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Papa pipefish protects and purloins young

Does father know best? Pipefish embryos may choose to remain mum on the subject lest they mysteriously disappear. But before passing judgment on this piscine’s parenting skills, here’s a short introduction to the critter in question.

A cousin of the seahorse, the pipefish may lack a curvaceous aesthetic but shares other physical attributes and behaviors. Various habitats within the La Jolla Ecological Reserve are home to two common species of pipefish, the moniker a reflection of the fish’s cylindrical contour. The bay pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhynchus) is wiry and delicate and about as long as a No. 2 pencil but half its circumference; the kelp pipefish (Syngnathus californiensis), a brawnier version, is easily twice a pencil’s circumference and may be a couple of feet long. Otherwise, both species appear cut from the same cloth, such as by employing the same deceits — a cryptic silhouette and varying coloration — to foil predators and divers. It takes patience, luck and a keen eye to separate background foliage from the bladelike animal variously hued brown, yellow or green, formatted as a solid or pattern, and maybe accented with black or white. In terms of structure, a pipefish forgoes scales for jointed, bonelike rings that encircle the body down to the tail, which is tiny and fan shaped. Like Jack Sprat, it seems the nearly skeletal and toothless pipefish can eat no fat. Though unable to chew or tear prey, it instead uses its tubular mouth like a vacuum. By positioning its snout within intimate distance of tiny crustacean prey, a pipefish Hoovers up a meal.

When it comes to reproducing, female pipefish court the males. If they find chemistry together, she deposits a clutch of 100 to 200 eggs in a brood pouch on the male’s underside. A protective tissue then forms over the pouch opening to seal in the eggs. During the couple of weeks or so until hatching, the male supplies aeration and nutrients to the developing embryos not unlike that of a female placenta. But here’s where the daddy dearest part enters the equation. Recent research shows that while fathers are caretakers to most of their young, they are cannibals to some of the brood. Don’t tell mom. In other words, pops simultaneously provides for his young and siphons off some for his own needs. True, there are benefits to making sure he’s hale but don’t expect a high-five from most females. For instance, a female octopus makes the ultimate sacrifice, starving to death, while watching over her entire brood until hatching. No snacking there.

Taking the long view from a human perspective, pipefish are aware before they hatch that there are no safe havens in this world. However, there is an upside. Once you dodge the bullet of becoming victim to your own dad’s hunger pangs, the rest of life has to be cake.


— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to