Pygmy Seahorses: Amazing Camouflage in Animals

Updated on August 17, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

There are two Bargibant's seahorses in this photo.
There are two Bargibant's seahorses in this photo. | Source

Impressive Camouflage

Camouflage is a wonderful method for animals to protect themselves from predators. By mimicking the color and texture of their background, prey animals can become almost invisible. Some animals blend in with their surroundings so successfully that it's even hard for humans to distinguish them from their environment. Two animals with this impressive camouflage are the Bargibant's pygmy seahorse and the Denise's pygmy seahorse.

Pygmy seahorses are tiny animals that live in the tropical oceans of Southeast Asia. Most are no more than 2.5 cm (0.98 inches) in length. At the moment there are seven known species plus one that has been reported but not yet given a scientific name. Scientists suspect that there are more species waiting to be discovered. Their small size, camouflage techniques, and nocturnal activity often cause the animals to be overlooked.

A yellow variety of the Bargibant's seahorse
A yellow variety of the Bargibant's seahorse | Source

All seahorses belong to the family Syngnathidae and the genus Hippocampus. The genus name comes from two Ancient Greek words: hippos, which means horse, and kampos, which means sea monster.

Life Among Sea Fans

Bargibant's and Denise's pygmy seahorses live amongst much larger animals called sea fans. A sea fan is actually a colony of small animals known as polyps. It has a branched, fan-like structure made of calcium carbonate and protein and resembles coral. The branches bear bumps, which each contain a polyp. The polyp is a soft-bodied creature that has tentacles around its mouth. The tentacles are extended at times to sweep food into the mouth. Sea fans are sometimes known as gorgonians.

Pygmy seahorses are often very hard to see as they rest on a branch of a sea fan, since the appearance of their body surface resembles that of their background. Their bodies are covered with tubercles (rounded bumps or projections) that look like polyps as well as stripes and spots that help them blend in with their background.

Two more Bargibant's pygmy seahorses
Two more Bargibant's pygmy seahorses | Source

Pygmy Seahorses

Pygmy seahorses are all small animals, with a length of about 1.4 to 2.7 cm (0.55 to 1.06 inches). They are a type of fish, although they don't look very fish-like. They live in a region of ocean known as the Coral Triangle. This area is surrounded by Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines. Some pygmy seahorses live amongst sea fans, some live in coral reefs, and some are free living.

The fish have short snouts, making them look rather like baby full-sized seahorses. They also have prehensile tails that can curl around objects and grip them. They have only one gill opening, which is located on the back of their head. Other seahorses have two gill openings, with one opening on each side of their head. The fish feed on small crustaceans that are present in seawater, such as brine shrimp. They suck their prey into their digestive tract through their tubular mouth.

As in bigger seahorses, the male pygmy seahorse broods the young. However, while other seahorses hold their young in a pouch under their tail, pygmy seahorses hold the developing youngsters in a pouch in their trunk. (The three parts of the animal's body are the head, trunk, and tail.) The pouch has a slit-like pore for egg entry and the release of the young.

Masters of Disguise

Reproduction

Pygmy seahorses perform ritualized courtship behaviors before egg release. During courtship they greet each other, synchronize their movements, and wrap their tails around each other. After these rituals, the female transfers unfertilized eggs from her body into the male's brood pouch through a structure called an ovipositor. The eggs are fertilized by the male's sperm inside the pouch.

The eggs develop into young seahorses within the pouch, which provides the correct chemical environment for the eggs and protects them from injury. When the youngsters are ready to face the world, the male seahorse forcibly expels them. He may become pregnant again almost immediately.

According to Richard Smith, a biologist who specializes in pygmy seahorses, the Denise's pygmy seahorse has a gestation period of about eleven days. The male gives birth to between 6 and 16 youngsters. The youngsters settle on an appropriate host and after a few days develop a color that matches the host. It's not known if pygmy seahorses can change color if they move to a new host which has a different color.

Courtship, Babies, and Color Change

Unfortunately, because pygmy seahorses are so hard to detect, we don't know how many of the fish exist or whether their population is increasing, staying the same, or decreasing.

The body of the Bargibant's pygmy seahorse has specks and stripes that resemble those on the sea fan and tubercles that resemble the polyps.
The body of the Bargibant's pygmy seahorse has specks and stripes that resemble those on the sea fan and tubercles that resemble the polyps. | Source

The Bargibant's or Bargibanti's Pygmy Seahorse

The Bargibant's pygmy seahorse, or Hippocampus bargibanti, was the first pygmy seahorse to be discovered. It was found accidentally in 1969. A scientist had collected a sea fan to bring into a museum. As he examined the sea fan in the lab, he was amazed to see two tiny seahorses amongst its branches.

