Hippocampus abdominalislarge seahorse

Geographic Range

Pot-bellied seahorses (Hippocampus abdominalis) are native to the Australian and Oceanic regions. They occupy coastal waters surrounding New Zealand and Tasmania, including the Cook Strait. Pot-bellied seahorses also occupy waters around the southeastern point of Australia, ranging as far north as Sydney and as far west as the Great Australian Bight. (Ashe and Wilson, 2019; Nickel, 2009; Pollom, 2017)


Pot-bellied seahorses inhabit saltwater coastal regions such as coral reefs, estuaries, harbors, and bays. They may also be found in open water or deeper water attached to sponges (phylum Porifera), but these seahorses are more common in shallow waters. Pot-bellied seahorses can also occasionally be found in intertidal rock pools. They typically select areas with vegetation. Pot-bellied seahorses use their long, prehensile tails to anchor themselves to a wide variety of objects, including natural structures (e.g., seagrasses, macroalgae clusters, colonial hydroids) and human-made structures (e.g., jetty piles, fish nets, fishing traps).

Pot-bellied seahorses reside in tropical or temperate waters and are found in water with temperatures ranging from 8 to 24 °C. They are found at depths of 0 to 104 m below the surface of the water, but are typically found no deeper than 50 m below the surface. (Foster and Vincent, 2004; Lourie, et al., 2004; Nickel and Cursons, 2012; Pollom, 2017)

  • Range depth
    104 to 0 m
    341.21 to 0.00 ft
  • Average depth
    50 m
    164.04 ft

Physical Description

Pot-bellied seahorses (and other seahorses) have elongated snouts that lack teeth. Compared to most other teleost fish, their orientation in the water column is unique, with their heads located closest to the surface of the water and their tails closest to the seafloor. Although their bodies are oriented vertically, their heads are oriented horizontally, making their heads and necks appear similar to that of horses (genus Equus). Instead of scales, their bodies are covered in rings of bony plates, which give their bodies and prehensile tails the appearance of having rings. Pot-bellied seahorses have a dorsal fin and two pectoral fins for propulsion, steering, and stabilization. These features allow them to swim both horizontally and vertically, despite their lack of pelvic and caudal fins. They also have a largely reduced anal fin, independently moving eyes, and a brood pouch, which is present only in males.

Pot-bellied seahorses get their common name from their large, bulging abdomens. They are the largest known species of seahorse (genus Hippocampus), with a maximum recorded length of 35 cm. Newly-hatched seahorses are 16 mm in length, on average. Juveniles are almost identical to adults, though they are thinner and have larger heads and dorsal fins in proportion to their body size. Both adults and juveniles can be black, yellow, grey, white, red, orange, or brown, typically with spots and stripes. Pot-bellied seahorses have noticeable stripes on their tails and spots on their bodies and heads. They can alter pigment cells in their skin to better camouflage in their environment. Pot-bellied seahorses are distinguishable from other seahorse species due to their size, thick abdomens, and high number of trunk rings (12 to 13) and tail rings (45 to 48). They have a low, triangular coronet on the tops of their heads. There is limited information regarding adult body mass, although pregnant males weigh more than non-reproductive females and gravid females weigh more than non-reproductive males.

Pot-bellied seahorses exhibit some sexual dimorphism: males are heavier on average, have longer tails, more markings on their bodies, and shorter, thicker snouts. They also have a light-colored brood pouch on their abdomens. Brood pouches are surrounded by a layer of epithelium and function to store developing young. The cavity of the pouch, called the lumen, is surrounded by dermal layers and a pseudoplacenta, which is composed of connective tissue. Females have thicker bodies and a keel, which is located on their abdomens. (Foster and Vincent, 2004; He, et al., 2021; Kawaguchi, et al., 2017; Lourie, et al., 2004; Nickel, 2009; Nickel and Cursons, 2012; Woods, 2000)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • Range length
    35 (high) cm
    13.78 (high) in


Pot-bellied seahorses are ovoviviparous. Females deposit their unfertilized eggs into the brood pouch of their mate, and males fertilize the eggs internally. Males carry eggs in their brood pouch, which functions similarly to a mammalian uterus, until embryos have developed and hatched. The body fluid within the brood pouches of males is gradually replaced by salt water to prepare embryos for the external environment. Brood pouches protect developing embryos and supply them with oxygen through a capillary network. Brood pouches also contain prolactin, which provides embryos with nutrients needed for development. Seahorse embryos develop in brood pouches for an average of 30 days before hatching.

