For many marine inhabitants, the oceans are a very dangerous place. Threat of predation is high and a number of predators have evolved seemingly more and more elaborate ways to catch their dinner. To survive in an environment like this, you need to have an ‘evolve or die’ attitude, which has resulted in animals more bizarre than you could ever imagine. One of my favourite critters can be glaringly obvious once you see them, but their unrivalled ability to blend in with algae, crinoids and sea grass can trick even the most seasoned dive guides into missing them.
We are talking about ghost pipefish; a close relative of normal pipefishes and seahorses, although not belonging to the same taxonomic group. There may only be 6 recognised species, but they have a very wide range, being found from the Red Sea, through almost the entire Indo-Pacific region. This is very unusual for such specialised creatures, but made possible due to their relatively long planktonic stage where they drift across open seas on the ocean currents before finally settling down.
One of the biggest differences between Solenostomus (the scientific name for ghost pipefish), and Syngnathidae (the scientific name for seahorses, pipefishes and pipehorses), is the way they reproduce. It is common knowledge that it is the male seahorse that cares for the eggs, however in ghost pipefish it is the female, and she will carry the eggs in her large pelvic fins on her underside. Usually they are found in pairs, with the smaller and skinnier of the two being the male, and the larger with much wider pelvic fins being the female. If you are lucky to spot a pair of these cryptic beauties on a dive, take a closer look at the underside of the larger female – there is a good chance she will be carrying eggs.
Probably the well-known of the 6 species is the ornate ghost pipefish (pictured above). This cryptic species can come in a variety of colours; black, red and gold or white and gold. They are covered by small thin protrusions that help break up the outline of their bodies, helping them blend in further with their crinoid homes.
While the ornate ghost pipefish may be the most impressive to look at, it certainly isn’t the most impressive. That award goes to (in my opinion) the robust ghost pipefish (pictured below). It isn’t much to look at, which is what is so amazing about it. In fact, it looks identical to a piece of seagrass that has separated from the sea bed. When you couple that with their chosen habitat – typically sandy, mucky areas with lots of seagrass– then you are dealing with undoubtedly one of the most amazingly camouflage creatures in the world. This illusion if further helped by the way they move, as they even sway up and down with the water movement. You could spend hours looking at these without even realising you a looking at a fish.
Because of their elaborate camouflage, size, and all round appearance, ghost pipefish make excellent and extremely popular photographic subjects. The next time you see one on a dive, it might be tempting to try to get as many photos as possible, however, you should really try to limit the number of exposures with these delicate critters. As they rely on their camouflage for survival, they have nowhere to swim if a group of flash happy divers descend upon them, so they will become extremely stressed knowing they are no longer hidden. They will try to conceal themselves further, ruining any chances of getting that perfect shot. The best way to behave around them is to stay close by (not too close) and wait. They will soon realise you are not a threat and resume normal behaviour, allowing you to swoop in and get the shot you wanted.
Photo Credit: B&E Underwater Photography
Cryptic Critters – The Ghost Pipefish was written by Mike