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The Explorer's Guide contains a treasure trove of aquatic science resources developed for use in K-12 classrooms. Back to Explorer's Guide.

Spiny Seahorse Scientific Name: Hippocampus barbouri
Looking in different directions at the same time, the spiny seahorse, just like all seahorses, can move each eye independently. One eye looks left while the other eye looks right. This unique ability allows the seahorse to look for enemies in front, behind, and on all sides. These eyes are so finely tuned, the spiny seahorse can easily spot its tiny, almost microscopic, prey floating in the water.

Region: Philippines

Appropriately named, this seahorse has bony armor with spines sticking out all over it. The spines rotate between being long and short. The largest of the spines poke out of the front of the head to protect its eyes and head. There are extra spines on the cheeks and below the eyes.

A curly, prehensile tail or tail that is able to grab things, rolls up at the bottom of this seahorse. The color of the spiny seahorse ranges from white to light yellow to pale brown. Spots and fine lines cover the body. The snout or nose is striped and thin lines branch out from the eyes. This seahorse can be up to 6 inches (8 to 15 cm).

Seahorses live in areas where they can easily hide. Not equipped with large fins for swimming fast, seahorses use their slender bodies to slip into tiny cracks and crevices out of reach from danger.

Spiny seahorses grasp onto seaweeds, sponges, corals or other reef creatures with their tails to keep from floating away. Like most seahorses, the spiny seahorse prefers habitats near the shore like lagoon and seaward reefs at depths of 7 to 77 feet (2 to 23 m). They will also grip the branching underwater roots of mangrove trees.

Spiny seahorses live in the warm parts of the Pacific Ocean.

Zooplankton or tiny animals are a favorite meal for the spiny seahorse. With a straw-like mouth, this seahorse slurps up any animals drifting nearby. The force of the suction can be so great, the noises made can be heard from far away.

Seahorses are sexually dimorphic, which means the males and the females look different. The tails of the males are much longer than the females’ tails. The snouts of the males are longer as well.

Seahorse reproduction is one of the most unique methods in all of the animal kingdom. Seahorses pair up and mate for life. Their mating ritual begins with a courtship routine. The male starts it by dancing around the female. He produces clicking sounds with his skull and both the male and the female change colors. Moving to a coral, sponge or piece of seagrass, the pair takes hold with their tails, wrapping around it. They will venture from the meeting spot to float across the ocean bottom with their tails entwined. Eventually, the female stretches out her body, pointing her tail down and nose up toward the surface. At the same time, the male pulls his tail back and pumps water in and out of a pouch on his belly. After rinsing out his pouch, the male lengthens his body and pairs up with the female belly to belly. The couple locks together when the female puts her ovipositor or tube that deposits eggs into the male’s pouch. From the tube, a string of large pear-shaped sticky eggs go into the pouch. Once the eggs are safely inside, the male releases sperm, fertilizing the eggs. After all the eggs are inserted, the male floats down to the bottom, swishing back and forth to settle the eggs down into the bottom of the pouch.

The morning after the male is pregnant, the pair meets and performs the first few stages of their mating ritual. They will change colors, dance around each other and wrap their tails together. After this morning greeting, the female leaves the male for the rest of the day and returns the next morning for a repeat performance.

The father gives birth in the early hours of the morning, often starting in the dark. Contracting his pouch, the male helps the young find there way out. Once the fry or baby fish are born, they are left to fend for themselves. Neither parent cares for the tiny young who are only (6 to 12 mm) long. The day that the male gives birth, the female will return to deposit a new batch of eggs. There’s no rest and recuperation for the pregnant father.

>A species or group of organisms that is in danger of extinction or disappearing from the face of the earth in the near future if its situation is not improved.

A species that can be found throughout its natural range but is declining in number and may become endangered in the absence of special protection efforts.

A species that is not declining in number but is of special concern because it is sensitive to pressure by particular human activities or natural events.

A species that is not declining in number and is not sensitive to pressures by human activities or natural events.

