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Related FAQs: Seahorses & their Relatives Seahorses & their Relatives 2, Seahorse Identification, Seahorse Behavior, Seahorse Compatibility, Seahorse Selection, Seahorse Systems, Seahorse Systems 2, Seahorse Feeding, Seahorse DiseaseSeahorse Disease 2, Seahorse Reproduction,

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/The Conscientious Aquarist

Of Leafy Dragons & Seahorses; Family Syngnathidae
Seahorses part 1

To: part II, part III

By Bob Fenner

Phallopteryx taeniolatus

"Bizarre, non-fish-like, is that a living thing?" These are some of the more common statements folks make when encountering the tube-mouthed fishes, family Syngnathidae ("sin-nath-id-ee") for the first time. And they are indeed strange. Relying on cryptic coloring and body shapes, hiding in obscurity, propelled along with their undulating dorsal fins, they are the original "equal-sex" reproducers. Males celebratedly carry and "give birth" to young providing storage and protection for their developing progeny.

As captive specimens, Pipefishes, seahorses and Leafy Dragons have proven less than sterling in their longevity. The vast majority die within days of wild-collecting from poor handling, starvation, physical trauma and disease. Hence this warning; only undertake the care of these fishes knowingly, understanding their demanding requirements and low survivability.

The three requisite criteria for the successful maintenance of these fishes: selecting healthy stock, provision of adequate foodstuffs, in a stable, suitable environment. All to be revealed and detailed below.

Classification: Taxonomy, Relation With Other Groups

The Pipefishes and Seahorses, including the strange Sea or Leafy Dragons comprise the Family Syngnathidae, the aptly named tube-mouthed fishes.

According to Nelson (1994) the syngnathids form a larger group, the Superfamily Syngnathoidea with the another family sometimes labeled as seahorses as well as Ghost Pipefishes, the otherworldly family Solenostomidae (whose five species have the females brooding their young in pouches).

Solenostomus paradoxus,  the Harlequin Ghost Pipefish in Manado, Sulawesi, Indonesia.

 A notch higher in taxonomic schemes we find more fish families that are easily identifiable as tube-mouths; the Seamoths (Pegasidae), Trumpetfishes (Aulostomidae), Cornetfishes (Fistularidae), and virtual knife-like headstanders, the Shrimpfishes (Centriscidae). Unfortunately for aquarists, these related groups fare as poorly in captivity as the Pipefishes and Seahorses.

Aulostomus chinensis, Trumpetfish

Fistularia commersoni, Cornetfish

Aeoliscus strigatus, Shrimpfish

Some splitting-type classifiers break the family Syngnathidae itself into two or more sub-units; for Nelson, the subfamilies Syngnathinae (Pipefishes) and Hippocampinae (Seahorses and Seadragons, see below). Whichever way you splice them they are unmistakable; elongate bodies encased in hard bony ring series, small gill openings, a lack of pelvic fins and caudals, anals, dorsals and/or pectorals in some. The seahorses utilize their modified lower-body "tails" for "hitching up" as it were; and some pipes are so modified the virtually crawl along the bottom rather than swim.

Syngnathids are celebratedly "libbers" with the males rearing their eggs in a ventral brood area or pouch.

This diverse assemblage of two subfamilies includes 52 genera and about 215 described species.


Most syngnathids are marines, but there are a few brackish (about 35 species) and even freshwater forms (maybe 17 species). The majority are found in shallow seas of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Species of Use/Availability to Aquarists:

At times, erratic and seasonal, a few species of pipes, horses and dragons make their way in to the marine livestock offerings. Although all are about the same non-hardiness, we will list the most commonly offered.

Seahorses Proper:

Hippocampus (meaning "horse caterpillar"), comprising the 35 species of seahorses, are collected for the aquarium trade principally out of the Indo-Pacific, mainly Indonesia and the Philippines; and to a lesser extent, the Caribbean.

Western Atlantic species include H. reidi, the slender seahorse, H. erectus (frequently mislabeled as H. hudsonius and . punctulatus), the northern seahorse, and the dwarf H. zosterae of the shameful mail order trade of the past.

Hippocampus erectus Perry, 1810, the Lined Seahorse. To 19 cm. in height. Numerous lines on head, possibly down nape, body. Western Atlantic: Nova Scotia to Panama. Found in Zostera beds and on gorgonians, even floating Sargassum. SIO Aquarium and Jamaica photos.

Verticals (Full/Cover Page Sizes Available
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The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

Hippocampus reidi Ginsburg 1933, the Long Snout Seahorse (often sold in the hobby as "Brazilian"). Western Atlantic, North Carolina  to Rio/Brazil. To six inches in height. Variable in color... mostly warm colored individuals offered in the trade; often w/ contrasting bands. Bodies stippled with black dots; small dorsal fin. Aquarium pix and Cozumel far right. 

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The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

Hippocampus zosterae Jordan & Gilbert, 1882, the Dwarf Seahorse. To 5 cm. in height. Very short snouts. Western Atlantic: Bermuda, southern Florida (USA), Bahamas and the entire Gulf of Mexico. Found in Zostera beds near shore. THE dwarf seahorse of past comic book fame... only lives a year. Aquarium images. 

Indo-Pacific Horses: The Yellow Seahorse, H. kuda is regularly offered in the trade out of the Indo-Pacific (rarely from Hawaii), especially the Philippines. Less seen are the tougher, mainly Japanese seahorses, H. japonicus and H. coronatus. If you can find them, a still hardier species out of Sri Lanka is the dark H. fuscus.

Hippocampus abdominalis Lesson 1827, the Big-Belly Seahorse. Southwest Pacific; Australia and New Zealand. To a foot in length. Now cultured in good numbers by OMLAS Pty Ltd (Seahorse Australia) in Tasmania for the aquarium trade. www.seahorseaquaculture.com.au

Aquarium pix.

Verticals (Full/Cover Page Sizes Available)
Hippocampus bargibanti Whitney 1970, the Pygmy Seahorse. Indo-West Pacific; Indonesia, New Guinea, New Caledonia. To 2 cm. in length. Only found on Muricella sp. Gorgonians that they match perfectly (only discovered after being found on collected sea fans!). N. Sulawesi photo of specimen about 1/4" tall, and S. Sulawesi of a gold variant of this species. http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/Country/
CountrySpecies Summary.cfm?Country=Indonesia&Genus= Hippocampus&Species=bargibanti

Verticals (Full/Cover Page Sizes Available
Bigger PIX:
The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

To: part II, part III

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