The prehensile(tale) of the seahorse

Check out the talented tail of these seahorses!

Did you know seahorses have a prehensile tail?! Wonder what that means? Let’s dive in!

A prehensile tail is a unique animal tail that’s adapted to grasp or hold objects — it almost acts like an extra “limb.” Monkeys, opossums, and even anteaters have a prehensile tail. Among fishes however, a prehensile tail is quite unique — pipefish are the only other marine species that have one! 

For a seahorse, their prehensile tail helps them anchor themselves to their surroundings — this especially comes in handy in the presence of a strong ocean current! They’ll wrap their tail around sea grass, coral, mangroves, and even sponges. This grip helps them to remain immobile and camouflage into their surroundings.

Unlike the tails of most other animals, seahorse tails are more square-like than cylinder-like. This is because the square shape has a larger contact area, which enables sea horses to have a stronger grip on the items they cling to. Speaking of strength, their tail is uniquely strong — seahorses are covered all over with stiff, bony plates that are fused together to create an external armor. It’s even able to withstand the force of a bite from a few of their predators! 

Seahorses use their prehensile tails throughout their life. Immediately after birth, babies often sink to the ocean floor and use their tails to latch on to the closest non-moving object. Other babies pair up, curling their tails together so that they can drift through the water column in search of food. Once seahorses mature, males and females use their tails to hold onto each other while mating. Their tails are also used as defense against predators. If threatened, a seahorse will tuck its head into its body and tighten its tail around an anchor. 

Seahorses may not be the only ones to benefit from their unique tails. Robotics engineers are currently looking at seahorse tails for inspiration to help them design flexible yet strong grasping devices.

Want to see these prehensile tails in action?! Be sure to stop by Seadragons & Seahorses on your next visit to the aquarium!