned many times throughout our website. It is an unfortunate dilemma that conservationists are facing in order to keep them alive, but we as a whole are working on getting the word out about conservation methods; along with awareness on why they are important for ocean sustainability. In fact, a lot of local fish stores have stopped selling many genus’ of seahorses, that way they can remain in the ocean to live in their natural environment. Many people who keep seahorses as pets in their aquariums do not know their proper diets, and just assume they will eat any type of shrimp or small crustacean. They, in fact, need a variety of carnivorous food for their diets, with one of the staples to their diet being copepods. Zoos and aquariums emphasize the importance of conservation methods on their seahorses, and even go as far as breeding them to bring their numbers back up. Unfortunately, some species such as the Paradoxical Seahorse may not even be able to recover from over-poaching and destruction of coral reef beds. In fact, they may not even be alive to this day due to the lack of their findings in field research data. Hopefully conservation methods can be made stricter to ensure this does not happen to the remaining species left in our oceans.