Seahorses and Pipefish: Cousins of the Reef

by Susan Spann

Most people recognize seahorses at once, almost instinctively. Their distinctive bodies and curled-up tails are familiar even to those who have never seen one in an aquarium or the wild.

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Pipefish are more unusual, and far less commonly recognized, even though they’re one of the seahorse’s closest relatives. Most people consider pipefish odd-looking, almost snake-like creatures. Their tiny mouths and slender bodies look alien, and little like a seahorse.

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Even so, seahorses and pipefish both belong to the syngnathid family, which also includes the leafy and weedy sea dragons. The family name derives from the Greek words meaning “fused jaw,” and refers to the snout-like mouth and jaw structures unique to these lovely creatures.

Syngnathids are predatory ambush hunters, which means they either sneak up on their prey or wait for it to move within striking reach. When prey enters the strike zone, the seahorse (or pipefish, or dragon) gets it snout up close and strikes at the food by contracting the muscles near their heads, sucking the prey through the snout with an audible SNICK. This distinctive sound has resulted in many seahorse breeders and fanciers referring to the seahorse’s feeding mechanism as the “snick.”

Both seahorses and pipefish can be kept in captivity (though most states make owning sea dragons illegal, due to their threatened status). However, they are among the most difficult aquatic creatures to raise and keep in captivity, and require specialized setups and tank mates to thrive.

Since sygnathids can pass diseases from one species to another, especially when mixing wild-caught specimens with captive-bred ones, it’s recommended to keep a single species seahorses or pipefish, and not mixing species in a single tank. The exception is keeping a single species of pipefish with a single, hardy seahorse species; in that case, a keeper should introduce pipefish first, and keep them alive for at least six months before introducing a single, robust seahorse species. (Hippocampus erectus is a good choice.) Even then, it’s a risk, but it can be done.

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People often try to keep seahorses with more aggressive species, such as tangs, marine angelfish, or triggers. This usually results in an early death for the seahorse, either through harassment or starvation. Kept properly, however, seahorses and pipefish make lovely, relaxing additions to a soft-coral reef, and can live for many years.

Unlike many salt-water fish, seahorses and pipefish actually enjoy interacting with humans and watching the world outside the tank.  They’re active, unusual pets that people rarely see, and though they do require a bit more care and maintenance than other aquarium residents, a dedicated hobbyist may find them more rewarding too.


Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, released on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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