Pete Giwojna and Ben Giwojna
Terrific Trio: captive-bred-and-raised
seahorses have now achieved a high level of domestication and are
available in virtually every color of the rainbow, as indicated by
these Pintos from Ocean Rider. Photo by Dr. Clyde Tamaru
Seahorses are truly the chameleons of the sea with a propensity for changing
color in response to a wide range of environmental factors, hormonal influences,
and behavioral interactions. Hippocampus
has exceptional visual acuity and color plays a vital
role in every part of the seahorse's life. Seahorses rely on color changes
throughout their elaborate courtship displays to express their emotional state
and well being, to signal submission and dominance when competing for mates and
as a sign of recognition during their daily greeting rituals and other social
interactions, as well for their very safety in order to conceal themselves from
their enemies. In this article we will discuss the curious ways seahorses
use their amazing ability to change coloration.
Concealment through camouflage and crypsis is no doubt the most important way in
which Hippocampus employs color changes. Crypsis, or the use of
protective coloration to disrupt its outline and break up its body shape, is a
vital talent for the seahorse since its awkward method of locomotion is so slow
and cumbersome as to be useless when a quick burst of speed or a fast getaway is
required to escape from danger. Hippocampus is forced to rely on
its suit of armor, spiny exterior, and ability to camouflage itself to avoid
harm rather than outrunning its enemies.
Fortunately, it is truly a master of disguise. The seahorse has perfected
the art of blending into its background, and it can alter its coloration and
even its shape as needed to suit its surroundings. As noted by Whitley &
Allen (1958), “Their chameleon-like color changes permit them to become one
minute pale in color, the next darkest brown, red or green, light and dark
spotted, and so on. Meantime, their bodies sway gently forward and
backward like the weeds themselves, with the swell of the water.”
Can you spot
the dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus zosterae ) that has
concealed itself in this clump of macroalgae in the photo on the
left? In the photo on the right, the silhouette of the dwarf
seahorse has been outlined in bright contrasting colors, clearly
showing its position. Photos by Leslie Leddo
Thus, as described by Alisa Abbott in the Complete Guide to Dwarf Seahorses in
the Aquarium, if a seahorse lives among the lush grass flats in Florida Bay it
is apt to be green in late spring and summer when the seagrass is thriving, and
then change to a yellowish hue later in the season when the grass begins to die
back, finally assuming an appropriate shade of brown or black to match the dead,
decaying blades of grass in the fall.
A pair of juvenile Hippocampus erectus well
endowed with extravagant cirri. The fancy looking filaments
give the seahorses an exotic appearance, but their actual purpose is
to enhance the ponies' camouflage ability. Photo by Kyle
Likewise, if Hippocampus has taken up residence in a bed of eel or turtle
grass whose blades are heavily overgrown with algae, hydroids, and calcareous
encrustations, it will adopt a mottled appearance that perfectly matches these
growths (Giwojna, 1990a). On rare occasions, blazing orange and fiery red
specimens are found living amidst colonies of orange or red sponges (Giwojna,
1990a). In addition, the seahorse also makes full use of disruptive
coloration, so that its basic background coloration is interrupted by a series
of lighter or darker contrasting streaks, spots and irregular blotches, which
break up its silhouette or profile, thereby further deceiving the eye.
To improve its camouflage all the more, Hippocampus is capable of growing
or shedding dermal cirri, which are long filaments and branching extensions of
its skin, in order to match its habitat (Vincent, 1990). Specimens
inhabiting mudflats or a bed of sponges will remain smooth skinned, for example,
while individuals living in a weedy environment are apt to develop extravagant
cirri to blend in with their surroundings. This is rather like the
military’s practice of using leafy branches and brush attached to the helmets
and uniforms of its soldiers in order to enhance their jungle camo.
To complete its disguise, the seahorse allows algae, bryozoans and other
encrusting organisms to grow on its body, thereby rendering it all but invisible
in its natural habitat. Its skin contains polysaccharides, which are
believed to encourage algal growth, thereby helping it disappear into its
surroundings. This vanishing act is so convincing that even when they are
collected by hand seining, seahorses often go undetected amidst the plant matter
that accumulates in the net (Giwojna, unpublished text). Unless the
collector is really diligent, he will lose a large proportion of his catch
simply because many specimens will be overlooked and thrown back with the debris
Two different strategies for
Irregular blotches, patches and splotches of
contrasting color break up the outline of this Ocean Rider seahorse,
deceiving the eye with a form of crypsis known as disruptive
coloration. Photo by Leslie Leddo
This Ocean Rider Hippocampus barbouri blends
in with the orange sponge and mushroom corals that are its favorite
hangout, matching the color of its surroundings.