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Threats and Management
Seahorses are threatened on a global scale for three reason: the traditional Chinese medicine trade, pet trade, and arts and crafts. Over 20 million dried seahorses were taken from the ocean in 1995 for the Chinese medicine trade. People of Asian descent, as well as others, use traditional Chinese medicine to treat sickness. Spiny seahorses were never targeted for this trade, but recently are now being sought after in greater quantities, contributing to their vulnerable status.

Hundreds of thousands more are taken for the pet trade to be sent on to pet stores, making their way into home aquariums. Spiny seahorses are a popular fish with home aquarium hobbyists. Without a great deal of experience, spiny seahorses are hard to keep alive, in part because they are very picky eaters and need to eat live food.

If you go to your local craft store or even shop in department stores and variety stores, you can often find packaged dried seahorses or used in trinkets and ornaments. Hundreds of thousands of seahorses are sold to stores for arts and crafts. Combining all three of the above mentioned uses adds up to a lot of seahorses. While seahorses reproduce frequently, the do not produce large litters and the young are very vulnerable to getting eaten by predators.

The Shedd Aquarium helps save baby seahorses. The Shedd Aquarium supports a conservation organization called Project Seahorse. Scientists and community workers teach local villagers in the Philippines and elsewhere to study seahorse populations and establish ways to take these fish without exhausting the entire population. In one program, pregnant seahorses are placed in underwater cages. The baby seahorses can slip out of the cage and into the wild right after they’re born. This allows the young seahorses to replenish the supply of seahorses on the reef or in the seagrass. After giving birth, the adults in the cage can be sold, allowing the villagers to maintain a steady income while keeping the seahorse population stable.

Protected areas or reserves for these little animals also have been put into place and allow villagers to collect seahorses without exhausting entire populations.

Here in Chicago our gift shop sells sustainable crafts from Philippine villages. This provides villagers with a source of income that doesn’t depend on the reef.

Did You Know?
Greek poets use the word Hippocampus to describe a mythical beast which carried sea gods on their backs. This creature was half-fish and half-horse.

Web Sites:
NOTE: The following Web sites are not maintained by the John G. Shedd Aquarium and will open in a new browser window.


Print Publications:
Debelius, H. 1999. Indian Ocean Reef Guide. Frankfurt, Germany: IKAN. 321p.
ISBN# 3-9317-0267-7.

Lourie, S.A., Vincent, A.C.J., and Hall, H.J. 1999. Seahorses. An Identification Guide to the World’s Species and Their Conservation. Mitcham, Surrey: Dorling Print Limited. 214p. ISBN# 0-9534693-0-1.

Myers, R.F. 1999. Micronesian Reef Fishes. Barrigada, Guam: Coral Graphics. 216p.
ISBN# 0-9621564-4-2.

Perrine, D. 1997. Mysteries of the Sea. Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International, Ltd. 312p. ISBN# 0-7853-2430-5.

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Vocabulary Words

Extinction – An organism that has not been present on the face of the earth for over 50 years.

Fry – A baby fish.

Mangrove trees – Tropical salt tolerant trees that live along the ocean’s shoreline. They have stilt-like roots and stems, forming dense thickets where many animals, especially young reef creatures, seek a safe refuge.

Organism – A living thing.

Ovipositor – An organ some fish have which is a tube-like structure that is usually concealed but sometimes extends outside the abdomen with which the female deposits eggs.

Pet trade – An industry or business in which animals are taken from the wild and sold to pet stores, zoos, and aquariums.

Prehensile – Adapted for seizing, grasping, or holding, especially by wrapping around an object.

Sexually dimorphic – In animals when each sex is distinctly different. Males look very different than the females.

Snout – The pointy part of the head; similar to our nose.

Species – A group of organisms capable of breeding and producing fertile offspring; organisms that share the same gene pool.

Traditional Chinese medicine – A form of medicine practiced predominantly in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. It is based on two counterpart, yin and yang. People get sick when the balance between yin and yang shifts. Natural elements, such as seahorses and other sea creatures, are used to heal disease.

Zooplankton – Microscopic animals that float at the mercy of the ocean currents and have weak swimming ability.

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Spiny Seahorse
Spiny Seahorse

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