Pot-bellied seahorses are around 16 mm in length upon hatching. Hatchlings are planktonic and completely independent from their parents. Newborn pot-bellied seahorses spend their first 2 to 4 weeks near the surface of the ocean, either swimming freely or attached to floating macroalgae. Once they reach around 25 mm in length, juvenile seahorses move closer to the sea floor and spend more time attached to aquatic vegetation or other anchored objects.

Male pot-bellied seahorses develop brood pouches around 4 months of age, when they are an average 80 mm in length. Pot-bellied seahorses are considered sexually mature at around 1 year old, when they begin to demonstrate courtship behaviors and, for males, when they have a fully developed brood pouch. Newly mature adults measure around 9.1 to 11 cm and differ in color based on sex. Female pot-bellied seahorses are white, grey, brown, or yellow in color, whereas males are brown, yellow, or grey. Adult females also develop more rounded and pronounced abdomens compared to males. Pot-bellied seahorses exhibit indeterminate growth, meaning they do not stop growing throughout their lives. (Foster and Vincent, 2004; Lourie, et al., 2004; Nickel and Cursons, 2012; Woods, 2000)


Pot-bellied seahorses engage in courtship displays prior to mating. Males dilate their brood pouches to allow water in by leaning downward and swimming forward in a pumping motion. Their pouches swell up and become lighter in color. Their body color simultaneously intensifies to a brighter hue, which is typically some shade of yellow. Males approach females with their heads tucked and their pectoral and dorsal fins flapping quickly. If females are receptive to mating, they reciprocate the same head-tucking and color-brightening displays. Males and females then "dance," swimming together in short bursts, either with their tails twisted together or with females coiling their tails tightly. After dancing, mating pairs then rise towards the surface with their snouts pointing upward and their tails pointing downward. Once they reach the surface of the water, males and females face each other and females use their ovipositors to transfer unfertilized eggs into the brood pouch opening of their mate. Once eggs are inside their brood pouches, males release their sperm and then perform a series of twisting movements to distribute eggs uniformly. After the mating process is complete, both males and females revert to their non-breeding colorations.

Pot-bellied seahorses are mostly monogamous, but can be polygynandrous. Some males and females will mate multiple times together, but they can also have different partners in the same breeding season. Males only receive eggs from one female at a time and only mate again once they give birth. This means there is strict genetic monogamy, but courtship behaviors can appear polygynandrous if males attempt to mate with different females and vice versa.

Competition can occur during the first stage of courtship, when males and females are swimming alongside one another. In such cases, intruding males attempt to wedge themself between courting pairs and get close to females. Males have not been observed defending their mates from intruding males, instead leaving and seeking other mates. Mating behaviors do not affect social structure, mostly because pot-bellied seahorses exhibit very little social structure at all. (Foster and Vincent, 2004; Lourie, et al., 2004; Nickel and Cursons, 2012; Whittington, et al., 2013; Wilson and Martin-Smith, 2007; Woods, 2000)

Pot-bellied seahorses are iteroparous and breed year-round, although breeding activity peaks in the spring and summer, from September to February. Pot-bellied seahorses reproduce sexually and are considered sexually mature around 1 year old. Fertilization occurs externally in the brood pouches of males, which are not considered to be internal structures. Pot-bellied seahorses are ovoviviparous; males keep fertilized eggs in their brood pouches until they hatch and give birth to live young. Gestation takes an average of 30 days, with a range of 28 to 34 days. Gestation time increases as water temperature decreases. A single brood of pot-bellied seahorses contains an average of 300 juveniles, although one brood from a captive male consisted of 1,116 individuals. The number of individuals per brood is positively correlated with brood pouch volume. There are no known reports of birth mass and length for pot-bellied seahorses.

Male pot-bellied seahorses push their newly hatched young out through their brood pouch opening. This occurs at night, typically during a full moon. Males release young from their brood pouches individually or in small groups, a process that typically takes 1 to 2 hours but may last as much as 3 days. Once males have released all the young from a brood, they resume courtship behaviors, sometimes as soon as the same day. As a result, males can breed once a month, at most. (Foster and Vincent, 2004; Gomon and Neira, 1998; Lourie, et al., 2004; Nickel, 2009; Woods, 2000; Woods, 2005)

  • Breeding interval
    Pot-bellied seahorses can breed once monthly.
  • Breeding season
    Year-round, with greatest activity from September to February.
  • Range number of offspring
    1,116 (high)
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range time to hatching
    28 to 34 days
  • Average time to hatching
    30 days
  • Range time to independence
    0 to 0 minutes
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Males provide embryos in their brood pouches with nutrients and protection. Females exhibit no further parental investment beyond the act of mating. Pot-bellied seahorses are immediately independent upon birth. (Woods, 2000)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
    • protecting
      • male


