We know him as a loving father and for his funny physical conformation. But the grotesque aspect of the seahorse (gen. Hippocampus) is actually an evolutionary adaptation that makes this animal a ruthless hunter: it is what a study just published in Nature Communications claims.
At lunchtime the hippocampi are forced to contend with real champions of speed: tiny crustaceans of 1-2 millimeters in length called copepods, very skilled in picking up every single disturbance of the water.
As soon as they feel movement around them, these creatures escape by grinding, every second, a distance equal to 500 times their length, as if a human being of 1.8 meters swam to 3218 kilometers per hour. And yet, under normal conditions, seahorses catch them 9 times out of 10.
To understand how some researchers from the University of Austin, Texas, have filmed the movements of a species of dwarf horse, the Hippocampus zosterae, with 3D holographic shots, a technique that uses a microscope equipped with a laser and high-speed camera.
From the analysis of the videos it emerged that the particular shape of the hippocampus snout minimizes the hydrodynamic disturbance (ie the movement of water around the proboscis) and to reach up to a millimeter away from the prey: at that point, the flexible head allows to orient the mouth according to the best angle and to suck, like a marine vacuum cleaner, the poor copepods.
See the details of the shooting (the text continues below the gif)
"For their victims, seahorses are more than anything else marine monsters, " say the scientists, who classify the method of hunting seahorses as "pivot" feeding, a type of fishing at short distance that also requires a certain speed of movement. Other fish with a less tapered head, such as stickleback, do not have the same "ninja" abilities shown by sea horses.
"It's like an arms race between prey and predator, " continues Brad Gemmell, head of the study "and the horse has developed a good method to get close enough to hit from a very short distance."
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