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The Secret Lifetime of a Seahorse


A seahorse is a kind of evolutionary oddities that make you imagine in unicorns, mermaids, centaurs and different cryptic chimeras. With an elongated snout and prehensile tail, seahorses conjure the phantasm that they’re a menagerie of animal elements.

These ocean anomalies are scientifically categorised within the genus Hippocampus, which derives from the Historic Greek “hippókampos,” which means “horse” and “sea monster” or “sea animal.” In keeping with Greek mythology, hippocamps (hippokampoi) have been serpentine-tailed horses of the ocean. Within the Illiad by Homer, and the Trevi Fountain in Rome, a chariot of hippocamps is pushed by Poseidon, the god of horses, earthquakes and the ocean. Throughout the Medieval and Renaissance intervals, the hippocampus was depicted as a heraldic sea-horse with the pinnacle and neck of a horse, webbed paws as an alternative of hooves and the tail of a fish, full with fins.

A Hippocamp-drawn chariot driven by Poseidon.

A hippocampus-drawn chariot pushed by Poseidon.

Because of many years of scientific analysis and discovery, we all know seahorses are neither horses nor monsters however 100% fish. They belong to a household of fishes known as Syngnathidae—one other Greek denomination—which incorporates seahorses, seadragons and pipefishes. All are characterised by the widespread trait of getting a fused jaw.

Now we all know the seahorse’s etymology and taxonomy. However the place did they arrive from, how did they get right here and why do they give the impression of being so humorous? Be part of me in taking a deep dive into the evolution of seahorses and be taught how one can assist save them by defending their ocean habitats. Alongside the way in which, we’ll debunk misconceptions about these mythic beings whereas preserving all of the magic!

What’s the Seahorse Origin Story?

Our journey begins within the Tunjice Hills of Slovenia, the place beds of siltstone often called the Coprolitic Horizon—named for its abundance of fossilized animal feces, or coprolites—have been unearthed by paleontologists between 1997 and 2003. The specimens included microalgae, mollusks, seagrass, jellyfish, bugs and willow and pine tree leaves from the Miocene epoch (23.03–5.3 million years in the past). The paleontologists decided that this web site was as soon as a shallow bay close to a forest. After additional excavations in 2005, they found it was additionally an oasis for seahorses.

In 2009, the beds of the Coprolitic Horizon turned recognized worldwide for the oldest fossil document of seahorses. Latest genetic evaluation reveals that seahorses have an Australasian origin, nevertheless. That is supported by the truth that the oldest and most numerous lineages happen in Australia and the Indo-West Pacific, i.e., Indonesia.

So, what have been seahorses doing in Slovenia? And the way did they unfold throughout the planet?

How Did One of many Ocean’s Worst Swimmers Unfold Throughout the Globe?

Seahorses are considered one of many slowest-moving fish species within the ocean. In contrast to most fish, which have caudal fins for a tail, seahorses have a prehensile appendage, which features as an anchor. Seahorses flutter their dorsal fin 30–70 instances per second to propel themselves, and so they steer and stabilize with a set of pectoral fins on both aspect of their head.

This methodology of transportation is extraordinarily power intensive, so seahorses advanced to work smarter, not tougher. By coiling their tail round a chunk of floating seaweed, seahorses can drift alongside ocean currents with little to no exertion. Scientists reasoned that this “rafting” conduct facilitated the long-distance dispersal of seahorses across the globe.

seahorse fish and rainbow trout fish diagram

Seahorses didn’t at all times possess such a singular physique form, nevertheless. To grasp how their iconic S-curve developed, we should return about 25 million years, close to the top of the Oligocene epoch. The Australian tectonic plate below what’s now New Guinea pushed northwards, colliding right into a jumble of plates below the modern-day Philippines, in addition to the southeast tip of the Eurasian plate. The monumental geological affect remodeled a deep channel between the continents into many giant, shallow seas.

With the seabed nearer to the floor, it turned uncovered to extra daylight, accelerating photosynthesis. Seagrasses proliferated and expanded their vary, permitting totally different sorts of life to flourish. Scientists hypothesize that the circumstances in these seagrass beds catalyzed an anatomical shift in some Syngnathids to evolve from a long-and-straight horizontal posture like that of a pipefish into the upright posture we see in seahorses immediately. The vertical seagrass blades offered the proper camouflage for his or her upright our bodies, affording them safety from predators and an improved capability to ambush prey.

Messmate pipefish

Messmate pipefish.

Why the Lengthy Face?

