I enjoy beachcombing for many reasons but walking in sand isn't one of them. So I hired an out-of-work circus monkey named Frank to help me. He's super cute in his clown suit, doing tricks on his tiny dirt bike, and he'll do anything for some banana. I couldn't understand why the circus would fire him.
Frank and I went to the beach where my job was to relax and fly a drone looking for washed up stuff on the video screen. Frank's job was to retrieve the stuff. Soon I spotted a dead bay pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhynchus). I showed Frank and he zoomed off, riding a wheelie the whole way. Meanwhile, I considered the interesting pipefish facts I could tell Frank on his return.
For example, bay pipefish are in the same family as seahorses. Both have tubular snouts and armored plates covering their bodies, and the males give birth. Male bay pipefish carry a clutch of eggs — sometimes originating from multiple females — in a belly pouch until the little ones hatch and force their way out through the pouch's protective membrane. Newborn bay pipefish look like teeny-tiny adults but at the end of their one- to two-year lifespan, they can reach a pencil-thin 15 inches. That's as tall as Frank!
Another thing pipefish and seahorses have in common is their prey capture method. They feed on small animals like crustaceans and fish larvae, moving slow and stealthy until the last possible moment. Then they jerk their heads up in a flash as the little toothless mouth at the end of their snout opens with a powerful suction behind it. It happens so fast that you'd need super slow-motion video to see it nab prey.
Him being a monkey, I thought Frank should learn about evolution. The eternal question is whether a pipefish is a straightened seahorse or a seahorse is a bent pipefish. The eternal answer is that pipefish fossils go back at least 50 million years, while the oldest known seahorses appeared about 25 million years ago. It's complicated but seahorses are bent pipefish, damn it.
Bay pipefish are common in Humboldt Bay eelgrass beds, where they blend right in. Many of them wash out, perhaps already dead, with floating mats of broken eelgrass fronds during big outgoing tides. At these times, pipefish commonly wash up on nearby beaches. My wife and her friend once found 15 of them in one afternoon.
I've seen aquatic birds catch pipefish in the Mad River estuary. Bay pipefish have a high tolerance for water conditions including wide salinity and temperature ranges, which probably helps explain how they can live in the highly variable conditions of that estuary.
I once had the fortune to spend an hour in the lab with a bay pipefish. It was very interactive and seemingly curious. It followed me back and forth in its tank. I like to believe we became friends — just like I believed Frank and I would.
Frank returned, skidding up in a rooster tail of sand. I pointed at the pipefish in his hand. Frank pointed at the banana in my pocket. I was happy to see him but I said I wanted the pipefish first. Frank said, "EEEEE, EEEEE!" before attacking faster than a pipefish feeding strike. He bit my thumb unnecessarily hard and stole the banana. Then he escaped on his moto.
So be on the lookout. If you see a biker monkey wearing a clown suit and clutching a pipefish, it could be Frank. Back away slowly and hide your bananas.
Biologist Mike Kelly (he/him) writes science-based satire as M. Sid Kelly. It's available at Eureka Books and for Kindle.