Hippocampus abdominalis 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Actinopterygii Syngnathiformes Syngnathidae

Scientific Name: Hippocampus abdominalis Lesson, 1827
Common Name(s):
English Pot-bellied Seahorse, Big-belly Seahorse
Hippocampus agnesae Fowler, 1907
Hippocampus bleekeri Fowler, 1907
Hippocampus graciliformis McCulloch, 1911
Taxonomic Source(s): Armstrong, P. 2001. Genetic and morphological variation in pot-bellied seahorses (Hippocampus abdominalis): is there evidence for two species? B.Sc. (Hons.) Thesis, School of Aquaculture, University of Tasmania.
Taxonomic Notes: Hippocampus abdominalis was first described from New Zealand and there is a question as to whether specimens from Australia represent the same species. Studies that have addressed this question do not support the existence of multiple species based on morphological, meristic, and genetic data (357 bp, cyt b) and show more variation within populations than among populations (Armstrong 2001, Lourie et al. 2016). There is some genetic divergence between Australian and New Zealand populations (814bp cytb, 624bp CO1, 404bp CR, plus four microsatellite loci), however, the level of divergence is low (1.4–1.7%, Nickel and Cursons 2012). Divergence within New Zealand is 0.7–2.2% without any clear geographical structure (Nickel 2009; Nickel and Cursons 2012). The name H. abdominalis takes precedence with H. agnesae and H. bleekeri being treated as synonyms. Hippocampus graciliformis is a juvenile specimen of H. abdominalis and therefore is also synonymized.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Least Concern ver 3.1
Year Published: 2017
Date Assessed: 2016-08-19
Assessor(s): Pollom, R.
Reviewer(s): Ralph, G.
Hippocampus abdominalis is a coastal seahorse that inhabits intertidal pools, macroalgae, rocky outcrops, and artificial structures. The species may be threatened locally by coastal development. They are caught as bycatch at low levels. The species is a habitat generalist, is protected by various state and federal measures throughout its range, is subject to CITES Appendix II, and occurs in several protected areas. Therefore H. abdominalis is listed as Least Concern.
Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:Hippocampus abdominalis occurs in the marine waters of south-eastern Australia and all around New Zealand (Kuiter 2001, Nickel and Cursons 2012). In Australia the species occurs from the Great Australian Bight to Newcastle and throughout Tasmanian waters (Lourie et al. 2016).
Countries occurrence:
Australia (New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria); New Zealand
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Indian Ocean – eastern; Pacific – southwest
Additional data:
Continuing decline in area of occupancy (AOO):Unknown
Extreme fluctuations in area of occupancy (AOO):UnknownEstimated extent of occurrence (EOO) - km2:
Continuing decline in extent of occurrence (EOO):UnknownExtreme fluctuations in extent of occurrence (EOO):Unknown
Continuing decline in number of locations:Unknown
Extreme fluctuations in the number of locations:Unknown
Lower depth limit (metres):104
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:To date there have been few dedicated surveys or population estimates for Hippocampus abdominalis.  At most reported locations in Australia, H. abdominalis appears to be rare or scarce. Mean peak densities in the Derwent Estuary, Tasmania were 0.12–1.11 individuals per 100 m² in 2000–2002, but subsequently declined significantly. In Tasmanian macroalgal (Ecklonia) habitats, densities of fewer than one individual per 500 m² are generally recorded (K. Martin-Smith, pers. comm. 2006). Numbers from trawls in New Zealand suggest that on soft bottoms, the species may be widespread if scarce, but further documentation is needed.

Exceptions to sparse populations are aggregations on some artificial structures and one documented report of large numbers aggregated on rafting seagrass (J. Manna pers. comm. 2006).
Further research is needed in order to determine population size and trends in abundance for this species.
Current Population Trend:Unknown
Additional data:
Continuing decline of mature individuals:Unknown
Extreme fluctuations:UnknownPopulation severely fragmented:Unknown
Continuing decline in subpopulations:Unknown
Extreme fluctuations in subpopulations:UnknownAll individuals in one subpopulation:Unknown

