Sunday 14 July 2013


Image: Rita Bellinger
Pipefish are essentially Seahorses who got their hunchback straightened out. And for this terrible lack of deformity they must suffer in obscurity while their mangled cousins hog the limelight.

Sometimes showbiz is like hospital and serial killer fans; they're only interested if you're sick.

Image: Asbjørn Hansen
Pipefish were first introduced to the fancy pastime now known as science by Carl Linnaeus himself, on page 336 of his massive, fancy and ever so important 10th edition of Systema naturæ, known in full as:

Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis

It doesn't get more fancy than that! This is a gold leaf book title. It's wearing a cape and an unnecessarily tall hat with a feather in. Probably a cherry, too.

All of which is in stark contrast to the featured Pipefish themselves!

Image: Hans Hillewaert
Greater Pipefish (Syngnathus acus)
The Greater Pipefish is a good example. It's brown. It's also 45 cm (18 in) long, which is indeed greater then most other Pipefish. Linnaeus named it Syngnathus acus. Acus comes from the Latin for needle, so it's a pretty big needle! Maybe that camel will squeeze through after all...

Syngnathus means "fused jaw", referring to the fact that Pipefish have a pipe sticking out of their face. Their tiny, toothless mouth is at the end of this long snout, so that's one deformity they were unable to escape. There can be no chewing, biting or gnashing of teeth with such an arrangement; Pipefish can only slurp up the tiniest of crustaceans, fish eggs and minute, baby fish.

Image: Eric Heupel
Northern Pipefish (Syngnathus fuscus)
Pipefish of the genus Syngnathus are now known as Seaweed Pipefish. And they all seem to be brown.
  • The genus name lends itself to the whole Pipefish group; they're all members of the subfamily Syngnathinae.
  • With the Seahorses they make up the family Syngnathidae.
  • Add in a whole bunch of other strange fish with fused jaws and you have the order Syngnathiformes, which I guess basically means "Pipefish type things".
I learned two things just now. There's a Norse goddess called Syn who seems to be famous for refusing to open doors, saying "no" and just generally refusing, and there's a website called GodChecker.

Image: Kevin Bryant
Chain Pipefish (Syngnathus louisianae)
Most Pipefish are marine, but there are a few who live in brackish or freshwater habitats. One of them is South Africa's River or Estuarine Pipefish, which was described in 1963 by none other than J. L. B. Smith, one of the guys instrumental in the discovery of the living Coelacanth. Oddly, the Estuarine Pipefish was declared extinct in the early 90's before its rediscovery in 1995...

The River Pipefish is also brown, so let's go to a coral reef or something! It's Summer! It's hot! And I've gone all strange in the brain!

Image: Andreas März
Bluestripe Pipefish (Doryrhamphus excisus)
Pipefish, like Seahorses and other relatives, have a bewildering skeleton which provides them with an armour of bony plates all along their body. It probably makes them rather unappetizing to predators, but it also makes them more rigid and inflexible than they otherwise would be.

Image: Asbjørn Hansen
Snake Pipefish (Entelurus aequorus)
Some Pipefish are more flexible than others, though!

They're a bit rubbish at swimming, too. Most of the work is done by fluttering a rather inadequate dorsal fin and there's not much in the way of mighty sweeps and swipes of a powerful tail fin that other fish use so well. A lot of Pipefish do have a tail fin, but its puny!

Video: funseadiving
Banded Pipefish (Dunckerocampus dactyliophorus)

Some Pipefish have larger tail fins than the norm and they seem to be extremely proud of it! It's very colourful and eye-catching, so their bearers are known as Flagtail Pipefish.

Image: ken tam
Red-stripe Pipefish (Dunckerocampus baldwini)
It's still very small though, no matter how eye-catching it is. That's why Pipefish live in the more peaceful parts of the sea, where they won't get swept away by currents.

A lot of them live among plants or coral and they often swim just above the floor, more like a snake than an ocean-faring fish.

Image: prilfish
Mushroom Coral Pipefish (Siokunichthys nigrolineatus)
The Mushroom Coral Pipefish lives in small groups who worm and snake their way through the tentacles of a particular coral called Heliofungia actiniformis.

Some Pipefish have given up on all that swimming malarkey and have exchanged a tiny tail fin for a cool, prehensile tail. It lets them grab hold of plant stems and relax while those Flagtail nutters are whizzing around showing off.

