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.

Practical Fishkeeping (UK) - - CONTENTS - CHRIS SERGEANT Chris works in con­ser­va­tion re­seach and reg­u­larly writes for aquar­ium pub­li­ca­tions.

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.

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