Small, enigmatic and locally grown. While the Worm pipefish isn’t a species you’ll be taking home, it’s a treat to find one in the flesh at your nearest seaside.
This fellow might not be one for your tank at home, but it’s a real treat when you spot a Worm pipefish at the seaside.
IT CAN be easy to dismiss the sea surrounding the UK as murky, with few obvious signs of life, but reduced visibility doesn’t automatically constitute a lack of biodiversity. The waters around our coastline boast an abundance of native marine life, with a host of creatures usually associated with tropical reef habitats calling our shores home.
A forage along the intertidal zone reveals a host of critters perfectly adapted to live in this fluctuating and demanding environment. While shannies, gobies and the odd scorpionfish flit between hiding spots, look a little harder among the stones and seaweed and you might be rewarded with a real rockpooling oddity – the Worm pipefish, Nerophis lumbriciformis.
Bearing a striking resemblance to their seahorse and sea dragon cousins, they all hail from the family Syngnathidae, meaning fused jaws. Unlike other native pipefish species, Worm pipefish are characterised by their stubby snout complete with an upturned mouth. This oral orientation restricts the size of their prey, with harpacticoid and cyclopoid copepods being their dish of the day. When your prey hangs around the substrate and seaweed edges of rockpools, chances are that’s where you’ll spend your time too. Keep an eye out for densely packed macrophytes and look among the
holdfasts – their brown, worm-like bodies blend in perfectly with the cylindrical algal branches. Possessing only a dorsal fin, they are relatively poor swimmers, manoeuvring slowly and deliberately so to mimic the seaweed with which they’re associated. In the absence of an overhanging seaweed canopy, safety is sought under loose rockwork and boulders instead.
As with other Syngnathids, Worm pipefish switch up the gender roles when it comes to courtship and brooding their young.
Engaging in a lek mating system – whereby multiple individuals gather together to pick a mate – the larger, more ornate females take up a prominent position in the group as they compete to woo the congregating males. Once a male is suitably impressed and the female transfers the eggs to him, her involvement in her offspring’s upbringing ends, and the male’s paternal instincts kick in.
After fertilisation, the male must find a safe haven for his eggs to develop. Rather than glue the eggs to the underside of a rock or shell like most rockpool regulars, the Worm pipefish carries them around in a specialised groove on the ventral surface. With his unborn brood in tow, he will spend the next month protecting them before releasing the free-swimming young to join the plankton in the water column.
Water temperature is key to the pipefish breeding season, with pregnant males most likely to be seen between June and August.
While we love our hobby, sometimes it can be refreshing to put down the syphon and test kits once in a while, and engage with the nature on our own doorstep.
MAIN IMAGE: A homeland curiosity to look out forINSET: Find me if you can – steady movement and camouflage make it tricky to spot.