There is limited information regarding pot-bellied seahorse longevity, but it may be similar to the longevity of closely related species. For example, lined seahorses (Hippocampus erectus) can live up to 4.7 years in captivity and White's seahorses (Hippocampus whitei) can live up to 5 years in the wild. A study from 2004 inferred the lifespans of captive pot-bellied seahorses to be 3 to 5 years; there are no reports of expected lifespans of wild pot-bellied seahorses. (Flower, 1931; Foster and Vincent, 2004)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    3 to 5 years


Pot-bellied seahorses are motile and natatorial. They are nocturnal, being most active at dusk and at night. Pregnant males give birth birth at night, most often during a full moon. Pot-bellied seahorses use their prehensile tails to attach to objects, such as vegetation or corals, anchored to the seafloor or floating in the water column.

Pot-bellied seahorses are not social outside of breeding activities. Although individuals may coexist in close proximity, they usually act independently. Adult pot-bellied seahorses have been reported to cannibalize their offspring in certain situations. When kept in captivity, pot-bellied seahorses may attempt courtship rituals even with individuals that are unable to mate. Additionally, captive juveniles have been observed to wrestle or grasp tails with each other.

Pot-bellied seahorses are mostly sedentary and do not migrate seasonally. The only instance in which dispersal occurs is when juveniles are in their pelagic stage and are floating near the surface of the water. During this period, ocean currents may carry them to different areas.

Although pot-bellied seahorses are not social, they do produce a sound called a click. They mainly produce clicks while foraging. However, these clicks are also thought to communicate information on mate size and quality. Females click more often than males, which suggests clicking could be related to mate selection. (Ashe and Wilson, 2019; Gomon and Neira, 1998; Hutton and Scheifele, 2017; Nickel, 2009; Pollom, 2017; Wilson and Martin-Smith, 2007; Woods, 2003)

Home Range

There is limited information regarding home range sizes of pot-bellied seahorses. They are mostly sedentary, and are not known to defend specific territories.

Communication and Perception

Pot-bellied seahorses communicate using visual, acoustic, tactile, and chemical stimuli. They create sound by rubbing their supraoccipital bones against their coronet (a bony-plated crown) in a process called stridulation. To stridulate, pot-bellied seahorses flick their head upwards in a gesture called a snick. The sound that is produced is called a click. Pot-bellied seahorses have a small pit in their retinas, called a fovea, which gives them acute vision and is beneficial for hunting. They also use their senses of touch and smell to forage and navigate their environments. Pot-bellied seahorses have three olfaction pathways: one for social cues, one for sex pheromones, and one for prey odors. They also have lateral lines, which allow them to detect vibrations and other pressure gradients in the water. This helps them detect the presence of prey or potential predators.

Pot-bellied seahorses display several courtship behaviors including head posturing, dancing, head raising, and rising through the water column. They also change their coloration to be brighter during courtship and copulation. Females use olfactory cues when selecting mates, but males do not, meaning they may not be able to detect odor to the same extent that females can. Males appear to rely more heavily on visual cues when selecting mates. (Bahr, et al., 2012; Bleckmann and Zelick, 2009; Hamdani and Døving, 2007; Hutton and Scheifele, 2017; Lee and Bumsted O'Brien, 2011)

Food Habits

Pot-bellied seahorses are carnivores, feeding mostly on small crustaceans. There are no noticeable differences between the diets of juveniles and adults. Pot-bellied seahorses primarily eat copepods, isopods, decapods, amphipods, and peracarid crustaceans. Their diets include true shrimp (infraorder Caridea), opossum shrimp (family Mysidae), skeleton shrimp (family Caprellidae), and species in the family Ischyroceridae. They also feed on zooplankton. Examples of specific organisms that pot-bellied seahorses eat include Ischyrocerus longimanus, Caprella equilibra, Tenagomysis similis, and Hippolyte bifidirostris. A 2002 study on the diets of pot-bellied seahorses around New Zealand found that amphipod consumption was highest in spring and fall, while decapod consumption was highest in summer and winter. Pericarid consumption was relatively even throughout the year.

Pot-bellied seahorses often hunt for their prey among vegetation. They are primarily sit-and-wait predators, but in rare cases they swim along the seafloor to search for food in the substrate.