Though its upright posture slows it down in relation to swimming, the seahorse’s peculiar head, neck and trunk alignment has made it surprisingly quick at snatching prey. In a single swift, trigger-like motion, these voracious carnivores can strike in as little as one millisecond with a 90% success price. To place that into perspective, orcas, or killer whales, have an 80% success price, sharks 60% and jaguars 70%.

The seahorse’s prehensile tail permits it to seize onto seagrass as an alternative of regularly treading water, making stalking its subsequent meal extra environment friendly. Like a vacuum cleaner, it sucks in water, trapping quite a lot of floating and swimming organisms inside its lengthy, toothless snout. The seahorse’s weight-reduction plan consists of shrimp, plankton, copepods, tiny crustaceans, nematodes, gobies and fish larvae.

Seahorses don’t have stomachs, and their digestive programs course of meals so shortly that they have to regularly graze to outlive. Grownup seahorses eat 30–50 instances a day, and seahorse fry (child seahorses) eat 3,000 items of meals per day!

a yellow seahorse anchoring with its prehensile tail on a bed of seagrass

Utilizing a collection of mathematical mannequin simulations, biologists Sam Van Wassenbergh, Gert Roos and Lara Ferry sought to search out an adaptive rationalization for the horse-like form of seahorses. In distinction to pipefish, seahorses are “tail-attached, sit-and-wait predators,” which means they strike from an anchored place.

The group’s experiments revealed that the sharper the angle between the pinnacle and trunk, the higher the space the seahorse can strike from and the higher the quantity of water it could possibly attract. This was a fascinating trait, and extra curved seahorses have been naturally chosen, additional contorting the form of those fish over many generations.

Why the Sq. Tail?

One other peculiar trait of seahorse morphology is the construction of the tail. Whereas a number of animals have prehensile tails—resembling monkeys, opossums, chameleons and even some species of pangolins—the cross-section of a seahorse tail is a sq. prism, not a cylinder just like the others.

Decided to know why this construction advanced, a group of American and Belgian researchers 3-D printed prototypes of sq. and cylindrical seahorse tails and utilized varied levels of crushing and twisting stress. They noticed that the rounded tail had a higher vary of motion however lacked energy and sturdiness, leading to it being squashed below stress. In distinction, the sq. tail repelled vertebral fracture by flattening out and diffusing dangerous impacts throughout a floor space of overlapping plates.

Long-snouted seahorse

Lengthy-snouted seahorse.

In nature, these mechanics translate to a spread of benefits for seahorse survival. For instance, the tail’s elasticity and bony armor assist it stand up to the jaws of some predators. And in comparison with a round tail, the sq. tail affords extra contact factors with surfaces, making it a extra dexterous gripping system. These qualities are so extraordinary that scientists are working to develop robotic purposes impressed by seahorse anatomy for search-and-rescue missions, surgical procedures and extra.

Are Seahorses Monogamous?

Male seahorses take dedication so significantly that they bear the burden of being pregnant for his or her mates. Sadly, the identical can’t be mentioned for his or her feminine counterparts. Till lately, seahorses have been usually assumed to be monogamous for all times, however researchers from the Chinese language Academy of Fishery Sciences found that isn’t at all times true. They discovered that feminine seahorses preserve sexual constancy to their companions so long as their pair bonds stay unbroken.

However in cases of bodily separation or the declining well being of her accomplice, the feminine will swap mates, and her courtship with the brand new accomplice might even happen through the being pregnant of her unique accomplice. From a aggressive evolutionary perspective, the feminine might lose the chance to mate with a probably fitter male if she have been to restore a damaged bond. Nature actually is a harsh mistress.

How Rad Are Seahorse Dads?

Remaining trustworthy to 1 accomplice does have sure benefits, nevertheless. Monogamous pairs have extra time to endure extra pregnancies throughout a single mating season, which ends up in higher reproductive success. Timing is every little thing within the seahorse realm, as fertilization requires precision and synchronicity.

In preparation for the primary occasion, pairs reinforce their bonds by each day greetings lasting from a couple of minutes to a number of hours. Twice a day, they may court docket one another by dancing in circles, interlocking tails and generally even altering colours. This routine is rehearsed till the duo is totally in sync. Then the crescendo—a passionate 10 seconds (or much less) of intercourse—adopted by the denouement, when the feminine delivers a whole bunch to 1000’s of eggs into the male’s “brood pouch” utilizing a tube known as an “ovipositor.”

Male pregnant seahorse expels baby fry into the sea

When the sand settles and the male has restored his stamina, he assumes the position of dutiful dad. After roughly two weeks of incubation (as much as 4 for bigger seahorse species), the male experiences highly effective contractions after which expels totally developed fry into the water. Tiny and defenseless, lower than 0.5% of the brand new era of seahorses make it to maturity.

Do Seahorses Want Saving?

