Images used with the permission of their photographers
Beautiful, fascinating and mysterious, the seahorse is a fish like no other. For one thing, there’s the characteristically unique shape, from the horsey looking head down to the long, curling tail. Then there’s the seahorses’ covering, a delicate skin stretched over bony plates rather than regular scales. And we haven’t even started on their unusual habits!
Join us as we take a look at these amazing creatures with the aid of wonderful images by photographers like Felicia McCaulley. By the end, perhaps you'll have learnt something new about these lovely and fragile marine animals.
Here’s a stylish-looking seahorse with a lovely swirling multi-colored pattern. This elegant lady is a female Hippocampus erectus. Also known as the lined seahorse, this species is found on the American coast from Canada to Argentina. Lined seahorses can grow up to about 5 inches in length – like this one.
The Perhentian Islands in Malaysia are home to this pale beauty. Although it’s tempting to want to keep a creature as beautiful as this in your aquarium, if you do buy one, make sure it has been reared in captivity. Seahorses caught in the wild rarely do well in fish tanks – and harvesting them also contributes to the declining seahorse population.
The Hippocampus abdominalis, or pot-bellied seahorse, is among the largest of the seahorse species and can grow to an amazing foot in length. Although they may not look it, pot-bellied seahorses are actually very strong swimmers, unlike many of their peers. Those speckled markings allow them to blend in with their environment – which is usually weedy or rocky.
This guy has another excuse for his extra-large tummy: he’s pregnant! When it comes to reproduction, amazingly it's the male seahorses that carry and deliver the live babies. Something this fellow doesn't really look too happy about!
Cheer up, seahorse! This delicate-looking fellow seems a bit down. Maybe it's thinking about the plight of seahorses all over the world where mangroves, sea grass beds and coral reefs – the habitats of these delicate creatures – are being destroyed. Two of the main causes for this unfortunate destruction are pollution and warming seas.
The Pacific seahorse, or Hippocampus ingens – like this strikingly colored example – is one of the biggest seahorse species. Pacific seahorses can grow up to 7.5 inches (19 centimeters) long! While this isn’t quite as big as the foot-long pot-bellied seahorse, it's still pretty impressive. Incidentally, the seahorse's scientific name ‘Hippocampus' comes from two Greek words, 'hippos', meaning horse, and 'kampos' meaning sea monster. This one doesn't look very scary to us, though.
This Hippocampus fuscus, or sea pony, looks like it’s glowing, but that’s just lights reflecting on its body. There isn’t enough data to know how many of these seahorses are left, but they are suspected to be endangered. This may be due to the fact that the shallow sea grass beds they live in are highly susceptible to degradation by humans. In fact, one of the major threats to seahorses in general is their medicinal use by many different nationalities. It is estimated that up to 20 million are used annually in Chinese medicine alone.
Here’s another nice example of a brown lined seahorse. It's a common myth that all seahorses mate for life. In fact, although they are more monogamous than other fish species, many types of seahorses will easily change mates, and many more are still to be studied for their mating habits.
Seahorse courtship is a drawn-out affair that can go on for days. During this ritual, the seahorses may hold each other’s tails, change colors together, and sometimes twirl around the same stalk of sea grass. Sounds romantic!
This female lined seahorse is giving us a good look at her coronet, or the bony plates on top of her head. No two seahorse coronets are the same, making them the equivalent of human fingerprints. Seahorses have bony plates all over their body arranged in rings.
Although they don’t really look like others of their ilk, seahorses are classed as bony fish, along with species such as tuna and cod. It’s speculated that seahorses evolved from pipefish that adapted to swim upright. It’s not really known why they made this change, but since it resulted in their interesting shapes, we're sure glad they did!
Here’s a pretty girl: a female lined seahorse complete with spindly projections protruding from her head – but as mentioned, it’s male seahorses that carry their young. The female seahorse inserts her eggs into a pouch on the male known as the brood pouch. The male then carries these eggs – sometimes for several weeks – until they are ready to hatch.
Sadly, a baby seahorse sometimes dies while still in the pouch. The rotting carcass causes gas production that can make the male seahorse float up to the surface – an easy meal for a hovering seabird or bigger fish. Maybe that's why this pregnant male looks a little anxious...
Seahorses come in a variety of colors, with some species even changing their hue to match their surroundings. We love the beautiful sunny color of this one, which belongs to the species Hippocampus angustus. This species is also known as the narrow-bellied seahorse, which makes sense when you look at its thin waist! The narrow-bellied seahorse is a resident of the open-seas, particularly around Australia.
Not all seahorses of a particular species are the same color. Here’s a blue, white and brown narrow-bellied seahorse. The delicate brown lines are common to this species, and they make a very pretty pattern. Seahorses are found almost all over the planet, swimming in temperate and tropical waters. They particularly like sea grasses and corals, where they can hide and have something to cling on to with their tails.
The Hippocampus reidi is sometimes called the slender or longsnout seahorse. We know that this one is a female from the gorgeous yellow color; males are normally orange. These seahorses mainly make their homes around South America and the Caribbean in subtropical waters.
Note the nicely curled tail on this specimen. Seahorse tails are prehensile, which means they are perfect for grabbing and holding onto things like seaweed or coral when the seahorse wants to stay in one spot.
Here’s another golden-colored example of a Hippocampus reidi. You can really get a good look at the long snout in this picture! Seahorses use these snouts to suck up small crustaceans and plankton, something they have to do all day long. This continual feeding is not because the seahorses are greedy, but because they have no stomach, so food travels through them pretty quickly.
Take a look at this lined seahorse in close-up. Notice the little fin on the back? It’s the seahorse’s dorsal fin, and if it doesn’t look like it would be very effective for swimming, that’s because it isn’t! Seahorses may be fish, but they’re not great swimmers. They need to flutter those fins at about 35 times per second to move and, not surprisingly, they can die of exhaustion when they try to keep swimming in bad conditions. No wonder they choose to spend most of their time anchored to one spot; we would, too!
Dwarf seahorses, like this cute example, are named for their tiny size: they only reach about two inches long when fully grown. They are the slowest swimming fish, taking an hour to move just five feet! Dwarf seahorses are a popular breed to keep in fish tanks, where they can live for up to two years. And if you're fond of baby seahorses, they're the species for you! Unlike some other marine wildlife, dwarf seahorses will also happily breed in captivity.
With its green skin and lightening-like protrusions, this little seahorse is certainly spectacular! In fact, it almost looks a little supernatural. Either that, or like a very strange fruit growing off that stalk it’s clinging to.
With so little solid data on the numbers of seahorses living in our oceans, it's good idea to err on the side of caution when it comes to their conservation. The main threats facing them are the destruction of their environment and their harvesting by humans for use in medicines and aquariums. CITES (the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) currently regulate their import and export, but some countries – namely Japan, Indonesia, Norway and South Korea – refuse to recognize these trade rules.
To help with seahorse conservation never buy seahorses for medicine, and if you’re buying one for a pet, make sure it was bred in captivity. It would be terrible to lose these delightful and unique creatures forever.