Pot-bellied seahorses are not highly mobile and thus cannot easily chase prey. Instead, they rely on their vision to detect prey and they use their long snouts to suck up passing prey. Pot-bellied seahorses lack teeth and ingest their prey whole. They must feed frequently, as they lack a true stomach and cannot store food for future digestion. (Flynn and Ritz, 2001; Nickel, 2009; Woods, 2000; Woods, 2002)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats non-insect arthropods
  • Animal Foods
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • other marine invertebrates
  • zooplankton


Pot-bellied seahorses have few predators as adults and are at the highest risk of predation as juveniles. Adults have fully-developed bony plates, which makes it difficult for many marine predators to ingest them. Pot-bellied seahorses also have cryptic coloration and can alter their coloration to better camouflage with their surroundings. They are also capable of suppressing the release of chemicals called kairomones. These chemicals are typically used for intraspecific communication, but may also be detected by predators.

Pot-bellied seahorses serve as prey for a variety of large fish, including skates (family Rajidae), sea perches (family Latidae), red cod (Pseudophycis bachus), blue cod (Parapercis colias), trumpeters (Latris lineata), common ling (Molva molva), and banded wrasse (Notolabras fucicola). Pot-bellied seahorses are also prey for spiny lobsters (family Palinuridae) and they have been discovered in the stomachs of birds such as cormorants (family Phalacrocoracidae) and fairy penguins (Eudyptula minor). (Lourie, et al., 2004; Nickel, 2009)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Pot-bellied seahorses are predators of small crustaceans and zooplankton, and they serve as prey for a variety of fish, lobsters, and birds. In captivity, pot-bellied seahorses were hosts for endoparasitic marine ciliates (Philasterides dicentrarchi). They are not known to be part of any mutualistic or commensalistic relationships. (Cicco, et al., 2013; Nickel, 2009)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Ciliates (Philasterides dicentrarchi)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Pot-bellied seahorses are used as decorations or sold as traditional Korean and Chinese medicinal ingredients. They are also part of the aquarium trade and can be found in both public and personal aquariums as pets. Adult pot-bellied seahorses cost around 300 USD. They are desirable in traditional medicine markets due to their large size, pale coloration, and smooth skin. Pot-bellied seahorses are also a part of coral reef ecosystems, which are a popular source of ecotourism, especially for snorkelers and scuba-divers. (Giglio, et al., 2018; Koning and Hoeksema, 2021; Lourie, et al., 2004; Seahorse.com, 2022; Vincent, et al., 2011)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Pot-bellied seahorses have no reported negative economic impact on humans.

Conservation Status

Pot-bellied seahorses are listed as a species of "Least Concern" on the IUCN Red List. They are also listed on Appendix II of CITES, which regulates international trade.

Pot-bellied seahorse populations are declining due to overfishing and habitat destruction. Pollution and the use of trawling equipment in coastal waters is detrimental to pot-bellied seahorse habitat. Wild populations are vulnerable to the effects of habitat degradation and pollution due to their limited distribution and low mobility. Pot-bellied seahorses are also declining in number due to their popularity in the pet trade, as decorations, and as medicinal ingredients.

Pot-bellied seahorses are protected globally as well as specifically in Australia and New Zealand. Australia listed pot-bellied seahorses under s248 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. In New Zealand, commercial fisheries are not allowed to target seahorses, although they can sell them as by-catch (mostly from shrimp fishing practices). Pot-bellied seahorses have been the subjects of conservation education and awareness programs, are included in international legislation, and are under international management and trade control. There are also several protected marine areas throughout the geographic distribution of pot-bellied seahorses. (Lourie, et al., 2004; Nickel, 2009; Pollom, 2017; Vincent, et al., 2011)


Natalie May (author), Radford University, Sierra Felty (editor), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Galen Burrell (editor), Special Projects.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.


a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body


union of egg and spermatozoan

indeterminate growth

Animals with indeterminate growth continue to grow throughout their lives.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


reproduction in which eggs develop within the maternal body without additional nourishment from the parent and hatch within the parent or immediately after laying.


An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.


structure produced by the calcium carbonate skeletons of coral polyps (Class Anthozoa). Coral reefs are found in warm, shallow oceans with low nutrient availability. They form the basis for rich communities of other invertebrates, plants, fish, and protists. The polyps live only on the reef surface. Because they depend on symbiotic photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae, they cannot live where light does not penetrate.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


animal constituent of plankton; mainly small crustaceans and fish larvae. (Compare to phytoplankton.)


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