Creature Feature: Salish Sea Horse? Bay pipefish! Syngnathus leptorhynchus

Bay pipefish in its eelgrass home. Photo by Brandon Cole. Salish Sea In Focus

Bay pipefish in its eelgrass home. Photo by Brandon Cole. Salish Sea In Focus

If you join our sea creature neighbors for a swim in the Salish Sea, you might not stay in for too long. These cold waters are often for animals with layers of warm, waterproof feathers or thick blubber to keep them toasty, but they’re also home to the cousins of the tropical-dwelling seahorse. The bay pipefish is this month’s creature feature, and they’re the Salish Sea’s own version of a Seahorse. They share the same order with seahorses, Syngnathiformes. Syngnathiformes means joined (syn)-jaw (gnath) form (formes) because their tiny, toothless and tubular mouths don’t open wide.

COOL CAMO

Syngnaths sure do know how to hide! Bay pipefish live in eelgrass meadows with a host of other creatures, but they love their underwater garden homes so much that they’ve evolved to blend right in. Like their seahorse relatives, they sure can camo! Their long electric green bodies and tube-like heads blend in with the eelgrass to make them difficult for predators to spot. Camouflage is a big help when you’re this slow. The Bay pipefish even swims vertically so that they look like a long strand of grass growing up from the sea floor. See if you can find the pipefish in these photos:

Okay, so maybe that was too easy. How about the next one? Photo by Mira Castle

Okay, so maybe that was too easy. How about the next one? Photo by Mira Castle

SLOW MO

Bay pipefish aren’t winning any speed records in the eelgrass meadow 500. They swim by beating their small, clear pectoral, pelvic, and dorsal fins rapidly. This nearly undetectable movement is enough for them to make their slow, stealthy way without body movements that might otherwise ruin their eelgrass disguise. Often they opt not to move by anchoring to a blade of grass with their tails. In fact, they need the protection of their eelgrass habitat and would not survive in open water.  

Found it? The last one is the toughest to spot. Photo by Mira Castle

Found it? The last one is the toughest to spot. Photo by Mira Castle

Good eyes! You’re ready to try from a dock. Photo by Mira Castle

Good eyes! You’re ready to try from a dock. Photo by Mira Castle

STRAWS WITH FINS

Another thing that makes these skinny fish so special is the way that they eat. Equipped with long tube snouts, they creep up on small crustaceans or plankton…..then SLURP! Their prey disappears into their little snoots with suction. These pencil-shaped fish aren’t just formidable slurpers though, they’re common prey for many birds, like horned grebes and cormorants and larger fish, like so keeping a look out is important. Many birds like the Great Blue Heron or a Western Gull would be happy to have a bay pipefish for a snack.  Check out their stealthy movement and dining habits in this video.

GOOD DADS

Pipefish, just like their Seahorse cousins, are unique in how they have their babies. Rather than the females laying eggs and leaving like most fish, they deposit them into a brood pouch on the male’s belly where they are fertilized. Pipefish dads pass oxygen and nutrients through their skin to the developing embryos in the tummy pouch. Once the young have grown and are ready to hatch, the male gives birth to about 250 tiny pipefishes.

EXPLORE

A watchful eye from a floating dock might have the chance to spot a bay pipefish creeping amongst the eelgrass.. You might be fortunate enough to see a group of the juvenile pipefishes learning to explore their marine home. They might make you feel like you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, but don’t give up. These seahorses of the Salish Sea are tricky to spot but worth the search!        

Mira Lutz