Pygmy Seahorse _Richard Smith

Horses of a different color

Published January 28, 2014 in Diving, DIVING & SNORKELING, MARINE LIFE, Snorkeling, Underwater Photography

Though you might not guess it based on name or appearance, seahorses are actually fish, and pygmy seahorses are some of the smallest fishes in the sea. The largest specimens would barely stretch across a silver dollar coin. Their tiny size and near-perfect camouflage kept pygmy seahorses hidden from humans until very recently. But once discovered, they have become superstars of Indian Ocean reefs, and the favorite subject of a growing number of photographers.

Pygmy central

Wakatobi Dive Resort has earned a reputation as one of the premier locations in the world to find pygmy seahorses. The surrounding waters of the Southeast Sulawesi are prime habitat for these small creatures. What sets Wakatobi apart from other venues in the region is the unmatched access divers and photographers have to the most promising sites, and in very shallow water. Finding pygmies near the surface not only provides divers with more bottom time for observation, but also more available light for enhanced viewing and photography. Additionally, finding these elusive, well-hidden creatures is made easier by Wakatobi dive guides, who are experts at locating pygmy seahorses in their natural environment.

“Wakatobi is one of the best places for pygmy seahorse research in terms of number of species and their abundance. Ease of access and sheer diversity on the house reef has been vital as this is where I carry out much of my observations. When it comes to finding pygmies, there is no better place that Wakatobi to begin the hunt.” Dr. Richard Smith

When Dr. Richard Smith made pygmy seahorses the subject of his doctoral dissertation, he chose Wakatobi as a primary location for his research. Over the course of several visits, he was able to observe and document a wide range of subjects. These are some of the images and observations he recorded during his time at Wakatobi.

02-Pygmy Seahorses Richard Smith-15
Male pygmy seahorses can be distinguished by a slit like opening at the base of their abdomen, visible here.  Photo by Dr. Richard Smith

An un-fishlike appearance

Somewhere in the evolutionary process, seahorses lost many of the features that identify them as fish. Their fins are tiny, their tails have become more monkey-like than fishy, and their mouths have morphed into puckered snouts. Even more unusual than their appearances, however, are their mating and reproductive cycles. Partners practice strict monogamy, and become partners for life. And in a rare reversal of roles, it is the males who become pregnant and carry the eggs until birth. Male pygmy seahorses can be distinguished by a slit like opening at the base of their abdomen. Females on the other hand, have a raised circular pore.

A recent discovery

The first pygmy seahorses were discovered by George Bargibant in 1969 and named in his honor a year later. George, a researcher at the Museum of New Caledonian in the South Pacific, discovered Hippocampus bargibanti while inspecting a large Muricella sea fan being added to the collection. On the surface of the sea fan he found a pair of tiny seahorses measuring just less than an inch in length and with color and texture that perfectly matched their coral home.

“They [seahorses] remind us that we rely on the seas not only to fill our dinner plates but also to feed our imaginations.” Helen Scales, Ph.D.

After their initial discovery, pygmy seahorses remained relatively unknown for the next twenty odd years, until SCUBA divers began to notice them in the mid 1990’s, and a craze for these enigmatic creatures began. Divers began scrutinizing every detail of habitats like sea fans in hopes of finding a perfectly camouflaged pygmy hiding in plain sight.

These miniscule seahorses (Hippocampus bargibanti) are less than one-inch long; pygmies, unlike other seahorse species, have adapted to camouflage with one specific host plant.  Photo by Dr. Richard Smith 

The Pontoh’s pygmy (Hippocampus pontohi) was not named until 2008.  Photo by Dr. Richard Smith

As word of the pygmies’ existence spread, a flurry of new discoveries was fueled by divers who fanned out on the reefs of Southeast Asia searching for these tiny creatures. Six of the seven known pygmy species were named after the year 2000, and new discoveries are still being made to this day. If ever there was an opportunity for the average diver to make a unique scientific discovery, this is it. For example, the Pontoh’s pygmy (Hippocampus pontohi) wasn’t named until 2008.

Home on the range

Pygmy seahorses have amongst the smallest home range of any fish. Some species rarely, if ever move outside of their resident sea fan. This makes sense given their extreme camouflage and adaptations for this habitat.

Free-living pygmy seahorses, such as the Pontoh’s, can be found living anywhere on the reef, but tend to have a well-defined home range that they share with their partner. The Pontoh’s pygmy seahorse, for example, prefers much shallower areas of the reef than gorgonian-associated species. Wakatobi is one of the best places in the world to see Pontoh’s pygmies.

