Seahorses are intriguing little creatures. They bob and drift in the water, awkwardly swimming while constantly eating. They look sort of like horses, and really nothing at all like fish.
Their scientific name is hippocampus, which has roots in the Greek "hippo," meaning horse. Found in waters around the world, here are some interesting facts about these fascinating and unusual animals.
1. Seahorses are fish. They live in the water, breathe through gills and have a swim bladder, according to The Seahorse Trust. Unlike any other fish, however, they have a flexible neck, a snout and a nimble tail.
2. They're ridiculously bad swimmers. Seahorses propel themselves through the water by using a dorsal fin that beats from 30-70 times per second. But that tiny fin, plus an awkward body shape, doesn't make for easy going. As Ze Frank puts it, “Imagine trying to propel yourself on a skateboard solely by waving a Denny’s menu back and forth really fast.” In fact, seahorses can easily die of exhaustion when trying to navigate stormy seas, says National Geographic.
3. They use their tails as anchors. To avoid being swept away in turbulent waters, seahorses use their prehensile tails to grasp corals and sea grasses. The same trick helps them hide from predators.
4. They eat all the time. Because seahorses don't have teeth or stomachs, eating and digestion is quite the chore. They have to eat constantly so they don't starve, reports the Oregon Coast Aquarium. They can eat 3,000 or more brine shrimp every day.
5. They dine via suction. Seahorses use their long snouts like vacuum cleaners, sucking in plankton and small crustaceans. The elongated snout lets them reach into tiny crevasses. It also expands and contracts, depending on the size of their meal.
6. They take courtship very seriously. When males are trying to catch the eye of a female, they lock tails and wrestle in an effort to try to impress her. Once a couple has paired off, the courtship gets even more intricate. They'll twist their tails together and pirouette in a slow dance that can last for hours.
An expectant father shows off his bulging belly. (Photo: Sylke Rohrlach/flickr)
7. Seahorse males take care of pregnancy. After the elaborate dance above, the female deposits her eggs into the male's brood pouch. He fertilizes them and carries them until they're ready to hatch. In some species, he might carry as many as 2,000 of them! Gestation lasts from 2-4 weeks and then the male has contractions, sending his fully formed mini seahorse newborns out into the sea.
8. Newborn seahorses are independent. When seahorse babies — called fry — pop out, they are utterly on their own. They swim away slowly, says the National Wildlife Federation, looking for something to hang on to. The bad news: Because of predators, fewer than one in 1,000 survive to adulthood.
9. Color can be their camouflage. Seahorses have special structures in their skin cells called chromatophores, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These structures allow the fish to change colors to blend into their surroundings, protecting them from predators.
10, People are a big threat. Seahorses most often live in shallow waters near the coast, so human activities like pollution, fishing and development have threatened their numbers. In addition, they are often captured to be used as pets in aquariums and for Asian traditional medicine. While wild-born seahorses generally don't fare well in home tanks, their captive-born relatives are much hardier alternatives for people looking to have these unusual fish in their aquariums, says NOAA.