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Pygmy Seahorses: Amazing Camouflage and Fascinating Animals

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

There are two Bargibant's seahorses in this photo, though they may be hard to see.

There are two Bargibant's seahorses in this photo, though they may be hard to see.

Animals With Impressive Camouflage

Camouflage is a wonderful way 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. I describe these species in this article. I also discuss an African species (the Sodwana pygmy seahorse), which has some unique features.

Pygmy seahorses aren't simply tiny seahorses. They are a distinct group of animals. They live in the tropical oceans of Southeast Asia and in the case of one species off the coast of South Africa. Most are no more than 2.5 cm (0.98 inches) in length. At the moment, there are eight known species, although at least one biologist who studies the animals believes they should be divided into additional ones. 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.

A yellow variety of the Bargibant's seahorse

A yellow variety of the Bargibant's seahorse

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 have some distinctive features compared to the rest of their family.

Features of Pygmy Seahorses

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 at the top of their tail, pygmy seahorses hold the developing youngsters in a pouch on 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 particular 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.

Reproduction

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 it. It's unknown whether pygmy seahorses can change color if they move to a new host that has a different color from their original host.

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. Its tubercles resemble the polyps of the sea fan.

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

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.

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

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.

Hippocampus japapigu: A Japanese Animal

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.

An Unusual African Species

In May, 2020, an international research team announced the discovery of the first African species of pygmy seahorse. The animal was found in Sodwana Bay in South Africa. According to an article written by the researchers (the eighth reference below), it's less than 2.0 cm in length. The last reference is a press release from the University of Leeds, where one of the researchers works. It says that the animal is less than 2.7 cm in length. Perhaps further discoveries will clarify the situation.

Photographs of the animal shown in the last reference indicate that the male is pale orange on much of its body and that the female is pale brown. The species is unusual in several ways. It's genetically distinct from the other seven species of pygmy seahorses and lives far away from them. The animal has a group of sharp-pointed spines on its back while other pygmy seahorses have spines with flat tips. The newly-discovered species is able to resist the swell in the bay where it lives, despite its tiny size. The other animals live in more sheltered areas.

The animal has been named Hippocampus nalu. The scientists received a tip about where the seahorse could be seen from a local diving instructor. "Nalu" is the middle name of the instructor. Her full name is Savannah Nalu Olivier. The animal's species name is said to roughly mean "Here it is" in the local language. In addition to representing the name of its discoverer, it also represents the idea that the animal has been in the area for a long time and has finally been discovered.

Hippocampus nalu is physically and genetically distinct from the seven known species of pygmy seahorses.

— Graham Short (California Academy of Sciences and the Australian Museum) et al, via The Conversation

Other Tiny Seahorses

It's important for someone investigating seahorses to know that not all of the animals 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 because they are so small and are sometimes canouflaged, but the search is exciting for both biologists and scuba divers. The tiny and beautiful animals are fascinating to observe.

References

© 2013 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 15, 2014:

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 from Essex, UK on March 15, 2014:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 02, 2013:

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 on November 02, 2013:

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. :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 01, 2013:

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

Dianna Mendez on November 01, 2013:

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++

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 01, 2013:

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

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on November 01, 2013:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 30, 2013:

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 and sherry from south Florida on October 30, 2013:

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?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 29, 2013:

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 from southern USA on October 29, 2013:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 29, 2013:

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

Martie Coetser from South Africa on October 29, 2013:

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 :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 28, 2013:

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

FullOfLoveSites from United States on October 28, 2013:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 28, 2013:

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

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 28, 2013:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 27, 2013:

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

CraftytotheCore on October 27, 2013:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 27, 2013:

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

Rebecca from USA on October 27, 2013:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 27, 2013:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, Peter.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 27, 2013:

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

Peter Dickinson from South East Asia on October 27, 2013:

Good hub. Thank you.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 27, 2013:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 27, 2013:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 27, 2013:

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

Mel Carriere from San Diego California on October 27, 2013:

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

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on October 27, 2013:

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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