Photo by Leslie Leddo
Their ability to disguise themselves is no less effective in the aquarium, as I
discovered when I brought a pair of black Indian Ocean seahorses home with me
one afternoon. They were handsome specimens, quite slender and graceful,
with unusually long snouts and an interesting color pattern consisting of
charcoal black bodies with pale yellow bands on their tails. Here's how I
described the incident in my latest book (The Complete Guide to Greater
Seahorses in the Aquarium, in publication):
"The new acquisitions were carefully ensconced in a quarantine tank and
seemed to settle in at once, greedily demolishing a portion of live brine shrimp
shortly after being introduced to the aquarium. My brothers and I admired
them all evening, marveling at their endless appetites, and all seemed well.
They were still contentedly exploring their new surrounding when we retired for
was therefore quite a surprise when I was rudely awakened the next morning with
the startling news that the seahorses were gone. Not that I was too
concerned, since they were the only inhabitants of a 10-gallon aquarium and
couldn’t possibly have escaped. As a matter of fact, as I got up to take a
look for myself, I strongly suspected the whole thing was somebody’s feeble
attempt at a practical joke, and I was rather annoyed, ready to unleash my wrath
on the perpetrator as soon as I put him to the lie.
8-10 cm seahorses should have been easy to spot, since the quarantine tank was
sparsely decorated, but sure enough, at first glance, the tank certainly
appeared to be empty. This was ridiculous. The only decorations were
a couple of elaborate formations of staghorn and finger coral, and my black
beauties should have stuck out like sore thumbs amidst the bleached skeletons of
the coral. Where the heck were they?
a second, closer examination revealed no sign of the missing seahorses, I began
to get a little worried. Things were getting serious now, and I launched a
meticulous inch-by-inch search of the entire aquarium. When I had all but
completed this painstaking procedure -- just when I was beginning to believe my
brothers must have removed the seahorses as a prank -- a flicker of movement
caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. I immediately focused on
the area where the motion seemed to have originated, but the newcomers were
nowhere to be seen. Then another slight movement caught my eye, and all a
once a white seahorse materialized right before my eyes, perched on a finger of
coral. As long as it remained anchored motionlessly in place, it seemed
like a natural extension of the coral (Giwojna, 1990a).
"Now that I knew what to look for, I soon noticed that one of the other tines on
the staghorn coral was striped with pale yellow. Upon tracing this
suspicious “branch” back to its source, the other snow white seahorse suddenly
appeared as if by magic. Our eyes had been deceived because we were
searching for black seahorses and, of course, there were no longer any black
seahorses to be found. Their camouflage was so perfect they had managed to
disappear in plain sight (Giwojna, 1990a)."
Captive Raised Color
regulations now forbid the collection of wild seahorse, but never
fear... captive raised specimens are hardier than wild caught horses
and are being bred in a wide variety of stunning colors.
Blazing Beauty: a male FireRed displays the
flaming finery and vivid colors that make this Ocean Rider strain so
popular with aquarists." Photo by David Kearnes
Peachy Keen: a splendid Sunburst stallion with a
beautiful pastel color pattern." Photo by Dr. Clyde Tamaru
Sunbursts are brightly colored morphs of
Hippocampus erectus , developed by Ocean Rider, that are
predisposed to display the sunset colors (gold, yellow, peach,
orange, etc.) when conditions are to their liking." Photo by
A gorgeous captive-bred Sydney seahorse (Hippocampus
whitei ) with beautiful emerald green coloration." Photo
by Leslie Leddo
Striped Stallion: Mustangs (H. erectus )
with a prominent pattern of stripes are especially attractive."
Photo by Leslie Leddo
Pretty in Pink: a pastel Sunburst showing another of
this type's sunset colors phases." Photo by Alisa Abbott
Painted Pony: another pretty Pinto showing the
patches of contrasting color that give these boldly marked seahorses
their name." Photo by Leslie Leddo
As shown here, violet, purple
and maroon color phases are sometimes displayed by Ocean Rider
Mustangs (H. erectus)." Photo by
Living Gold: here we see the bright yellow coloration
that is typical of Ocean Rider's strain of captive-bred
Hippocampus ingens . Commonly known as the Pacific giant, this
species is marketed under the name of Gigantes."
Photo by Dr. Clyde Tamaru
Seahorses will often alter their coloration to closely match their surroundings
and disappear into their background as described above, but it is actually far
more common for
Hippocampus to adopt a general, all-purpose form of cryptic coloration
featuring irregular patches, streaks and blotches of contrasting colors that
serve it equally well in different situations. Mottling or disruptive
coloration breaks up the seahorse’s outline and provides effective concealment
under most conditions.
