Species

Hold Your Seahorses!

Text by Umeed Mistry | Photos by Dhritiman Mukherjee
Seahorses are fish without scales that eat all the time, and dads give birth to the babies

Of all the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the shallow waters of the Indian Ocean, the seahorse is easily one of the most unique. They are fascinating animals to watch underwater, whether they are tiny one-centimetre-long creatures or a foot-long. They are fish with a head and neck that resembles a horse. Most fish are covered in scales, but seahorses are covered in skin stretched over a network of bony plates.

Seahorses use their prehensile tails to grip objects. They often attach themselves to a floating object and travel for miles with it.

Seahorses use their prehensile tails to grip objects. They often attach themselves to a floating object and travel for miles with it.

One of the most remarkable aspects of seahorse biology is the role reversal seen in the process of reproduction. Seahorses like to take their time when it comes to mating. Many species of seahorses pair-bond for the entire mating season, showing no interest in anyone except their chosen mate. In comparison to their generally secretive lifestyles, the courtship dances of seahorses involve as much conspicuous shaking and whirling as a Bollywood love song, with a lot of tail holding. This dance helps the pair to bond with each other and is thought to synchronize their reproductive states. When both partners are ready, the male receives the eggs from the female into a little brood pouch on his ventral side. The eggs are fertilized here and the pouch is used as an incubator where the babies develop. They are ejected from the male’s pouch into the water about two weeks later, and they immediately go about settling onto the reef or sand floor and foraging for food.

About 47-50 species of seahorses have been identified in the world’s oceans.

About 47-50 species of seahorses have been identified in the world’s oceans.

Seahorses are terrible swimmers as their body structure is unsuited for rapid movement through water. Their tails are not the broad aerodynamic shape required for swimming, but a prehensile tail capable of grasping and holding on to seaweed. They have an awkward upright gait, propelled by the frantic fluttering of their pectoral and dorsal fins. But swimming is not the seahorse’s priority. They use a combination of camouflage and slow, upright, stop-start movements amidst seagrass and reef structures to forage for food. Their mouths are specialized for hunting tiny invertebrates, which they catch with their long snouts using swift head movements.

Seahorses make smacking noises during courtship as well as when they are eating.

Seahorses make smacking noises during courtship as well as when they are eating.

Unfortunately, these incredible creatures are valued as vital ingredients in a number of traditional Chinese medicinal remedies. While there is no scientific evidence that these remedies work, and even though it is illegal to export seahorses from India, thousands are still collected by fishermen every year. They are dried and powdered to make them indistinguishable during inspection. Powdered seahorse is smuggled to Southeast Asia where it ends up in medicine supposed to have aphrodisiacal qualities.

Seahorses are considered an uncommon find, and chancing upon one underwater is the reason for much excitement. Dive destinations that boast seahorse sightings are a huge attraction for divers, snorkellers, and underwater photographers. And rightfully so, seahorses are photogenic and make great muses.

 

SPOT THEM:

Divers and snorkellers can observe seahorses in fairly shallow water, on sand flats and seagrass beds around the south Tamil Nadu coastline as well as off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They can also be seen at most Southeast Asian dive sites.


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