The Seahorse

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes

[caption id="attachment_3546" align="alignright" width="453"] Photo: Sigmund, Unsplash[/caption]

“Sometimes through the soft green water and drifting seaweed of my dreams I see the seahorse again. Delicate and fragile it comes to me, shimmering and luminous with light. And I remember the reef.” - Witi Ihimaera, ‘The Seahorse and the Reef’ The New Net Goes Fishing, 1977.

Aotearoa author Witi Ihimaera's short story 'The Seahorse and the Reef' succeeds in evoking whimsy, reverence, and regret. The tale is about a family who regularly gathers kai moana (seafood) at the local rocky reef. In the pupu pool – a long, lush, richly-inhabited rock pool where pupu, or winkles can be found - they also happen upon a seahorse:

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 13 minutes

Photo: Sigmund, Unsplash

“Sometimes through the soft green water and drifting seaweed of my dreams I see the seahorse again. Delicate and fragile it comes to me, shimmering and luminous with light. And I remember the reef.” – Witi Ihimaera, ‘The Seahorse and the Reef’ The New Net Goes Fishing, 1977.

Aotearoa author Witi Ihimaera’s short story ‘The Seahorse and the Reef’ succeeds in evoking whimsy, reverence, and regret. The tale is about a family who regularly gathers kai moana (seafood) at the local rocky reef. In the pupu pool – a long, lush, richly-inhabited rock pool where pupu, or winkles can be found – they also happen upon a seahorse:

“It was in that pool we discovered the seahorse, magical and serene, shimmering among the red kelp and riding the swirls of the sea’s current.”

The children are entranced and want to take it home, but their dad tells them to leave it be: the seahorse will die if taken from its blue-shadowed, peaceful habitat. He says to his kids, it is the sea that gives the seahorse its beauty and mystique. He teaches them to take just enough kai to feed whānau (family) and to preserve and respect the ocean’s need to regenerate and restore.

When the family return again to the reef, they find that sewerage has enveloped it, polluting, and destroying the wildlife. An old woman cries out a tangi (lamentation).

“And flashing through dead waving seaweed was a beautiful seahorse, fragile and dream-like, searching frantically for clean and crystal waters.”

Ihimaera’s poignant writing was an awakener of humankind’s conscience. More than a million sea animals are reliant on the ocean for habitat. The ‘70s were a burgeoning time for plastic production and emissions of every type – an era held particularly accountable for air and marine pollution. Many coastal environments were destroyed, including one-third of the world’s mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass beds. Eight million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans to this day. In addition, ‘bycatch’ fishing practices, habitat loss, and overfishing have impacted the health of many sea creatures and continue to do so.

The seahorse (Hippocampus) has suffered alongside most other sea beings. Almost 40 million seahorses die each year as they fill a demand for global trade. Though regulations are in place (96% of global trade is now illegal), the black market is still flush with seahorses. The seahorse’s desirability as a component for traditional Chinese medicine, as a tourist souvenir, and mystical, magical addition to the domestic or commercial aquarium has truly pushed it to the brink.

We are now entering our Fourth Industrial Revolution. But this time, the tide has begun to turn on humankind’s approach to sea welfare. This next Revolution has the technology and the intelligence to make monumental positive change. There’s a fusion of ideas on tap at this moment that have the capacity to draw physical, digital, and biological spheres together and towards preserving and enhancing wildlife habitat – while there is still opportunity.

Public mood and legislation are pro-ocean and captive breeding endeavours are successfully increasing seahorse populations. Perhaps this prehistoric-looking creature may well continue its quaintly – can I say courtly – existence for the next few millennia without undue struggle.

It’s an animal that has managed to survive the past 25 million years already. And it’s hardly been aimlessly bobbing about all that time, either. Scientists have sequenced the entire genome of a seahorse to discover that it has a higher rate of evolution than any other species of bony fish studied so far. Originally a horizontal swimmer, the seahorse’s first evolutionary adaptation was to ‘stand up’ as bodies of open water between Australia and Indonesia altered in geographical structure.

Sisters or taxon (meaning sister group or the closest relative in the evolutionary tree) with the pygmy pipefish until the Late Oligocene era – about 33.9 million to 23 million years before the present – the seahorse split with her relative when the tectonic plates in the Indo-West Pacific shifted. The change in the underwater landscape gradually created a shallow seagrass habitat in which they thrived – upright.

It was a clever move, and though nothing to do with why seahorses share their name with part of the human brain called the hippocampus (one which is a doppelganger for the seahorse’s curved, slim silhouette), the animal is indeed a remarkably intelligent and sensitive being. Easily stressed, it’s not one that takes well to captivity unless born into that environment. Plopping a couple of seahorses into your home aquarium is a recipe for quick mortality as the conditions must be perfect for them to survive: water temperature, salinity, PH levels, nutrients, flora, and tank companions.