Seahorses also rely on dramatic changes in coloration during their charming
courtship displays but for exactly the opposite reason. Whereas cryptic
coloration acts as camouflage in order to make Hippocampus inconspicuous
in its natural habitat, the bright coloration flaunted by courting seahorses
leaves them quite conspicuous, thereby signaling their readiness to breed in
order to help them attract a mate.
Courtship in Hippocampus is punctuated by a number of remarkable
displays. These ritualistic behaviors are quite distinct and have been
given descriptive names by researchers. They include "tilting" and
"reciprocal quivering," dancelike maneuvers aptly known as "carouseling" and the
"parallel promenade," prominent pouch displays usually described as "pumping"
and "ballooning," characteristic postures such as "pointing," and the actual
nuptial embrace or "copulatory rise." In tropical seahorses, brightening
in coloration accompanies all of these displays.
Courtship coloration varies from species to species. However, regardless
of the colors involved, the head, dorsal surface (i.e., back), and ventral line
(keel) of the seahorse normally remain quite dark while the rest of the body
becomes lighter and therefore brighter in color (Vincent, 1990). Of
course, courting seahorses flaunt their flashy finery in order to impress
prospective mates and the overall effect of this change is to make them stand
out from the crowd (Giwojna, Mar. 2002).
magnificent Mustang has assumed a pinkish-red color in an attempt to
match the reddish grape algae that surrounds it. Photo by
Indeed, courting seahorses always remind me of a couple of excited teenagers
dressing up for the prom. When a seahorse is interested in romance, the
stylish stallion dons his most dashing duds to impress his date, while his
ladylove likewise dresses up in her most alluring attire, just as their human
counterparts do. For example, consider the courtship colors of the
Brazilian Seahorse (Hippocampus reidi): males tend to prefer a flamboyant
orange outfit while the fashionable females favor more subtle shades of pastel
pink (Giwojna, Mar. 2002). Hippocampus fuscus, the Sri Lanka
Seapony, exchanges its somber, everyday black attire for a more enticing
ensemble featuring pale cream and yellow colors when courting (Giwojna, Mar.
2002). As for the dark-colored European species, the short-snouted
seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus) changes to a shining white or silvery
color, and the long-snouted Hippocampus guttulatus often switches to
shades ranging from copper to light ochre or sulfur yellow, its body further
adorned with tiny silver dots (Giwojna, Mar. 2002). Likewise, our own
North American Hippocampus erectus typically swaps its normal dark brown
or black ensemble for a wardrobe of pearly white or pale yellow during its
As a general rule, tropical seahorses undergo more pronounced color changes than
temperate species, which tend to be more subdued. Dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus
zosterae) are not nearly as bright and flamboyant during courtship than
their bigger brethren. These pint-sized ponies take on a different sort of
glow. They sparkle looking as if they have been sprinkled with glitter, as
they take on metallic tints, hues and highlights of their natural neutral colors
(Abbott 2003). Tropical seahorse species generally rely on brightening and
conspicuous color changes during courtship more than their temperate
counterparts, which depend primarily on pouch displays such as Ballooning to
impress the females.
The urge to reproduce is so strong in Hippocampus that captive male
seahorses will often color up and indulge in courtship this place even in
the absence of a mate. Thus it is not uncommon to see a lonely stallion
parading back and forth in full courtship regalia, pumping his inflated brood
pouch and dancing provocatively before its own reflection in the aquarium glass,
vigorously displaying to itself! If no females are present,
over-stimulated stallions will sometimes soothe themselves by playing in the
stream of bubbles from an airstone, basking in the gentle barrage of bubbles, or
flirt with inanimate objects. If all else fails, the nearest hitching post
may serve as a suitable surrogate. And when no members of the opposite sex
are present, these passionate ponies are not picky about their partners -- males
will dance with other studs and frustrated females will flirt with other fillies
Throughout the male's pregnancy, apair-bonded stallion's mate visits him daily
for morning greetings. The female seahorse swims over for 5-10 minutes of
intense interaction during which the couple briefly reenact many of their
courtship maneuvers. They brighten and change color, wheel around sea grass
fronds performing their dancelike displays, and finally promenade, holding each
other's tails. Then they drift apart and go their separate ways until the next
morning. Daily greetings serve to strengthen and reinforce the pair bond,
and recent research demonstrates the colorful greetings are more important in
keeping the couple together than mating itself (Vincent 1990; Vincent 1994,
Vincent and Sadler 1995).