Although the Bargibant's pygmy seahorse is very small, it's big compared to most other pygmy seahorses and may reach as much as 2.7 cm in length. It's always found around a sea fan belonging to the genus Muricella.

The body of the seahorse is covered with tubercles. The animal's color depends on the species of Muricella that is acting as its host. If the polyps of the sea fan have red tentacles (Muricella plectana), the seahorse is a light grey or pale purple color with red tubercles. The surface of the seahorse is also speckled and striped with red marks, similar to those found on the branches of the sea fan. The tubercles resemble slightly open polyps that are showing their red tentacles.

Sea fans with yellow to orange polyps (Muricella paraplectana) are inhabited by a different variety of the Bargibant's pygmy seahorse. This variety has a yellow body with orange tubercles.

There are several versions of the common name of the fish. The terms Bargibant, Bargibant's, Bargibanti, and Bargibanti's are all used. Whatever it's called, the seahorse is a very interesting creature.

Life in the Wild

Denise's Pygmy Seahorse

The Denise's pygmy seahorse (Hippocamous denise) is smaller than the Bargibant's seahorse and is usually around 1.6 cm in length. The animal is often orange in color and has orange tubercles. These colors help it to blend in with orange sea fans. The tubercles are generally not as large or as noticeable as those of the Bargibant's pygmy seahorse.

The Denise's seahorse lives among a wider variety of sea fans than the Bargibant's seahorse and is quite variable in color and tubercle size. For example, one variety of the fish is pink in color and lives amongst the branches of a pink sea fan. Another variety is yellow in color and lives on yellow sea fans, and yet another is red and lives on red sea fans.

The fish is named after Denise Tackett, an underwater photographer. Until her discoveries and reports, the animal was thought to be a juvenile version of the Bargibant's pygmy seahorse.

A Denise's pygmy seahorse; the polyps of the sea fan have expanded their tentacles
A Denise's pygmy seahorse; the polyps of the sea fan have expanded their tentacles | Source

The Satomi pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus satomiae) is the smallest pygmy seahorse discovered so far. It's about 1.4 cm long. It lives on the coast of the Derawan Islands in Indonesia and is found on coral instead of sea fans.

The tiny Satomi's pygmy seahorse
The tiny Satomi's pygmy seahorse | Source

Other Tiny Seahorses

Not all seahorses with the word "pygmy" in their name belong to the pygmy seahorse group. For example, the Red Sea soft coral pygmy seahorse is small (about 3.5 cm long), but it shares the features of normal-sized seahorses and lacks the unique characteristics of the pygmy ones.

The Japanese pygmy seahorse is a true member of the pygmy seahorse group. It hasn't been described in any detail yet, however. More species probably exist. Finding them is a challenge, but the search is exciting for both biologists and scuba divers. The tiny and beautiful creatures are fascinating to observe.

A close-up view of a Denise's pygmy seahorse
A close-up view of a Denise's pygmy seahorse | Source

References

Hooper, Rowan. "Cute but deadly: The camouflaged world of the pygmy seahorse." New Scientist. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22630240-100-cute-but-deadly-the-camouflaged-world-of-the-pygmy-seahorse/ (accessed August 16, 2017).

Cassidy, Joshua. "Pygmy Seahorses: Masters of Camouflage." KQED Science. https://ww2.kqed.org/science/2014/10/21/pygmy-seahorses-masters-of-camouflage/ (accessed August 17, 2017).

"Hippocampus bargibanti." FishBase. http://www.fishbase.ca/summary/53790 (accessed August 16, 2017).

"Denise's Pygmy Seahorse." Wildscreen Arkive. http://www.arkive.org/denises-pygmy-seahorse/hippocampus-denise/ (accessed August 16, 2017).

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Linda Crampton

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment, Alun. I appreciate the vote, too. I'm interested in all animals, but the pygmy seahorse is one of the most fascinating! Its camouflage is amazing. As you say, there may well be other creatures in the ocean that we haven't noticed due to their camouflage.

      • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

        Greensleeves Hubs 

        4 years ago from Essex, UK

        Just when you think you've seen everything the oceans have to offer, something more bizarre comes along to prove otherwise!

        These are beautiful Linda, and given their size and tremendous camouflage, one really suspects there are probably many more species waiting to be discovered - even in still photos when the seahorse is detected, it's hard to decipher the exact outline - where the seahorse ends and sea fan begins.