The survival price of seahorses is set by exterior components as nicely. The Worldwide Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists a number of seahorse species as susceptible to extinction. Many, if not all, of the 47 recognized seahorse species—14 of which have been recognized solely within the twenty first century—are in decline worldwide.

Seahorses are flagship species and indicators of ecosystem well being for a few of the rarest coastal habitats on Earth. Sadly, they face many threats, together with local weather change, habitat loss, air pollution, bycatch from overfishing—which accounts for 70 million deaths yearly—and the unlawful wildlife commerce.

The best variety of seahorse species is discovered within the marine biodiversity hotspots of the central Indo-Pacific area. The Sulu-Celebes (Sulawesi) Sea area—shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines—is an space of unprecedented ecological worth. It’s also the epicenter of exploitation. From June 2003 to September 2021, 452 unlawful wildlife seizures have been recorded. By Household, seahorses have been the most important amount of confiscated people (12,041), adopted by turtles (Geoemydidae, 5,556; Cheloniidae, 2,546) and pangolins (5,797).

illegal wildlife trade high value marine products dried seahorses dried seahorse trade

Together with shark fins, rays, abalone, sea cucumbers and fish maw (dried swim bladder), seahorses are a prized marine product, consumed as symbols of wealth and standing, and dried as a key ingredient in Conventional Chinese language Drugs (TCM). TRAFFIC, the Wildlife Commerce Monitoring Community, stories that prime demand, particularly from East Asia, has resulted in unlawful and unsustainable harvesting and exportation in Africa.

The TCM commerce poaches in extra of as much as 150 million seahorses a yr; the curio commerce, which targets marine species to be bought as souvenirs to vacationers, takes about a million seahorses from the wild every year; and the unique pet and aquarium commerce accounts for an estimated a million seahorses trafficked per yr—lots of which don’t survive past six weeks.

Seahorses that evade the unlawful wildlife commerce should navigate an ever-accumulating ocean of plastic air pollution, which kills roughly 100,000 marine mammals yearly. The Ocean Conservancy stories that 11 million metric tons of plastics enter our oceans yearly, along with the estimated 200 million metric tons which can be presently circulating by our waterways.

This notorious {photograph} taken by The Pure Historical past Museum’s 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Yr, Justin Hofman, illustrates how the destiny of seahorses is inexorably tied to the way forward for our marine ecosystems:

Instagram post by Justin Hofman of tiny yellow seahorse clinging to marine debris ocean plastic pollution pink q-tip

Courtesy of @justinhofman

What Are Some Sustainable Options?

Tackling the unlawful wildlife commerce isn’t any small feat. Thankfully, conservation conveners: World Wildlife Fund, TRAFFIC and the Worldwide Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) joined forces to assist maintain wildlife #OfflineAndInTheWild with the creation of The Coalition to Finish Wildlife Trafficking On-line. As a Cyber Spotter, you may be a part of the Coalition’s important pressure of citizen scientists to assist determine and report illicit animal merchandise throughout e-commerce websites and social media platforms.

When touring, don’t purchase animal, coral, shell, hardwood or reside plant merchandise. Try WWF’s Purchaser Beware suggestions to find out whether or not the product you’re taking a look at is unlawful or sustainably sourced. You may as well symbolically undertake a seahorse by WWF! Each donation helps save endangered wildlife, defend fragile ecosystems and construct a future the place folks reside in concord with nature.

As for mitigating marine air pollution: “Utilizing much less plastics when you may stays the primary recommendation for on a regular basis shoppers,” says Eirik Lindebjerg, WWF’s International Plastics Coverage Supervisor. Which means switching to reusable water bottles and procuring baggage every time doable and selecting sustainable alternate options like bamboo straws and biodegradable plates.

Use your voice and demand international leaders and policymakers ban single-use plastics, signal WWF’s petition No Plastic in Nature and educate your self with WWF’s report on the affect of plastic air pollution. For extra inexperienced ideas, go to our journey weblog Good Nature and skim “The Reality about Plastic Air pollution and How We Can Cease It.

The place within the World Can You See Seahorses?

Preferring calm, shallow waters, seahorses thrive in seagrass beds, mangrove estuaries and coral reefs in temperate and tropical waters worldwide. In our Every day Dose of Nature Webinar, “Seahorse Truths and Tales,” Nat Hab Expedition Chief Melissa Silva shares her favourite seahorse species and the place they are often discovered. Watch the video beneath to find out about species like Hippocampus nalu, a newly found pygmy seahorse from South Africa, Guttulatus, a spiny seahorse that lives in UK seas and Hippocampus zebra, endemic to northern Australia’s Nice Barrier Reef.




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