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Study: Why Seahorses Look Like Horses

Jan 28, 2011 – 1:00 PM
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Lee Speigel

Lee Speigel Contributor

"A horse is a horse, of course, of course, and no one can talk to a horse, of course," so why does a seahorse look so much like, well, a horse?

With the theme song from the 1960s sitcom "Mr. Ed" fading in the distance, the question of how seahorses evolved with a very equine-like head and neck is at the heart of a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Scientists now suggest that the curves of a seahorse body -- ranging from 0.6 to 14 inches -- help it to be a better hunter.
Seahorse body shape explained
Beth A. Keiser, AP
A longsnout seahorse moves gracefully through coral in its tank at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Scientists are studying why the seahorse looks just like a horse.

"Seahorses evolved from ancestral, pipefish-like species, which have a straight body," the study says.

"Here, we use a biomechanical analysis and show that the seahorse's peculiar head, neck and trunk posture allow for the capture of small shrimps at larger distances from the eyes, compared with pipefish," the study adds.

While a pipefish and seahorses share the same fish subfamily, Syngnathinae, pipefish are straight-bodied, like little snakes. Both fish rely on a diet of small shrimp and tiny fish, which they eat after sucking them into their snouts.

High-speed video recordings reveal that seahorses utilize the curve in their necks to more quickly grab and eat their prey, the BBC reports.

"They rotate their heads upward to bring their mouth close to the prey," said Sam Van Wassenbergh at the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

Wassenbergh theorizes that certain pipefish evolved into a "sit and wait feeder," developing into S-shaped seahorses to more easily capture food.

"They grasp with their tail, to attach to sea grass and wait for food to pass by within striking distance," he said.

Do you suppose seahorses relax by competing in seahorse races?

Read more at BBC's Earth News.

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