I remember my teacher father breeding seahorses – probably the rather unflatteringly named large-bellied (also called potbellied) seahorse H. abdominal s – when he taught at Highlands Intermediate School in New Plymouth. His seahorses seemed to thrive, possibly because Dad was a stickler for detail, compassionate to the extreme, and in tune with nature. He also made sure his ponies were well-supplied with a myriad of fresh shrimp, gathered laboriously every day from the ever-replenished local rockpools.

This partiality towards small shrimps, crustaceans, and plankton has evolved alongside the seahorse’s many other unique features, including its toothless, tubular snout. The look of that very long snoz belies an expected aptitude for good smell because the seahorse has virtually no olfactory receptors. They depend instead on their bulgy eyes which operate eerily independently of each other (like the chameleon), aiding its ability to see potential prey from all angles.

Like the chameleon, again, seahorses have evolved to change colour to mimic their surroundings in order to communicate during courtship displays and territorial disputes. Not normally known for fast action, should the seahorse decide to ramp up its camouflage repertoire, the sudden, bold change in appearance may even deter enemies and predators. It’s fortunate it has these advantages because the seahorse is a poor, slow swimmer and, what’s more, needs to be close to its food source before it can snuffle it up its horse-like snout.

Because they possess only a simple, stomach-less gut and do not chew their prey, the seahorse’s digestion is not very efficient. Consequently, a large quantity of food must be consumed daily to meet their nutritional needs. Other aspects of their aesthetic include a lack of pelvic fins, giving the appearance of a nicely-defined chest that would make the most competitive gym junkie jealous. The outer skeleton of the seahorse features a series of bony plates arranged in rings and covered by a thin, stretchy skin, sans scales. Each species has a distinct number of rings that defines it. The armour supplied by these bony plates makes them unappealing to predators, and because of this outer skeleton, they no longer have ribs.

If the family in Ihamaera’s story had looked a little deeper into the pupu pool, they might have come across another seahorse, too – a partner. Seahorses are unique in that they bond for the duration of the mating season – sometimes longer. Where they are monogamous, the pair-bonds are reinforced by daily greetings during which the female and male change colour and promenade and pirouette together. Endearingly, this dance lasts several minutes while the pair commune and reaffirm their connection before carrying on with their day.

In an incredible evolutionary trait, the seahorse then exhibits gender role reversal. The traditional reproductive tables are turned in this species – one of a single taxonomic family (the Syngnathidae) where male seahorses, pipefish, pipehorses, and seadragons are responsible for birthing their young. Scientists theorise that these clever fellows have evolved to carry the babies because it allows the female time to prepare more eggs and implant them in the male soon after he gives birth. The speedy process offers better chances of overall species survival and also seems to distribute energy costs more evenly between male and female. Anywhere from 50 to over 1,000 baby seahorses, or fry, will hatch at one time, and the father’s contractions can last up to 12 hours! The fry then spend two to three weeks drifting with plankton in the ocean, making them very susceptible to predation. Only about one in 1,000 will survive to adulthood.


These baby seahorses (hippocampus – híppos meaning “horse” and kámpos meaning “sea monster”) couldn’t be more different to the mammal which shares the root of their name: the hippopotamus (híppos “horse” and potamós“river”). Their name has Greek origins, firmly attached to the seahorse’s early role as a mythical creature. Called a hippocamp, the hybrid steed that pulled both Poseidon and Neptune’s chariots had the head, neck, and forelimbs suggestive of a horse and the rear of a dolphin. The Greeks weren’t the only civilisations to claim the hippocamp for mythological belief: Phoenician, Etruscan, and Pictish (Scotland) all revered the creature as one which represented strength, power, and luck.

Ecologists could only be described as lucky when in 2021, a new sister to the Syngnathidae family was discovered in Northland, New Zealand: a ruby-coloured pygmy pipehorse. In a world-first, her name – Cylix tupareomanaia – was anointed by Ngātiwai iwi in a collaboration between scientists and mātauranga Māori (knowledge). “Cylix”, which means “chalice” in Latin and Greek, refers to the cup-shaped formation on top of the creature’s head. “Tūpare o manaia” translates as ‘‘the garland of the seahorse”, referencing the animal’s jointed head crest and the word for seahorse in Māori: manaia. Taonga indeed.

As a youngster, I collected Disney and Marvel comics and coveted the mail-order ‘sea monkeys’ on the inside back cover. Later, as a teenager, I visited Auckland’s Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life over and over and gazed spellbound at the seahorse aquarium. The tiny, colourful creatures were nodding and dipping about or anchored by their curly tails around waving fronds of seagrass. Some had their elegant heads tucked into their chests like sweetly snoozing ducks; others were hovering like hummingbirds, dorsal fins beating at a rate of 30 per second. The scene was of peace, beauty, and otherworldliness, steeped in time and antiquity. Sea monster? Sea monkey? Not one jot; nor one tittle.

Seahorse and mate

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