The ocean is a treasure trove of the quaint and strange. Take the pipefish for example. Its elongated, pencil-thin body conjures up images of eels and sea snakes. But its greatly reduced fins are an instant reminder that they are, in fact, fish.
When I first saw one of these bizarre-looking, worm-like creatures, it was hard to convince myself that they are fish. First of all, they look nothing like the fishes I know – distinctive fins, a laterally compressed body, and typical swimming movements. Perhaps this is why so many of us are fascinated by them.
Here are 5 things you probably never knew about these pipe-like swimmers:
1. Relatives of the seahorses
Fundamentally, seahorses differ from pipefishes only by their erect body position, angular heads, and prehensile tails. Other than that, both share many anatomical characteristics, such as their iconic “tube-mouths” – the toothless snout that allows the lightning-fast sucking-in of food. Biologists call this remarkable feeding technique “suction feeding”. If you have the chance to witness a pipefish hunt and feed, you’ll be fascinated by the speed of these otherwise rather sedate creatures.
2. Friends of the dinosaurs
Fossil finds demonstrate that pipefishes have been around since 65 million years ago, making them contemporaries of the dinosaurs. By contrast, seahorses only began their evolutionary history five million years ago at the earliest. So yes, seahorses are actually descendants of the pipefish.
3. Prawn lovers
Just as we love our sambal prawns and amaebi sushi, pipefishes love to feed on shrimps, amphipods (tiny shrimp-like aquatic animals) and other tiny crustaceans. Prawn buffet, anyone?
4. Daddies give birth
Like their seahorse relatives, pipefishes leave most of the parenting duties to the male. The female pipefish deposits her egg in the male pipefish’s brood pouch located along the underside of its belly. After that, it’s daddy’s turn to do everything else from supplying the eggs with nutrients and oxygen through a placenta-like connection to keeping them safe till they hatch.
5. Master of disguise
Depending on species, the length of a pipefish can range anywhere between six and forty centimetres. Due to their smaller size, they can easily end up on the dinner table of larger predators. This is why they are masters of camouflage and adapt themselves to their habitat both in external appearance (blending in with rocks and corals) and through patterns of movement (such as imitating blades of seagrass waving in the current).
The next time you peek into the pipefish’s enclosure at the S.E.A. Aquarium, don’t be surprised to see green leaves and stems staring back at you with their “little eyes”. They are just our friendly pipefish camouflaging themselves among blades of swaying seagrass.