The Pygmy Pipehorses of Cozumel
Diving in Cozumel, is by all accounts, is an amazing experience. Cozumel is considered one of the best diving locations in the world, with reefs and shallow coral formations teaming with sea life. Divers flock from around the world to see such amazing animals as sharks, sea turtles, stingrays, and of course, seahorses. But one surprising animal exists there going mostly unnoticed. It’s the West Atlantic Pygmy Pipehorse, Amphelikturus dendriticus, a diminutive relative of seahorses.
Most people know what a seahorse is, and many have some awareness of pipefish, the seahorse’s straightened, snake-like cousin, but few are aware of the in-between fish called the pygmy pipehorse. They are, as you would expect, a middle ground between seahorses and pipefish. They hitch like seahorses, and while they have a slightly bent neck, its no where to the extreme that gives seahorses their moniker. Females tend to rest with their bodies horizontal, while males tend to assume an upright stances, more similar to seahorses. Most are under 3 inches, and most are found in the Pacific.
However, there is one tiny overlooked species found around the Americas. It can be found from the south of Florida, down to Brazil. It’s considered rare. But in Cozumel, they’re common, though not well known and often mistaken for a pipefish. Amphelikturus dendriticus (also known as Acentronura dendritica, an older name) is a tiny, slightly bent pipehorse that rarely grows larger than 2 inches. It’s color ranges from mottled brown to greenish-yellow, and is covered in filaments resembling algae growths.
Scuba divers probably have the most experience sighting and photographing this pipehorse. Robin Tackett, an avid scuba diver offers the following advice for finding them in Cozumel, “Seahorses-pipehorses-pipefish are all seen in water under 50′ deep, from my experience. They are usually found in grassy areas, not necessarily on a reef structure.” She says. “And the pipehorse I have always seen in seagrass, teacups in particular seem to be their favorite hideout.” And indeed, looking at photos taken of these fish, many of them are found amongst calcerous algae such as teacups, mermaid’s shaving brush, halmedia and pinecone algae.
Not much is known about this little syngnathid. Males have a pouch where they incubate the eggs, just like in seahorses. While they are usually found singly, there is the occasional pair found clinging to the same algae. This has led some to believe they are monogamous like seahorses, but it is unknown to what extent or if they switch partners regularly. Other pygmy pipehorse species give birth to young which spend time as plankton before they settle to adult life, but it is unknown if this species does.
If one wants to see this tiny gem, take some time from the reef structures and check out near by algae plains. Look closely, they are easy to miss. But if luck is with you, you will find the small, intrepid pygmy pipehorse.
Special thanks to Ron and Robin Tackett, Jim Lyle, Stig Thormodsrud, and George Duncan for sharing their photos and knowledge, for without it this article wouldn’t have been possible.