Why Seahorses Are Shaped Like Horses

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Seahorses are unique among fish for having bent necks and long-snouted heads that make them resemble horses. The overall shape of their body, including the lack of a tail fin, helps make them "one of the slowest swimmers on the planet," said Brad Gemmell, a marine biologist at the University of Texas at Austin. "They don't swim very much -- they tend to anchor themselves to surfaces like seagrass with their prehensile tails." (Prehensile tails, like those of monkeys, can grasp items.)

Gemmell and his colleagues were investigating how seahorses and other fish feed on microscopic shrimplike crustaceans known as copepods. [In Photos: The Freakiest-Looking Fish]

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"Copepods are really important," Gemmell said. "They're fed on by a wide majority of marine animals during some point in their life histories -- in particular, a lot of commercially harvested fish."

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Since virtually all marine animals like to eat copepods, "these crustaceans have evolved some very impressive escape behavior," Gemmell said. "They're very, very sensitive to disturbances in the water, such as those created by approaching predators."

Once copepods detect these disturbances, they can swim distances of more than 500 times their body length per second. In comparison, "a cheetah probably only runs 30 body lengths per second," Gemmell said. If the average U.S. adult male traveled 500 body lengths per second, based on their height, they would move nearly 2,000 mph (3,200 km/h).

Unexpectedly, even though seahorses are slow swimmers, "they were very effective at capturing these very fast-swimming, highly evasive prey," Gemmell told LiveScience.

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