Sunday 1 April 2012

Pygmy Seahorse

Image: Stephen Childs via Flickr
Bargibanti's Pygmy Seahorse
Pygmy Seahorses! Not only are they tiny, they are a blessing in expert disguise.

Image: Mary Solomon
Pygmy Seahorses are utterly teensy! The biggest of them scarcely reaches 2.5 cm (an inch) in length from snout to tip of the tail. There are at least 7 species, all from southeast Asia, up to Japan and down to northern Australia. They are related to the other seahorses and even share the same genus, Hippocampus.

Image: crawl_ray via Flickr
They make use of truly phenomenal camouflage. The most impressive ones live out their lives on only a few species of Gorgonian or other soft corals. They blend in with appropriate colours and even lumps and bumps on their skin to mimic the polyps. They even eat the same tiny plankton that the coral does!

Image: PacificKlaus via Flickr
Denise Pygmy Seahorse
Grabbing on with their prehensile tail, they look like just another branch in the psychedelic labyrinth.

Others live in a wider variety of algae and invertebrates in coral reefs. These are some of the world's smallest vertebrates, so they are incredibly difficult to find and there may well be many more species as yet unknown.

Image: Daniel, Daniel Kwok via Flickr 
Pygmy Seahorses are small...

Image: Daniel, Daniel Kwok via Flickr  
Really small.

Image: Daniel, Daniel Kwok via Flickr
Really, really, teeny, tiny small.

Image: Wikimedia
Satomi's Pygmy Seahorse, the world's smallest seahorse
The smallest of all is Satomi's Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus satomiae) with an average length of 13.8 millimetres (0.54 in). Look at those gigantic octocoral polyps! And with their tail coiled around a branch they look even smaller!

Image: PacificKlaus via Flickr
Sea Pony?
But you have to do more than excel at tininess to be a bona fide Pygmy Seahorse. Some other seahorses are comparably small, but they aren't what you might call a True Pygmy Seahorse.

Image: PacificKlaus via Flickr
One of these differences is that the Pygmies have one gill slit on the back of the head. Their stable mates, even other really small seahorses, have the usual gills on either side of the face like most other fish.

Image: PacificKlaus via Flickr
Another difference is visible when the male becomes pregnant. Yeh, female Pygmy Seahorses lay their eggs in a pouch on the male, just like other seahorses do.

Image: sarnau via Flickr
As you might imagine, this can only happen when a couple really gets to know each other. Pygmy Seahorses pair up and live together on their selected Gorgonian. They may also share it with other pairs and maybe some more that are single and searching.

Some of them have been seen doing little courtship dances like other seahorses do. This helps to cement their relationship so that the male can trust the female and be sure she isn't one of those "wham, bam, thank you, man" heart breakers.

Image: PacificKlauss via Flickr
Best love nest, ever!
It may also serve as practise for what happens when they take their relationship to the next level. The female lays her eggs in a pouch the male has on his trunk region. This is different to other seahorses who have their brood pouch at the tail.

Image: Steven Childs via Flickr
Heavily pregnant male on the left.
After a couple weeks the tiny youngsters finally emerge. For many Pygmy Seahorses there might be half a dozen or so, but one male was seen to release 34 babies! Ouch! At least the sprogs can take care of themselves. Most species have a plankton stage where they drift around before settling into a home of their own. I'm sure having to feed that many little squirts would put a tremendous strain on Ma and Pa's carefully cultivated relationship.

Image: Jayvee F. via Flickir
We can only hope that the children will follow the example of their romantic parents. So next time you're swimming around the coral reefs of southeast Asia, take a very careful look around you. Perhaps you'll see one. Perhaps you'll see two. And if you see two, don't get too close. They may want some alone time.


TexWisGirl said...

my goodness - tiny and cute. had to look at that top photo twice to find him.

Joseph JG said...

Yeh, the camouflage is extraordinary!

ben268 said...

I had no idea these guys existed! Cutest thing ever.

Joseph JG said...

So glad I could introduce you!