By Sam Lucas
Pipefish are classified within the family Syngnathidae along with their more recognized cousin, the seahorse. They are a slender fish named after the long, thin pipes men often smoked in the mid-1700’s. Their shape is emphasized by their lack of prominent fins – pipefish’s dorsal and pectoral fins are small and easy to miss. The fish does the majority of its steering through the water with horizontal movements of its head.
Pipefish are mainly located in marine waters, but there are a few freshwater species. They are most abundant in tropical and temperate areas near the coasts. A favorite habitat of pipefish, especially around Sanibel, is our extensive seagrass beds. Within these beds, pipefish are experts of disguise allowing them to avoid predation and surprise prey. Pipefish imitate seagrass blades by placing themselves vertically within the beds, swaying softly as if they were just another blade. These fish do not have teeth and their mouths act similar in function to a straw. Pipefish approach their prey of choice (shrimp are a favorite!) and sucks it into its tube-like mouth.
Similar to seahorses, male pipefish give birth and both sexes put on elaborate courtship displays to select their mate. Male pipefish have displayed preference for larger females, an indicator of fertility, in the hope of passing the best genes to their offspring. If courting is successful, females will deposit their eggs into a male’s brood pouch where they are then fertilized and incubated by the male. Pregnancy does not last long, only a few weeks then the pouch opens, allowing many tiny pipefish to start their journey into the world.
Next time you venture out into or over seagrass beds, see if you can spot this well camouflaged fish!