“Mama, come quick!” a young girl cries. “There’s a tiny horse on the beach!” As mama and others run to the scene, sure enough there is a horse in the Marco Island sand. It is only a few inches long and sure looks like our equine friends but without legs. It is a seahorse.
Seahorses are very small marine fish. Like other fish they breathe through gills. They float in an upright position and have pectoral fins to maneuver and dorsal fins to maintain balance. Most importantly, they are masters of camouflage. Just like some lizards, they can change colors to match the surroundings.
Throughout the planet there are about 40-50 species of this marine phenomenon. Here in Florida, there are four. The most notable in our area are the Dwarf and the Lined seahorses. The Dwarfs are 1-2 inches long while the Lined can be 4-5 inches. Some of the larger species around the globe may be 14 inches!
Those in our waters cling to the base of mangrove trees, sawgrass, corals and floating sargassum. (Also known as gulfweed, it is a genus of brown algae, usually near the surface of the water.) This is also where they locate their food sources.
They don’t have teeth, and they don’t have a stomach either. They use their snout as a pipette to suck in small shrimp, plants and plankton, and this food goes through their bodies very quickly so they eat almost continuously. They hold onto the tree roots and grasses with their tail when feeding.
They reach maturity when they grow to a certain height, not necessarily a specific age. The Lined seahorse becomes mature at about 2.25 inches, and, get this, the male is the one that gets pregnant! During courtship, they can change color and perform some very acrobatic moves. When the time is right the female places her eggs inside a pouch that the male has developed, and he incubates them, eventually giving birth after about two weeks. These males can carry hundreds of eggs at one time. Just like sea turtles, the newborn are on their own at birth.
There seems to be less sightings of these creatures as time goes by, as is the case with many marine species. Habitat loss appears to be the main cause for seahorse decimation, which stands to reason since more than half of Florida’s seagrass has been lost dating back to the 1950s.
Since they only live for one or two years, the habitat for our seahorses is of critical importance. Hopefully, it can be restored. So if you see one in the water, give a little smile and know that you are viewing something unique!
Bob is the owner of Steppingstone Ecotours and a naturalist with the Dolphin Explorer’s survey team. He is a member of Leadership Marco 2014. Bob loves his wife very much!