What is a Seahorse?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2019
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The seahorse, genus Hippocampus, are an unusual and beautiful type of fish with about 40 different species. Named for its horse-like head, the seahorse has a variety of unusual physical and behavior characteristics. Although comprehensive studies are not available on population data, a widespread use of seahorses for traditional Asian medicine and consistent depletion of habitats has lead to the endangerment of many species of seahorse.

Seahorses have a unique physical appearance, unlike any other fish. Their thin skin stretches over a structure of plate-like bones. They are not strong swimmers, using only a flimsy back fin and a pair of tiny fins behind their eyes to push them through the water. Their tails are flexible, and can be used to anchor them upright. They vary in size between species, with the big-bellied Australian variety able to reach lengths of 10 inches (25 cm). The smallest species in the world is believed to be Denise’s pygmy seahorse, which are often only .39 in (1 cm) long.


The courtship rituals of seahorses have been studied extensively. Over a period of several days, a mating pair of seahorses will stay together by curling their tails around each other. Seahorses are the only known species to brood young in the male animal, who incubates the eggs inside his body after they are laid. The female will return each morning for a brief visit as long as the incubating period lasts. When ready, the male will eject the babies from his body, usually after two or three weeks.

Seahorses are salt water animals, usually to be found in kelp beds and coral reefs. They inhabit a mostly tropical range, and tend to stay close to the coast. Seahorses are common in most oceans of the world, but as coastal dwellers are subject to a large amount of habitat destruction due to human pollution and ecosystem alterations.

The lifespan of the seahorse has not yet been positively determined by scientists. In the wild, they are believed to live about five years. Seahorses do not survive well in captivity, tending to die within a year. Some experts attribute seahorse endangerment at least partially to the capturing of animals for pets. Breeding farms exist for captive species that are supposed to be hardier than captured wild seahorses, but some experts still believe the practice is damaging to the animals.

Seahorses are widely traded for use as a medicinal ingredient, particularly in China. Traditional Chinese medicine uses the animal for home treatments of respiratory illnesses such as asthma. Some studies suggest that as many as 25 million seahorses are used in trade per year. Many countries outside of Asia also participate in seahorse trade, either for medicinal or commercial purposes as souvenirs, including the United States.

Data on seahorses is incomplete, but many species are considered by experts to be threatened by extinction in their natural habitats. If you would like to help conservation efforts for seahorses, contact your local environmental agencies to see what efforts are being made. Project Seahorse, an international organization dedicated to the conservation of the animals, is constantly in need of volunteer efforts and donations.


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