KNOW YOUR ANIMALS – SEAHORSE (HIPPOCAMPUS HIPPOCAMPUS)

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Distribution

Short-snouted Seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus) is distributed globally in both tropical and temperate marine water (from about 45° North to 45° South), with most species occurring in the Indo-Pacific and West Atlantic regions. They live among seagrasses, mangroves, corals, and estuaries.

Oddities

The sea horse is a strange animal that looks like the knight in a chess set. It can wrap its tail around a piece of seaweed or the stem of a marine plant, just as a monkey wraps its tail around a branch. Each of its eyes is on a turret and can move independently. Although many other fish can also move their eyes independently, this ability is more pronounced in seahorses. A final oddity is that the male carries the babies in a pouch.

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Description

A sea horse has a large head with a tubular snout, a moveable neck, a rotund body, and a long tapering slender tail, with a total length of not more than 8 inches. The fish almost looks like a wood carving.

Habitat/habit

Seahorses live in shallow inshore areas among seaweeds or in beds of eelgrass in estuaries. They swim in a vertical position. When a seahorse clings to support its tail, it still keeps its body upright.

The seahorse eats any kind of animal small enough to swim into its tiny mouth. The prey is located by sight and quickly snapped up or sucked in from as much as 1.5 m away. It is mainly a crustacean-like copepod. Sometimes baby fish are also eaten.

Male pregnancy/male labour

We are used to the idea that the actual burden of bearing offspring is always that of the female. In seahorses, it is otherwise. As each batch of eggs is laid in his pouch the male seahorse goes through violent muscular spasms which work the eggs to the bottom of the pouch to make room for more. In aquaria, the males often die after delivering their brood but this does not happen in a natural state.

It’s uniqueness

Seahorses have been described as having the head of a horse, the tail of a monkey, the pouch of a kangaroo, the hard outer skeleton of an insect, and the independently moving eyes of a chameleon.  It would, however, be difficult to find a suitable comparison for the labour pains of the father.

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Current status:

Many seahorse species are included as ‘vulnerable’ in the 1996 IUCN Red List of threatened animals. Marked declines in the numbers of seahorses in many populations should prompt us to develop conservation programmes. Most species are probably not in immediate danger of extinction.

Seahorses are threatened by heavy exploitation for use as an ingredient of traditional Chinese medicine and as unique exhibits in aquariums. Traditional Chinese medicine is the largest direct market for sea horses. They are also endangered by the degradation and destruction of valuable and vulnerable seagrass, mangroves, coral and estuarine habitats.

The largest exporters of seahorses appear to be India, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Most dead seahorses are probably imported to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan while the USA would be the primary importer of live seahorses.

Seahorses and their pipefish relatives are used to treat a wide range of ailments from asthma and arteriosclerosis to incontinence and impotence. They also provide remedies for skin ailments, high cholesterol levels, excess throat phlegm, goitre and heart diseases.

Jayanthi Rengan
Blue Cross of India, Chennai

Source: Eco News, Vol.8, No.2 (July – September), 2002.

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