The colors courtship
Budding Romance: as shown by
this mated pair of Hippocampus erectus , when seahorses are
courting, their faces and backs or dorsal surfaces darken markedly
while the rest of their bodies become lighter and brighter in
coloration, making them more conspicuous. Notice the stallion
has his tail wrapped around his mate possessively." Photo
by Leslie Leddo
male Mustang at the top of this photograph has lightened in
coloration dramatically while greeting his mate below. The
pair is preparing to perform a dancelike maneuver known as
"Carouselling," during which they will slowly circle around a common
holdfast in tandem, looking for all the world like the gaily painted
ponies that circle ceaselessly around a merry-go-round.
Brightening this way is characteristic of most social interactions
in tropical seahorses."
Photo by Leslie Leddo
The coloration of dwarf
seahorses (H. zosterae ) takes on metallic glints and
highlights when they are courting, as shown by this bronze beauty."
Photo by Leslie Leddo
Invitation to Dance: a courting pair of potbelly
seahorses (Hippocampus abdominalis ) from Australia. The
enormously swollen pouch of the male does not indicate that he's
pregnant -- he is merely performing a courtship display known as
"Ballooning," which is designed to impress the female with the sheer
dimensions of his inflated brood pouch. Unlike tropical seahorses,
temperate seahorses like pot bellies tend to rely more on pouch
displays than color changes during courtship." Photo by
In fact, seahorses will often extend their greeting displays to include their
keeper, prominently parading their most vivid hues at the front of the tank when
they detect the approach of the aquarist. Some go as far as perching on
your hand or clinging to your fingers whenever you are working in the aquarium
-- an equine invitation to dance, perhaps?
The lightening in coloration and bright hues displayed during courtship and
greeting are very characteristic of social interactions in Hippocampus in
general. For instance, they are typical of seahorse reunions and the color
changes that accompany competition for mates as well.
At such times, rival males often engage in bouts of tail wrestling and a form of
combat known as snapping, in which a male will cock his head downwards and then
deliver a sharp blow to its opponent with a powerful upwards ''snap'' of its
snout. Stallions have proportionally longer tails and shorter, thicker
snouts than the female seahorses, features that are thought to aid them in these
ritualistic contests to determine "who’s the best man.”
When two over-stimulated studs square off, they begin by brightening and
flashing through a series of intimidating color changes, and if neither opponent
backs down in the face of his rival’s threatening spectral display, things can
rapidly escalate from there. It can be surprising and disturbing for the
hobbyist to find his normally passive, totally nonaggressive seahorses suddenly
engaging in no-holds barred wrestling matches and exchanging sucker punches and
knock-out blows, as I described in an article titled "Seahorse Breeding Secrets"
that first appeared in the January 1999 issue of FAMA magazine:
In its mildest
form, this sort of competition begins when an unpaired male attempts to
interfere with a courting couple by “cutting in” and placing his body
directly between the female and his rival (Vincent 1990). If this ploy
fails to break up the budding romance, the intruder may then decide to take
matters into his own hands by wrapping his tail around his competitor.
The male thus constrained naturally tries to break free from this unfriendly
embrace, and if he is evenly matched with the intruder, he may return the
favor by grabbing a hold of his aggressor. A strenuous wrestling match
will then ensue, with the rivals each trying to hog-tie the other while
doing their darnedst to break their opponent’s hold. If unable to
escape, the loser will eventually signal that he’s had enough by darkening
dramatically in coloration while flattening his body so that he’s lying
parallel to the bottom (Giwojna, Jan. 1999). This is the way a
seahorse cries “Uncle!,” and the victor quickly recognizes this submissive
display and releases his vanquished foe (Giwojna, Jan. 1999).
unscrupulous males are not above using this as a ruse, feigning submission
in order to trick their rival into letting down his guard so they can launch
a sneak attack. The moment the unsuspecting male relaxes his grip, the
supposedly submissive scoundrel will take advantage of this lack of
vigilance in order to deliver a sharp blow to the head of his unwary victim
(Giwojna, Jan. 1999). One of these sucker punches is often enough to
overwhelm the would-be winner, thus enabling the crafty coward to snatch
victory from the jaws of defeat. Like they say, “All’s fair in love
and war,” and, as we have just seen, when that war is over the right to mate
with a frisky filly, the competition can quickly escalate in violence until
the stallions come to actual blows (Giwojna, Jan. 1999).
this takes the form of “Snapping,” an aggressive maneuver in which the
attacker stretches out his head and flicks his snout against his rival with
a violent snap, thus delivering a nasty blow to the adversary (Giwojna, Jan.
