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Why No Seahorses on Washington / Oregon Coast - The Weird, Related Bay Pipefish

Published 08/28/20 at 6:11 AM PDT - Updated Periodically
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Why No Seahorses on Washington / Oregon Coast - The Weird, Related Bay Pipefish

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(Portland, Oregon) – There are sadly no seahorses on the Oregon coast or the Washington coast. Those adorable yet somehow eerie little creatures with their freakishly expression-filled faces and bulbous bodies live in much warmer climates. The Pacific Northwest coast is too cold for them, according to Seaside Aquarium’s Tiffany Boothe. (Photos Seaside Aquarium's Boothe)

Seahorses are legendary for their means of reproduction: the male does the pregnancy thing. It’s surprising to learn that the Oregon / Washington coast region has a relative of it: the bay pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhynchus). Indeed, the bay pipefish is a wild creation of Mother Nature’s, a much stranger, even sci-fi kind of fish that does a host of things you won’t believe.

“Visitors to the aquarium often ask if we have seahorses but since we only display marine life that can be found off the Oregon coast, we direct them to the closest thing we have, bay pipefish,” Boothe said. “Bay pipefish belong to the same family as seahorses (Syngnathidae) and though you can see the resemblance in their face, their bodies are long, thin, and straight.”

Seriously, forget the seahorse.

First, the pipefish is extremely stealthy. Both the Seaside Aquarium and Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport typically have them, as does the Charleston Marine Science Center on the south coast (availability of these may differ from time to time). The pipefish live among the eelgrass along the coastlines of Mexico all the way up to Alaska, as they do in aquariums here. Their long bodies and color blend in quite well with those watery blades, and it’s there they hide from predators as well as waiting to gobble their own prey – which consists of phytoplankton, crustaceans and other extremely small beasties. They use that long, toothless snout to vacuum in their food.

“Swimming vertically, they blend in with eelgrass so well that it can be difficult to see them, which is why they prefer to inhabit bays and estuaries laden with eelgrass,” Boothe said.

The pipefish does something remarkable and strange when it’s hunting prey, with an underwater action that’s almost akin to that of a hummingbird. It has a transparent fin that oscillates so fast it can’t be seen, something like 20 times a second. Even though they’re bad swimmers in general, this tiny action allows it to maneuver beneath its prey in a precise way and still keep its body motionless, thereby remaining mostly invisible. (Although in fairness the seahorse does something similar.)

At this point it becomes something almost out of a steam punk sci-fi film.

Its head locks into position, a host of muscles start building tension, and then another really weird part: each eye can track independently or it can go into binocular mode like us humans. When everything is just in line, the bay pipefish of the Oregon / Washington coast releases a set of clamps near its skull and the head snaps up insanely fast to start vacuuming in its din-din. It does not use muscles for this part, as those would work too slowly to grab what are otherwise super quick-moving lunch items.

Then, of course, there’s the whole freaky male-giving-birth thing.

Baby bay pipefish
Baby bay pipefish

“Females will pass up to 750 eggs to the males,” Boothe said. “The males will fertilize them and hold them in a specialized pouch located just above their tail. It will take about six weeks (depending on water temperature) for the eggs to hatch. During this time, the male provides nutrients to the eggs via blood supply. Once hatched the miniature pipefish swim off and begin their journey on their own.”

(Other Sources: National Library of Medicine, San Francisco’s Bay Nature Magazine)

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