Pygmy Seahorses: Amazing Camouflage in Animals
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. Four animals with this impressive camouflage are the Bargibant's, Denise's, Satomi's, and Japanese pygmy seahorses.
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 six known species, although at least one biologist who studies the animals believes they should be divided into additional species. Scientists suspect that there are many more pygmy seahorses waiting to be discovered. Their small size, camouflage techniques, and nocturnal activity often cause the animals to be overlooked.
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.
Pygmy seahorses are 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. Most 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 its bigger relatives, the male pygmy seahorse broods the young. While other seahorses hold their young in a pouch under their tail, however, 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.
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.
Masters of Disguise
Bargibant's and Denise's 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 Bargibant'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 species 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 animal's body is covered with tubercles. Its 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 animal is a very interesting creature.
Life in the Wild
Denise's Pygmy Seahorse
The Denise's pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus denise) is smaller than the Bargibant's species 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 species lives among a wider variety of sea fans than the Bargibant's one 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.
The Satomi's pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus satomiae) is one of the smallest known pygmy seahorses and is about 1.4 cm long. It lives on the coast of the Derawan Islands in Indonesia as well as in Borneo and Malaysia. The animal is named after Miss Satomi Onishi, who collected the first specimens. It's found underneath coral reef overhangs.
The Japanese pygmy seahorse, or Hippocampus japapigu, is another interesting member of the group. People have known about its existence for some time, but it was officially described only recently. The animal wasn't thought to be a distinct species until it was closely examined. As is the case for the Satomi's species, there is much that is unknown about its life.
An adult member of the species is no bigger than a grain of rice. According to Richard Smith, specimens range from 1.39 to 1.63 cm in length. The species name means "Japan pig". The name arose because the local divers thought that the animal looked like a baby pig. Its coloration helps the fish to blend in with its algae-covered background very well. It often looks like a bit of seaweed gently moving in a current. The animal is found in shallow water.
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.
More species of pygmy seahorses 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.
The camouflaged world of the pygmy seahorse from New Scientist
Masters of camouflage from KQED Science
Information about Hippocampus bargibanti from FishBase (a database for fish)
Hippocampus satomiae facts from the Red List of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
Facts about Denise's Pygmy Seahorse from Wildscreen Arkive
News about a pygmy seahorse from Japan from National Geographic
Hippocampus japapigu from the ZooKeys journal
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Linda Crampton