        Lovely article accompanied by beautiful photos and an excellent choice of videos. Voted up. Alun.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, RTalloni. I love the Dr. Seuss quote that you mention! The huge variety of life on Earth is certainly amazing. Living things are fascinating to study. Thank you for the comment.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        4 years ago from the short journey

        Such tiny creatures you get to study from creation's amazing and varied species. Thanks for such a well-done post that can be used as a valuable resource.

        The pygmy seahorses you've highlighted here remind me of a book I read to my oldest granddaughter week before last -- "a person's a person no matter how small" from Horton Hears a Who. :)

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the comment and the vote, Dianna. They are colorful creatures, and they're cute, too!

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        4 years ago

        These are such cute sea creatures, adorable and so colorful. I have seen them in the zoo and love how they move in the water. Thanks for sharing and the smile of my day. Voted up++

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the kind comment, Deb. I agree - pygmy seahorses are delightful!

      • aviannovice profile image

        Deb Hirt 

        4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

        How wonderful! They look so demure and delightful. Thanks for the great information, which was so well done. I always look forward to your material.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, drbj. The pygmy seahorse certainly is a weird and fascinating animal! Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share. I appreciate them all.

      • drbj profile image

        drbj and sherry 

        4 years ago from south Florida

        These Pygmy Seahorses are fascinating creatures, Alicia. Thank you for this interesting introduction to them as well as the magnificent videos. Voted up and sharing, y'know. Hmmmmmm, wonder if I might find one to interview?

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Faith. I appreciate your comment, votes and share very much. I'm sure you're right - there is so much life on this planet that we are still unaware of! Life on Earth is fascinating.

        Hugs to you, too, Faith.

      • Faith Reaper profile image

        Faith Reaper 

        4 years ago from southern USA

        How fascinating dear Alicia! There is most likely so much we have no clue about right here on this very planet, or underneath the waters. I can see why these little Pygmy Sea horses need camouflage. They are so cute and I am amazed how they can survive out there. It is never boring reading your hubs for you are providing great insight and educating us at the same time about our very own planet and life right here!

        Up and more and sharing

        Hugs, Faith Reaper

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Martie. Yes, nature is awesome! It contains so much that is beautiful. Thank you very much for the visit and the comment.

      • MartieCoetser profile image

        Martie Coetser 

        4 years ago from South Africa

        Fascinating! How can we not be permanently in awe of nature, instead of sulking about whatever is not according to our idea of right and beautiful?

        Thanks for this enlightening and delighting information, Alicia :)

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the comment, FullOfLoveSites. I think that pygmy seahorses are appealing and beautiful, too!

      • FullOfLoveSites profile image

        FullOfLoveSites 

        4 years ago from United States

        These are really astounding photos. Pygmy Sea horses seem to be really appealing and beautiful creatures. Thanks for your well-written hub. :)

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the visit, DDE. I appreciate the comment and the votes!

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        Camouflage in Animals - Pygmy Seahorses awesome photos and a useful. informative and well researched hub. Seahorses amaze me well done on a well presented hub. Voted up and useful.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the kind comment, Crafty! I appreciate your visit.

      • CraftytotheCore profile image

        CraftytotheCore 

        4 years ago

        An awesome Hub and lots of effort went in here. Beautiful photos. Fascinating information! I really enjoyed reading this.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, Bishop55. I like seahorses, too. They are very interesting animals!

      • Bishop55 profile image

        Rebecca 

        4 years ago from USA

        I have always loved seahorses. This was a really interesting hub and the pictures are amazing. Nice work! :)

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the visit and the comment, Peter.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you so much for such a lovely comment, Bill. I appreciate it!

      • Peter Dickinson profile image

        Peter Dickinson 

        4 years ago from South East Asia

        Good hub. Thank you.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        4 years ago from Olympia, WA

        So very cool! I love this stuff, and nobody presents it as well as you do, Alicia. Another gem from the world of science.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Mel. I appreciate your visit. It's exciting to think about what else is hiding in the ocean!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Cynthia. It is amazing that pygmy seahorses are so small. I agree with you - they are cute! Thanks for the comment.

      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 

        4 years ago from San Diego California

        Extremely fascinating and educational hub. It is remarkable to imagine that these hidden worlds beneath the water exist. Great hub!

      • CMHypno profile image

        CMHypno 

        4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

        What cute little seahorses Alicia. It's amazing that something that tiny can survive in the ocean - no wonder they need camouflage! Great information and beautiful images

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