The pipefishes are curious and undeniably fascinating creatures. Many of them share the same family as the Seahorse. It is the seahorse, of course, which takes pride of place as a universal favourite, known by just about everybody. But there are many diverse types of pipefish with interesting features which can rival the seahorse. This picture feature gives a “thumbnail” sketch of just some of these bizarre animals.
The first group we take a look at are not, in fact, from the same family of Syngnathidae as the seahorse, but belong to Solestomidae. Although they lack the curiously shaped body and prehensile tail of the seahorse some species of the genus Solenostomus are may be even more extraordinary than seahorses! They share the ability to assume colouration which blends with their chosen environment, but also have forms which enable them to all-but disappear as they tuck themselves into a chosen gorgonian, crinoid, or other living invertebrate cover. Five species are found within this genus and I have photographed two of these within relatively short distances of each other in The Lembeh Straits, North Sulawesi. The Solenostomus paradoxus ghost pipefish may be found in a perplexing range of colour forms, as can be seen from the pictures, and within the habitats where they were found most were extremely well camouflaged. Although quite a plain fish compared to its ornamental cousins, the Robust ghost pipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus) is equally adept at disappearing within the cover of its surroundings, which might be eel grass or similarly shaped and coloured growths. In both of these species the female broods her eggs within a pouch formed by bringing together the pelvic fins, and she is invariably quite a good deal larger than the slender, shorter bodied, male.
Robust ghost pipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus) are some of the favourites. The colour may vary from a muddy green to brown, and occasionally with some markings of black spotting or whitish blotches. Usually in association with similar looking weedy growths in Indo Pacific locations. The fish pictured is a female, and shows the enlarged pelvic fins which come together to form a pouch in which the eggs are incubated.
The best known species to the Aquarium keeper is The Yellow Seahorse (Hippocampus kuda). Kuda is found in many locations around the Indo-Pacific regions. Not always yellow, by any means. That this curious fish exists only in mythology is the mistaken view of many people. The typical Yellow Sea Horse will have a golden/yellow body liberally ornamented with carmine red spots. The eyes have a surrounding pattern which helps to blend them into the facial “mask” etched with fine black lines. The tail will usually be a plain yellow without the red spots. A coronet sits nicely on the top of the animal’s head. Sexing is easy as the male’s brood pouch is a leathery looking area which the female, of course, lacks! (The fish pictured is a male). One time it was a problem to keep sea horses in the aquarium, the main stumbling block being their adamant refusal to accept any dead food, or even living foods which failed to attract – notably worm-like foods. But frozen mysis shrimp was tried and the “horses” really went for it, even prepared to snatch the shrimps up from the substrate. By supplementing this convenient food with live treats it has become possible to keep and breed the larger sea horses in captive conditions. It is also possible to dose the fish with supplements mixed in with the thawed-out mysis.
Similar in general appearance to the Yellow Seahorse, the Prickly Seahorse (Hippocampus hystrix) is another fairly frequent sighting. The fish pictured was found in The Lembeh Straits, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. It is also found in the Red Sea and further west in the Indian Ocean. As the name implies, this species has quite extended spines projecting from its body, making it a very unpalatable mouthful for some aspiring predator. The Prickly seahorse may be yellow, pink, orange, brown, green(ish), and anything else which will afford it protection by blending in with the surroundings.
This group of Hippocampus reidi clearly shows how these fish can assume a general body colouring to match their surroundings. Orange, yellow, and red sponges are providing the surroundings in this aquarium shot and it is obvious which sponge each of the seahorses favours. Three of the fish are using their prehensile tails to secure an anchorage in the sponges, while the yellow fish has detached to change his positioning. This is quite a large fish which is found in both the temperate and tropical areas of the western Atlantic ocean.
The Pygmy Seahorse is an endearing, tiny, creature. It is VERY difficult to see with the naked eye when it is hitched into a gorgonian coral of the same colour and with the same nodules. The nose of this species (Hippocampus bargibanti) is quite snubbed compared to its larger cousins, but it has to have a comparatively long tail in order that it may hitch up securely to its gorgonian host. This species is found in localised sites within Oceana. The fish pictured was found in The Lembeh Straits close to where the S. hystrix was seen, although there are several known sites where the fish is found elsewhere in The Straits.
The exoskeleton common to most of the species discussed here provides a good degree of protection from predation. The hard bony plates of the sea horses and the flexible ringed arrangement of modified scales adopted by the Corythoichthys and Doryhamphus species make an uninviting food to tackle. Camouflage through colour changing ability and the added bonus of strange and ornamental body forms, is not only the first line of defence but may be the only one needed in many instances. This fascinating group of fishes provides challenging subjects for aquarium culture, but given the correct environment and by satisfying special feeding requirements, many will settle well to domestication. If they do not have exclusive use of the aquarium great care is necessary when choosing tank mates. None of the pipefish or seahorses will energetically chase and hunt down prey. The pace is invariably leisurely, or even lethargic! Any compatible community members will need to be similarly plodding in their life style. Natural lifespans vary from as little as one year to as long as five years plus. A rough and ready guide suggests that the larger species live longest. But they are for the dedicated fishkeeper only, please!