Image: Nick Hobgood
Short-pouch Pygmy Pipehorse (Acentronura breviperula)
About now is when you start seeing the word "Pipehorse" used, since it gets difficult to decide whether you're looking at a Pipefish that looks a bit like a Seahorse, or a whole other thing that's in between the two. It's like they were on the way to becoming Seahorses but didn't want to become THAT bent up and malformed. Who could blame them?

When you're a fish in the sea who isn't too good at swimming, camouflage is your friend. Also poison, but we'll leave that for another day and another fish.

Image: Bernard DUPONT
Ornate Pipefish (Halicampus macrorhynchus)
Colour obviously helps, but so do little bits sticking out so that not only do you look unlike a fish, you don't even look like a Pipefish.

Image: Claudine Lamothe
Ribboned Pipefish (Haliichthys taeniophorus)
Follow this line of thinking to a ridiculous degree and you end up with the Ribboned Pipefish and the word "Seadragon" starts getting flung around. However, it seems quite clear that the Ribboned Pipefish is definitely not a Seadragon...

Image: cotinis
Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques)
There are only our old friends the Leafy Seadragon and the Weedy Seadragon. As far as I can tell they are both regarded as Pipefish, but weird enough to warrant their own fancy name to go with their fancy adornments.

This diversity can also be seen in Pipefish mating habits. Some are monogamous and go through the kind of courtship dance Seahorses do. They might even defend a territory together. In others, the female may mate with several males, or the male with several females. Sometimes females compete with other females for the best males, or males fight for females. Perhaps both. It's quite human, in other words: a mess.

One thing is non-negotiable - it's always the male who looks after the eggs.

Image: Klaus Stiefel
Male Banded Pipefish (Dunckerocampus dactyliophorus) with brood patch covered in eggs
In some species, the male has a brood patch where the eggs are simply stuck on to his underside.

Image: prilfish
Male Black-breasted Pipefish (Corythoichthys nigripectus) with brood pouch full of eggs
Others have a brood pouch which completely encloses the eggs, more like a Seahorse. Whatever the set-up, it's up to him to love and cherish his little darlings and provide them nourishment from his own body. He does this dutifully, until the eggs hatch and tiny Pipefish are born. They'll probably want to get away quickly since, with his job done, father might just consider them food now. All's fair in love and child-rearing!

The thing is, Pipefish don't always wait until the eggs hatch before they think of their progeny as food...

Video: nature video

Male Pipefish like BIG butts females because they produce BIG eggs that have a good chance of hatching into healthy children who will grow up and reach the upper echelons in business, military and sporting careers.

This doesn't mean that he refuses to mate with smaller females, he just won't look after the eggs so well. He has enough control over his brood patch that he can deny some of them nutrients. He can even reverse the process and absorb nutrient from the eggs, basically eating his own unborn children because their mother wasn't good enough.

This research was done on just one (brown) species, the Gulf Pipefish (Syngnathus scovelli), so while we mustn't jump to unwarranted conclusions, it does provide compelling evidence for the sick, twisted and evil nature of the Seahorse. At the very least it provides a different spin on that charming, daily ritual where the female meets up with her mate every morning to renew their vows through the medium of dance. Just checking how things are going...

Image: mindgrow
Pipefish rests on brain of latest victim


Big thanks to Dear Reader Henderson for suggesting both the Coelacanth and the Leafy Seadragon. I ended up spinning them out into a whole bunch of posts from Lamprey and Seahorse and they sort of met up again in this post, which is cool.

I had no idea Seahorses had so many weird relatives!


TexWisGirl said...

a seahorse that went to the chiropractor! cool!

Syeda Rafiya Shehnaz Urdu High school Daulatabad said...

What a amazing natural Camouflage!

nature has always worked hand in hand with the life.

Joseph JG said...

@TexWisGirl: Haha! That's the one!

@Ishrat: Yes! Camouflage is an amazing example of how animals tie in to the land around them.

Esther said...

Well here's one pipefish doing his darndest to beat his dragon-ish sibs!,%20Ornate%20ghost%20pipefish%202.jpg

..and then it turns out it's not even really a pipefish at all!

Joseph JG said...

Ah yes! I spent an interesting time this morning learning all about them and I'll share my findings in the not too distant future!