Pipefish

Pipefish Facts

  • Habitat:¬†Reef, Lagoon, Seagrass, Estuary, River
  • Diet: Mysis shrimp, plankton, small crustatceans, insects, worms and fish
  • Size: 1 inch to 26inches
  • Species: 200+ species, part of the Syngnathidae family that seahorses belong
  • Threats:Habitat Loss, Overfishing for Traditional Chinese Medicine, Overfishing from accidental by-catch, Run-off and Polution.

The Pipefish is a unique, slender, long-bodied fish that has rings of bony armor along its body related to seahorses. Their snouts are long and tubular like the Seahorse with small mouths. They have a single dorsal fin and most have a small tail fin. There are nearly 200 species of Pipefish and they range in size from 1 inch to 26 inches.

Worm Pipefish

Worm Pipefish. Photo by Ian Boyd.

Pipefish don’t have large fins and have a rigid body structure, making them slow swimmers. Instead they rely on camouflage to avoid detection. There are even a few species of Pipefish that have prehensile tails for grabbing and holding plants. There is one group of Pipefish though that breaks this rule. Pipefish known as the Flagtail Pipefish have a well-developed tail fin that gives them better swimming abilities than other Pipefish.

Pipefish come in a wide range of patterns and colors ranging from drab to brightly colored. There are a few species of Pipefish that can change their color in order to match their surroundings. You can often find Pipefish moving in groups and seem to sway along with the sea grass and water currents.

Natural Habitat

The Pipefish is typically found in a tropical or subtropical region. While most Pipefish live in saltwater environments, some have been known to enter and survive in freshwater environments. There are a few types that are fully freshwater, occuring in rivers and streams. Most, however are marine or brackish. The Pipefish has a very diverse lifestyle; they are typically found within coastal marine areas that contain sea grasses such as eelgrass or coral reefs. Some species of Pipefish can be found in the open ocean at depths as low as 1300 feet. A few Pipefish species have been known to set up cleaning stations to eat parasites off some fish.

Diet

The Pipefish is unique in the fact that they create a vacuum inside their mouth through which their prey is automatically sucked inside. The Pipefish is adapted to eat tiny crustaceans such as copepods and mysis shrimp. Freshwater pipefish will often eat insects and worms. Larger pipefish will sometimes eat small fish. Some Pipefish species have been able to adapt to eating parasites off other fish, such as the Bluestripe Pipefish and Janss Pipefish. Since the Pipefish is a visual hunter they need good lighting in order to find food.

Reproduction

Pipefish are similar to Seahorses in the fact that the male is responsible for the majority of parenting duties. The courtship between male and female Pipefish often involves well-choreographed and elaborate displays. Although the individual display will vary depending on the Pipefish species. Unlike seahorses though, female pipefish are the ones that fight for mates in a strange role reversal. Some female pipefish go so far as to have elaborate and colorful displays to win over their potential mate. Larger female pipefish tend to be preferred by males.

Like the Seahorse, the male Pipefish has a specifically designed area to carry eggs, which are deposited by the female. In most Pipefish species this is simply a patch of spongy skin where the eggs can adhere until they hatch. A few Pipefish species have a partial or full pouch for carrying the eggs. The location of this pouch can be either along the entire underside of the Pipefish or it can simply be at the base of the tail like the Seahorses.

Upon hatching the Pipefish is free swimming and has little to no yolk sac. They typically begin feeding immediately. From the moment the Pipefish hatches they become independent of their parents and some parents will view the young as food at this time. Some Pipefish are born as fully developed miniature versions with all the behaviors or their parents while others are born with a short larval stage during which time they live as plankton.

Much research has been done into pipefish reproduction in the last few years with some surprising discoveries. Some male pipefish are able to absorb nutrients from the eggs that the female passes on to them. It is believed this is a survival strategy, so in lean times, some of the eggs can survive rather than the male perishing and losing them all. Females are also able to pass on extra nutrients to the eggs of they feel the male is small and weak. Conversely, male pipefish may selectively abort the eggs from a smaller female.

Threats

The threats to Pipefish are not as well known as those to their more popular cousins the seahorses, none-the-less, they are at risk from many human activities. The biggest threat to the Pipefish right now is a loss of their eelgrass habitat due to development and run-off. No commercial fisheries exist for Pipefish and there is still much to be learned about raising pipefish in captivity.The Pipefish are also collected for Chinese medicine, although in smaller quantities than the Seahorse. The Pipefish is considered more medically potent than the Seahorse so they aren’t used as often. While the current demand for Pipefish is being met from wild fishing. Accidental by-catch is another under-reported problem that consumes many Pipefish.

Pipefish washed up. Photo by Akuppa.

There is not much known about the populations of pipefish, which could spell disaster for these interesting creatures.
Since the biggest threat to the Pipefish is a loss of habitat the best conservation efforts are obviously those that help preserve eelgrass, a popular environment for the Pipefish. There are three things you can do to promote the fragile sea grass environment in shallow waters.

First, you can boat only in marked sea lanes to avoid damaging sensitive areas of sea grass that are home to the Pipefish. Second, you can avoid motoring through shallow areas, which can cause a lot of damage and pollution to the natural habitat of the Pipefish. Lastly, you should avoid using chemicals or fertilizers that can be washed into the ocean watershed. These chemicals can have a poisonous effect on the habitat of the Pipefish. Rather you should try to use more natural products that won’t harm the fragile sea grass environment.

Other things you can do to help conserve the Pipefish and their environment includes avoiding the purchase of Chinese medicines made from Pipefish. You should try to only buy fair trade goods that come from areas prone to Pipefish fishing. Since many fisherman and villages rely on Pipefish fishing it is important to find less destructive ways of fishing and to save the unique animals in these fragile marine areas.

Although there aren’t many commercial programs for the breeding and promotion of Pipefish, you can find a few organizations dedicated to helping these unique fish. When you take part in these organizations you can get information on a variety of ways that you can conserve the Pipefish and their natural habitat. It is important that once you learn ways to protect the Pipefish and their environment you teach it to others so that people everywhere can become aware of methods to protect the Pipefish and other marine animals that live in fragile marine environments. Project Seahorse is a very well known organization that works to protect all syngnathid species. Save Our Seahorses is also working to conserve the seagrass beds of Sungai Pulai, an important ecosystem for seahorses AND pipefish.

Pipefish Pictures

Banded Pipefish

Double Ended Pipefish

Double Ended Pipefish

Lesser Pipefish

Lesser Pipefish