1999). The snap is often aimed directly at the opponent’s opercular
flap or gill cover or eye -- the only vulnerable spots in an armor-plated
adversary -- and the force of a well-directed snap can knock the unfortunate
recipient flying across a distance of 10cm or more (Vincent 1990).
Stunned by this sudden assault, the victim of one of these powerful blows
typically throws in the towel, flattening in submission and darkening all
over so its dusky body coloration stands out in stark contrast to its
brightly colored conqueror (Giwojna, Jan. 1999).
Once a stallion has established his dominance over a rival, the subordinate male
may automatically darken and assume the submissive posture of lying on its side
for the next few days whenever the superior male draws near. The aquarist
may easily become alarmed at such a sight if unaware of the dynamics of the
situation. If the aquarist does not recognize this as a submission signal,
the odd behavior, unusual posture, and obvious darkening of the subordinate male
can easily be mistaken for illness.
Lest you get the wrong idea, I should emphasize that competition for mates is
highly ritualized in Hippocampus. The idea is to assert dominance,
not inflict bodily harm. Tail wrestling and snapping are forms of ritual
combat -- little more than glorified shoving matches and tug of wars -- with
clear-cut submission signals that are always honored. They seldom
do any real damage and the combatants are so well protected that with rare
exceptions serious injuries are virtually unknown when these armor-plated
adversaries throw down the gauntlet. In short, intraspecific competition
for mates can sometimes disrupt courtship and prolong the process of pair
bonding, but it's usually nothing to be concerned about and is always extremely
interesting to observe.
interactions between seahorses also involve characteristic color changes and
dancelike displays. For instance, introducing new additions into the
aquarium usually triggers a flurry of colorful activity and greetings as the
seahorses reassess the shifting social dynamics of the herd, check out their
prospective new partners, and explore possible new pairings. Likewise, if
a seahorse has been separated from its tankmates for several days, perhaps after
being transferred to a paternity tank to deliver its brood (in the case of a
pregnant male) or if isolated in a hospital tank (in the case of a disease), and
is then returned to its tank after a prolonged absence, its return will trigger
a round of renewed color changes and “dancing” very similar to the previously
described greeting ritual. It’s like a family reunion with old friends
getting reacquainted and rejoicing over the return of their long lost chums.
If the seahorse is pair bonded, watching the happy couple don their greeting
garb and dance in tandem as they renew acquaintances when the missing mate is
returned to the herd can be particularly dramatic.
Witnessing such a remarkable scene leaves little doubt of the following in the
mind of even the most objective observer: seahorses clearly recognize one
another, they undeniably experience something akin to our own emotions of
excitement and happiness or well-being, and they literally wear their hearts on
their sleeves. In fact, one can often read a seahorse’s mood from the
changes in coloration it displays. Excitement is portrayed by the same
sort of lightening in shade and brightening in coloration seen during courtship,
greetings, and competition or ritual combat -- all stimulating times when
seahorses are operating at a high state of arousal. For example, a hungry
seahorse will often betray it’s excitement at feeding time by brightening in
coloration as it hunts down the newly added food or prey. Once its
appetite has been sated, it will quickly revert back to its normal base color
On the other hand, seahorses typically respond to stress by darkening markedly
in coloration. A distressed seahorse is thus often darker than its
normally coloration due to the expansion of melanophores in its skin. This
is often the case when a pair-bonded seahorses loses its mate, and experienced
seahorse keepers will invariably tell you that seahorses also experience
something similar to sadness. Just as a grieving widow wears black for an
indefinite period, widowed seahorses often betray their distress by darkening
markedly in coloration. The darkening is similar to the change in
coloration a vanquished seahorse displays to signal its submissiveness.
There are numerous anecdotal reports that indicate that the health of a
pair-bonded seahorse often suffers when it loses its mate. Widowers are
thus said to languish, experience loss of appetite, and lapse into a general
state of decline. Many hobbyists equate this to a state of depression or
melancholy. While it’s safe to say that widowed seahorses don’t die from a
broken heart, there may well be a kernel of truth at the heart of such accounts.
It's very likely that a pair-bonded seahorse suddenly separated from its mate
will experience altered hormonal secretion as a result. This can cause low
levels of certain hormones that are known to have a profound influence on both
mental state and physical well being in humans and animals alike, affecting
everything from the immune response to sperm production and sex drive.
By now it should be clear that seahorses change color for many reasons,
including camouflage, courtship displays and various other social interactions,
and also in response to hormonal influences and quite a number of environmental
factors. In the next issue of Conscientious Aquarist, we will explain how
these changes in coloration are accomplished, discuss the factors that can have
an adverse impact on your seahorses' coloration, and go over some suggestions
for keeping your seahorses looking their best and brightest in the aquarium.
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