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Knysna seahorse Hippocampus capensis

Fast facts

  • Conservation status: Endangered
  • Male gives birth to offspring
  • Eyes can move independently, like those of the chameleon
  • Twenty million are caught every year and used for medicinal purposes

There are 30 to 40 different kinds of seahorses, but only five of these have been seen around the southern African coastline.

The Knysna seahorse is the best known, and is the only seahorse that is endangered.

Knysna seahorses are found only in the Knysna, Keurbooms and Swartvlei estuaries on the south coast of South Africa.

They are green to brown in colour and grow to about 12cm in length.

They live at depths of 50cm to 8m, on sandy bottoms or around clumps of plants.

Kangaroo pouch

Seahorses have lived in the oceans for about 40 million years. They have a head shaped like that of a horse, a tail like a monkey’s and male seahorses have a ‘pouch’ like female kangaroos! The male seahorse gives birth to offspring – the female lays her eggs in the male’s pouch and when they are ready, the babies hatch out of the pouch into the water!

Seahorses are fascinating to watch – you may be lucky to see male and female seahorses in a coy courtship dance or even a male seahorse giving birth!

Seahorses are fish

Seahorses breathe through gills, use their fins to move through the water and hatch from eggs. The largest seahorse measures 35 centimetres from the top of its head to the tip of its tail and the smallest seahorse is only 3 centimetres long!

Eyes like a chameleon

Seahorses swim upright, propelled by their dorsal fin, while their small pectoral fins help to steer them as they glide along. Seahorses feed on small fish and shellfish, which they suck into their mouths. The eyes of a seahorse are like those of a chameleon – they move independently, one looking for food and the other watching out for predators. Seahorses are also able to change colour so that they blend into their environment.

Urban sprawl threatens Knysna seahorses

The development of nearby towns is threatening the survival of the Knysna seahorses.  Houses and shopping centres are being built right on the water’s edge and polluted water flows directly into the estuaries where these seahorses live.  Boats and people in the estuaries are also disturbing the unique habitat of these animals.

A costly cure

Every year about 20 million seahorses are caught around the world, for medicine or to be sold as curios. Some people believe that eating dead seahorses will cure asthma, skin problems and even baldness. Another one million seahorses are caught annually for display in home and public aquariums. 

We protect our seahorses

Fortunately, there is a law in South Africa that protects the Knysna seahorses. The law states that one is not allowed to catch these seahorses or disturb them in their natural environment. There are also strict laws about importing seahorses into South Africa from other parts of the world.