Pipefish and seahorses – weird and wonderful fish
A familiar yet welcome sight when you go diving in the Philippines are the enigmatic pipefish. You may have noticed you encounter them much more frequently in the shallows, but how much do you actually know about them?
We will tell you more about these beautiful creatures with their distinctive pre-historic appearance and fascinating life.
Memories of my childhoods´ underwater adventures in a much more temperate climate than the Philippines still fill me with joy. Equipped with a snorkel and a mask I explored and discovered the weirdest creatures, crabs and crazy underwater forests of lush seaweed. Especially, I remember the sudden face-to-face encounter with my first pipefish. I had no idea what this creature was! Was it an eel, another kind of fish or maybe something as scary (yet infinitely cool) as a baby snake?
Now, more than 30 years later, I still harbor the same fascination for these intriguing animals. The pipefish is the closest relative to the seahorse. Actually, they are so closely related that they belong to the same family (syngnathinae). The shape of their head is one the most apparent visible similarities. The long and narrow mouth looks very much like that of its more famous relative. Another more subtle similarity is their unusual method of taking care of their offspring. After completing a tender mating dance where they swim towards the surface, the female delivers her eggs to the male to the male, who keeps them in a brood pouch on his belly where the sperm in waiting. So with all nearly all syngnathinae, it’s really the male that gets pregnant. The incubation period is also significantly longer than for many fish, so when the pipefishes let the litter go, they give birth to highly developed offspring.
The syngnathinae family is very diverse, – some, like the minuscule pygmy seahorses often found in gorgonians when you dive in the Philippines are as small a fraction of a nail. Others, certain pipefish, are more than half a meter long.
The hunting patterns of the pipefish are also very fascinating. Similar to many ambush predators, their mouth works more or less as a vacuum cleaner which they use to suck in their prey. As far as we know, all pipefish are carnivorous and diurnal, and despite their “cute” appearance, they are capable and stealthy hunters. Most pipefishes are benthic (that’s to say they stick close to the bottom) where they generally have a specific habitat they are ideally suited for. The lush sea grass patches we often find in shallow water when we dive these parts are notorious for a wealth of very well camouflaged pipefishes.
Apart from a few coral reef dwellers, most pipefish are highly camouflaged and mimick anything from inanimate objects like sticks and leaves to seagrass, or even feather stars or the spines of certain sea urchins. Because of their outstanding camouflage you can feel certain that even though you may not see them while you scuba dive, they will certainly be around and see you.
Seahorses are preyed upon by many benthic fishes (Locally, I’ve witnessed quite a few lionfish make a meal of pipefish) and when a syngnathinae is spotted – the game is up! Their hardened sometimes thorny skin is no protection against large predators, many of which swallow them whole.
In certain parts of the world there is a demand for dried seahorses which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The going rate for a dried kilo of seahorses is very high partly because a single dried seahorse weight almost nothing, and partly because they are quite difficult to collect. From time to time you hear claims that seahorses are severely threatened by this practice, but according to Rudie H Kuiter, one of the world leading experts on seahorses the claim is most likely very exaggerated, and certainly only afflicting very localized populations of syngnathinae.
The real threat to pipefish and seahorses do not stem from divers collecting to the aquarium trade or harvesters employed by tradesmen in traditional Chinese medicine. Camouflage and prolific spawn rates make these things seem insignificant. The real threat is the destruction of habitats caused by increased population growth and increasing demand of utilization of coastal resources. It is worth noticing however, that divers are seeing more and more pipefish and seahorses. Not meaning to be cheeky, but this is perhaps partly because divers are actually looking. As a cute, charismatic “flagship” species, divers tend to look for these fish more so than many other things they might miss. Another point is that overfishing may actually kill off enough pred