Can you see the seahorse?

The Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse have evolved some awesome camouflage.

Vocabulary: camouflage, adaptation, mating behavior, adaptation, reproductive rate, lifespan, commensalism, interdependence

Next Generation Science Standards: LS1.B: Growth and Development of Organisms, LS4.C: Adaptation, LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems

Common Core State Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6–8.4, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9–10.4, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11–12.4

Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse attached to a knobby sea fan. Image: Klaus Stiefel/ Flickr/ CC BY-NC 2.0

In August 1999, conservation biologist Sara Lourie and underwater photographer Denise Tackett were diving off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia, researching a tiny seahorse species called Hippocampus bargibanti, when they witnessed an epiphany: a male giving birth. Over the course of 15 minutes or so, 34 minuscule babies — each about two millimeters long — popped out of their father’s belly as Lourie and Tackett watched, mesmerized.

Bargibant’s pygmy seahorses are known for their clownish camouflage, which generally entails a full-body array of reddish-pink or orangey-yellow calcified bumps, called tubercles. Their marine attire exquisitely matches the knobby sea fans — members of a group called gorgonians — on which they depend for food and shelter.

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Questions for Students

  • Why do you think researchers had never witnessed a pygmy seahorse giving birth before 1999?
  • An adaptation is a characteristic that enables an organism to be successful in a particular environment. Describe at least two adaptations of the pygmy seahorse and how those adaptations are helpful in their environment.
  • Why did the scientists in the video above put a pencil next to the baby pygmy seahorse? Why is this a helpful tool in field work?
  • Why is the pygmy seahorse described as a habitat specialist? Do you think that this puts them more at risk for extinction? Why?
  • Pygmy seahorses carry their young for about two weeks. After their babies are born, males are ready to reproduce again almost immediately. Why would it be beneficial to have such a quick reproductive turnaround?

Activity Suggestions

  • Check out this seahorse identification guide from Project Seahorse. Have students look at the structural similarities and differences of Hippocampus. Go further and have students find images of another species of seahorse along with information and images of its habitat. What visible adaptations does the seahorse have that help it survive in its environment?
  • Check out the Science Friday video “What to Expect From an Expecting Seahorse” to take a deeper look at male pregnancy in seahorses. Have students discuss possible reasons why most seahorses have male pregnancy. What is the advantage for the species? What is unique about the brood pouch of seahorses?

Additional Resources

Check out Project Seahorse, an ocean conservation group that uses seahorses as their flagship animal. If you live near the ocean or are even just visiting you can participate in iSeahorse, a citizen science project that has you report sightings of and identify wild seahorses.

Just because we can, here is another Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse. Image by Glen MacLarty/ Flickr/ CC BY 2.0