Even if you know nothing about seahorses, they’re pretty loveable. Just look at their curly tails, tiny fins and horse shaped head! While writing an Instagram caption about seahorses, I realized there are so many fascinating facts about this fish (yes, it’s a fish!) that I decided to dedicate an entire blog post to it. So hold your horses, because you’re about to love them even more!
Seahorses: monsters of the sea?
The Latin name for seahorse is Hippocampus, which means horse sea monster. As mentioned, seahorses are fish, and they have been around for a long time: 25 million years! They can be found in shallow tropical and temperate waters throughout the whole world. Just like land horses they like grass: you can often find them hiding in seagrass beds! They can be hard to find because of their amazing camouflaging skills, making them a nice challenge for muck diving.
There are 45 known species of seahorses, but 14 of those were discovered in the last eight years, so who knows how many unknown species are still hiding out there? The discovery of the Japanese Pygmy Seahorse in April 2018 shows us that there is so much we don’t know yet about seahorses (and the ocean in general). But the things we do know are pretty amazing!
Seahorses are terrible swimmers
Seahorses may be fish, but they are terrible swimmers! They have a fin on their back, but it’s so tiny compared to their body size that it won’t bring him very far. It’s best if they don’t even try, because it’s not uncommon for them to die from exhaustion when caught in rough water. They’re not completely helpless though: unlike other fish they can also move up, down and backward, and do so almost silently. Combine that with their amazing camouflaging skills and you get a very competent hunter.
And having poor swimming skills doesn’t mean that they always stay in the same area. Seahorses can actually travel long distances, thanks to their ability to wrap their tail around pretty much anything, like floating vegetation or marine debris. Their tail also comes in handy in a strong current, when they hold on to sea grasses or coral to avoid being washed away.
Seahorses are romantic
Seahorses are monogamous and stick to the same partner for long periods of time. Some mate for life, but for most species mate only for a few mating seasons.
They reinforce their bond with each other on a daily basis by performing a romantic ritual. They meet first thing in the morning to do a little dancing: they circle around each other, do some pirouettes and sometimes even change color. This process can take several minutes to a few hours, and is done to confirm that their significant other is still alive, committed to the relationship and to ensure their reproductive cycles are in sync. But in any relationship it’s important to give each other space, so after the ritual ends the couple separates again for the rest of the day.
While it is of course much more fun to romanticize a seahorse’s monogamous relationship, it’s probably better explained from a survival point of view. Searching for a new partner is risky as the seahorse is a poor swimmer, so by staying together with one partner they can undergo more pregnancies during each mating season.
Seahorses are feminists
Women who think it’s unfair that they can’t share the burden of pregnancy with their male partners, may be a bit envious of seahorse ladies. For seahorses, pregnancy is the sole responsibility of males! The female transfers her eggs to the male, which he fertilises himself in his kangaroo-like pouch. He carries the embryos for a number of weeks (depending on the seahorse species), before they hatch inside the pouch.
After that he releases fully formed baby seahorses from his body through strong contractions – that can last up to 12 hours! As many as 1,000 tiny seahorses can be born in a single birthing session. But don’t expect mama seahorse to step up and take care of her babies.They are independent and on their own from the moment they’re born! It’s not surprising that less than one in a thousand will reach adulthood. As for the father, he may not even get a lot of rest. It’s possible for a male seahorse to give birth at night, and be pregnant again the next morning!
Seahorses eat all the time
A seahorse doesn’t have teeth or a stomach, so food is processed in their digestive system in the blink of an eye. That means they have to eat pretty much all the time to stay alive! Their diet consists of tiny fish, plankton and small crustaceans. And who needs swimming skills anyway, if you can suck up unsuspecting prey with your snout from a few centimeters away?
As much as seahorses eat, they’re not a very popular snack themselves. They have an exo-skeleton, meaning their armor-like bodies are made of hard, external, bony plates. This makes them difficult for other fish to digest.
Seahorses are in danger
The lack of natural predators doesn’t mean that seahorses are thriving as a species. The biggest threat to their existence are – you guessed it – humans. Around 150 million seahorses are caught yearly for the curio, aquarium and (traditional Chinese) medicine trades. If we continue doing this, seahorses could be extinct in 30 years.
Next time you see seahorse curios (dried seahorses for jewelry or souvenirs) for sale, please consider how these are ‘made’. Seahorses, shells and starfish are deliberately taken from the ocean and left to dry/die in the boiling sun.
In traditional Chinese medicine, seahorses are mainly used as a natural aphrodisiac. Unfortunately for them, they have also been proven to contain high levels of collagen, making them a popular substitute for botox.
Help the seahorses
Do you want to help seahorses? There are several research and conservation organizations that are happy to receive your support, either financially or in another way:
If you know any other organizations that are committed to seahorse conservation, please let me know so I can add them to this list.
Monthly marine creatures
I’m planning to dedicate a blog post to a different marine creature once a month! Which marine animal would you like to see in the spotlight next month?