The severn’s pygmy seahorse, a brown free-living species, is often found near hydroids. While genetic data seems to indicate that the two are in fact one extremely variable species, the Severn’s might be described as a brown color variation of the Pontoh’s.

08-Denise pygmy seahorse_photo Cor Bosman 3
The tubercles and snout of the pygmy seahorse matches the color and shape of the polyps of the host gorgonian, while its body matches the gorgonian stem.  Photo by Cor Bosman

Subtle differences

Pygmies differ slightly from their larger seahorse cousins, as they have undergone some physical adaptations for their small size. One distinguishing characteristic is that they have a single gill opening rather than a pair. There are few physical differences between male and female pygmies. The most reliable indication is the slit-like opening on males and a raised circular opening in females. In addition, pygmy males brood the developing young within a pouch located on the trunk of their body rather than the tail.

“This tiny, expert camouflage artist thrives among gorgonian corals (a soft coral also known as a sea fan or sea whip) in the genus Muricella, which they hang on to using their prehensile tail.”  Jennifer Kennedy

The Denise’s pygmy seahorse is extremely variable and clearly distinguished from the Bargibant’s by its more slender body shape and longer snout. Because these tiny fish do not have eyelids and are sensitive to bright lights it is also important to limit the number of flash-lit images and the use of flashlights when observing or photographing them. Species like this cannot live without their host sea fan; the extreme camouflage that makes them near invisible on the sea fan would be obvious to predators anywhere else.

Seahorse breeders

Courtship is important in allowing male and female pygmies to synchronize their reproductive cycles, which is carried out a couple times a day. Female seahorses begin to prepare their clutch of eggs a few days prior to actually transferring them to their mate and will only do this when she is sure that the male is ready to accept them. A clutch of eggs represents a significant investment of energy for a female seahorse and if her mate isn’t able to accept the eggs she risks wasting them, or worse they may fester and kill her. The function of the pair’s courtship displays is to establish the exact stage of their partner’s reproductive cycle, allowing the transfer of eggs as quickly as possible after the male gives birth.

Pregnant denises photo Richard Smith
A clutch eggs represents a significant investment of energy for a female seahorse and if her mate isn’t able to accept the eggs she risks wasting them, or worse they may fester and kill her.  Photo by Dr. Richard Smith

After the eggs have been fully brooded and are ready to hatch, the male gives birth. But there is no time to rest, as the female will often transfer a new clutch of eggs to the male within an hour of him giving birth. Life is tough for a male pygmy seahorse!

Juveniles birthed by the male are black in color, which camouflages them for the next leg of their journey floating about in the plankton. To prevent inbreeding, juveniles are released into currents to float away from their parent’s sea fan home and spend some time in the open ocean before settling to a new sea fan of their own. As juvenile pygmy seahorses finish drifting about and settle on a sea fan, they begin a change in appearance. Within a few days, they will transform from their uniform black into patterns that will match the texture and color of their host habitat almost exactly.

Protected and abundant

More than a decade ago Wakatobi Dive Resort created a marine reserve that protects more than 20 miles of reef, and provides an ideal environment for pygmy seahorses to thrive. Today, these reefs remain some of the most prolific and promising for finding various species of pygmies. On any given diver or snorkel excursion from Wakatobi, the resort’s keen-eyed guides are likely to spot one or more pygmies perched gracefully on a sea fan. Anyone who has the pleasure of watching one of these animals should consider themselves privileged, because they are seeing something that few humans will ever see. And when it comes to finding pygmies, there is no better place that Wakatobi to begin the hunt.

Aerial reef system_didi lotze
More than a decade ago Wakatobi dive resort created a marine reserve, which protects over twelve miles of reef and provides an ideal environment for pygmy seahorses to thrive. These reefs are now known as one of the most prolific areas for witnessing various species of pygmies.  Photo by Didi Lotze

Bargibant Pygmy Seahorse_Mark Snyder
Pygmy seahorses are animals that few people have been lucky enough to see, let alone witness mating or giving birth. Come to Wakatobi and see for yourself some of these amazing and fascinating creatures. Photo by Mark Snyder

About Dr. Richard Smith
Richard Smith is a British marine biologist and photojournalist who aims to inspire a passion for the ocean and raise awareness of marine conservation issues through his images. He has been diving since 1996, which began his fascination with the sea. In 2011, he completed a PhD in the biology and conservation of pygmy seahorses. Richard leads marine life expeditions where the aim is for participants to get more from their diving and photography by learning about the marine environment:

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