The Seahorse is a truly unique marine animal. At first glance, one might not even know a seahorse is a fish, with their unique upright posture. They have a distinctive long, tube-shaped snout with a prehensile tail that grabs onto corals and plants. Their jaws are small and only allow enough room to suck in small pieces of food. Seahorses are part of the family Syngnathidae, which also includes Sea Dragons and Pipefish. Seahorses are all comprised of one genus, Hippocampus. There are currently thought to be 80 species of seahorses found throughout the world’s oceans, though not all officially described. Seahorse range in size from just over 1cm for pygmy seahorses and up to 14 inches for the Pot Belly Seahorse, Hippocampus abdominalis.
Their Natural Home
The Seahorse is commonly found in shallow seagrass and reef habitats. They are distributed in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. The seahorse habitat is any underwater area with lots of things they can grab onto and blend into for hiding. Often they prefer an eelgrass, kelp, coral, rock and mangrove environment. The Seahorse prefers a tropical or temperate oceans. There are no known freshwater Seahorses.
Since the Seahorse doesn’t have teeth and swallows its food whole through its snout they can only eat small food. Their camouflage and patience allows them to stay on the bottom of the sea and ambush any prey that comes within striking range. Their favorite food is small crustaceans, primarily mysis shrimp. However, Seahorses have been observed eating other small invertebrates such as plankton and sometimes even larval fish. Seahorses also don’t have stomachs so they must eat throughout the day.
The Reproduction Process
Seahorses have a very unusual reproduction process; the male Seahorse is the one that becomes pregnant. The female Seahorse produces eggs and then passes them to the male who is responsible for holding them in a pouch on their belly.
During the courtship process, that can last up to twelve hours, the male and female Seahorse take part in elaborate displays and dances. After entwining tails, the female lines up a long tube known as the ovipositor with the pouch on the male. The stick eggs move through the tube and into the pouch on the male. The eggs now become embryos and can take anywhere from ten days to 4 weeks to develop based on the individual species and the conditions of the water. Birthing is a quick process for most seahorses, though for some species like dwarf seahorses Hippocampus zosterae, the process that can take many hours, the male Seahorse pumps his tail until the baby Seahorses are born. Once the babies are born the males care ends and he may even snack on a few (though this is not common).
The male Seahorse looks very different from the female so they are easy to tell apart. The easiest way is to look for the brooding pouch on the male. Sometimes the male’s tail is longer than their trunks and the females typically have shorter tails than their trunks. In most Seahorse species the males also have shorter snouts than the females.
Seahorses At Risk
There are few natural predators that threaten the Seahorses. There are a few fish, like the striped angler or the bottom dwelling flatheads that will eat the Seahorse, but for the most part fish find the bony body of the Seahorse to be an unpleasant source of food. Other natural predators to the Seahorse are the crab and penguin. The most vulnerable time for the Seahorse is just after they hatch because they are small and are popular among plankton-feeding marine animals.
The biggest threat to Seahorses comes from humans. They are over collected to be used as pets, dried and sold in
gift shops or for use in traditional Chinese medicines. The unique appearance of the Seahorse makes them popular souvenirs, ornaments or jewelry. Seahorses are quite frequently used in Chinese medicines. Although in some countries the Seahorse is fished as a valuable part of the economy. This makes it very challenging to successfully conserve the Seahorse.
The Seahorse isn’t officially listed as endangered because of their popularity in the hobby and medicine industries. However, the Seahorse is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. This basically means that while they aren’t endangered their populations are facing trouble. In the last five years, the Seahorse population has dropped by fifty percent. Trade is now restricted by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), however many of the biggest consumers of Seahorses have opted out and are still collecting seahorses in record numbers.
Helping to Conserve the Seahorse
Millions of Seahorses are harvested for souvenir and medicine purposes each year, which means the best way to conserve them is to avoid buying souvenir Seahorses or medicines that contain them.
Try to support aquariums that are breeding captive Seahorses and taking an active part in conserving them. Seahorses are difficult to breed in captivity, though more and more Aquariums, Aquaculture farms and even individuals are doing it. If captive breeding becomes more successfully then they can become excellent aquarium specimens and as a way to educate the public on these magnificent creatures. Eventually, it is hoped that captive breeding programs will lead to a reintroduction of the Seahorse to the wild.
You should also avoid using any chemical cleaning products or fertilizers, especially if you live near an ocean watershed because these can contaminate the habitat of the Seahorse. Rather try using natural products and organic fertilizers to help conserve the natural sea grass habitat of the Seahorse.
If you often take part in boating activities then try to avoid shallow areas that contain sea grass since this is a natural Seahorse habitat. Rather drift through the shallow waters with your propeller lifted. If you can’t drift you can always use a push pole or a rolling motor in order to move. You should also avoid going out of marked boating lanes to avoid sensitive areas. Doing these basic practices when you are in the water can also save other endangered marine animals as well.