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:Hippocampus abdominalis have been recorded from harbours, protected coastal bays and deep waters with sponges (Kuiter 1993, Kuiter 2001). Depth range varies considerably from the surface down to 104 m (Amaoka et al. 1990, Paulin and Roberts 1992, Francis 1998, Lourie et al. 1999, Stevenson and Beentjes 2001). Habitat varies from intertidal rock pools to, more commonly, amongst shallow macroalgal stands (e.g., Ecklonia, [Kuiter 2000]), submerged rocky outcrops, exposed open sea floor and artificial structures (Francis 1998, Woods 2003). In Tasmania, H. abdominalis are reported as common near the entrances of large estuaries on muddy bottoms, or near reef edges, feeding on small crustaceans (Last et al. 1983). They occur in water temperatures of 8-24°C, and have been shown to perish in captivity beyond 26°C (Martinez-Cardenas and Purser 2011). It is not definitively known whether they occupy home ranges or are free-ranging, although some evidence suggests certain populations may exhibit site fidelity (Van Dijken 2001). Unlike most seahorse species, H. abdominalis is a relatively strong swimmer and has been known to swim over hundreds of meters in the course of a day (Vincent 1990). Adults are also known to occur in open water and to raft on macroalgal rafts (Kingsford and Choat 1985) and seagrass (J. Manna pers. comm. 2006): this occurs at all times of the year in New Zealand (Kingsford and Choat 1985, Kingsford 1986). Artificial structures appear to be important habitats for H. abdominalis: in particular, jetties, nets and salmon cages. For example, hundreds of individuals have been observed on anti-predator nets surrounding salmon aquaculture pens in the Huon Estuary, Tasmania (Marshall 2004, K. Martin-Smith, pers. comm. 2006). Similarly, H. abdominalis have been observed in reasonably large numbers on the net of a swimming enclosure in Sydney Harbour since 2003 (K. Martin-Smith, pers. comm. 2006).

As with other members of the seahorse and pipefish family, this species is ovoviviparous and males incubate eggs in an abdominal pouch and eventually release live young (Foster and Vincent 2004). The pouch is developed at about six months of age, but first breeding occurs closer to 12 months (R. Kuiter, pers comm. in Pogonoski et al. 2002). Spawning occurs mainly from (the Austral) spring to summer, where Woods (2005) found brooding males present throughout the year, but with an apparently lower incidence of brooding in winter. Similarly, Poortenaar et al. (2004) examined the reproductive biology of female H. abdominalis, looking at ovarian morphology, reproductive condition and sex steroid levels. Using these indices, they found that females were capable of reproductive activity throughout the year, presenting the potential for a protracted spawning season (Poortenaar et al. 2004). The species is socially polygamous but genetically monogamous in that they display promiscuous courtship activities but become pregnant by one female only (Wilson and Martin-Smith 2007). They also exhibit mutual mate choice (Bahr et al. 2012). 

The number of juveniles (mean ± 1 SE) released per brood in a New Zealand population was 271.2 ± 27 (Woods 2005), whereas the maximum reported brood size for the species in aquaculture is 1,116 (R. Hawkins pers comm. in Lourie et al., 2004). Juveniles 16–19 mm in standard length, are released from the pouch after 24 days (Whittington et al. 2015). Larger males produce more juveniles (Woods 2005). Juvenile length and weight are not correlated with the number of juveniles per brood, parent male size or parent male pouch volume. The percentage of pouch contents that are non-viable (i.e., premature or non-viable eggs) upon juvenile release tends to be low (1.1 ± 0.2%; mean ± 1 SE of the total pouch contents) (Woods 2005). Following release from the parent male, juveniles are believed to be pelagic, at least for several weeks, Juveniles up to 8 cm in length have been collected in surface waters of the open ocean over the Chatham Rise in New Zealand (Woods, pers. obs.) and adult H. abdominalis have been captured near-shore associated with floating seaweed and debris (Kingsford and Choat 1985). The propensity for rafting presents a possible large-scale dispersal mechanism for this species.

The diet of wild adult H. abdominalis consists largely of crustaceans, in particular amphipods, caridean shrimp, and peracarids (Woods 2002).

Natural predators of H. abdominalis include fishes such as skates (Dipturus spp.), red cod (Pseudophycis bachus), trumpeter (Latris lineata), blue cod (Parapercis colias), ling (Genypterus blacodes), sea perch (Helicolenus percoides) (Graham 1974), and banded wrasse (Notolabrus fucicola) (Denny and Schiel 2001) in NZ. In Australia, H. abdominalis is taken by flathead (Platycephalus spp.), Australian salmon (Arripsis truttacea), striped anglerfish (Antennarius striatus) and birds such as cormorants (Phalacrocorax spp.) and fairy penguins (Eudyptula minor) (Kuiter 2000, K. Martin-Smith pers. comm. 2006).

This species is reported to be more active at dusk and at night than during the day in New Zealand (Paulin and Roberts 1992). In Australia, H. abdominalis has been observed aggregating in groups at night (K. Martin-Smith, pers. comm. 2006).
Continuing decline in area, extent and/or quality of habitat:No

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: This species is recorded in trade in low numbers (Martin-Smith and Vincent 2006, CITES 2016). They are used as curios, in traditional medicines, and the aquarium trade (Vincent et al. 2011).

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Hippocampus abdominalis is threatened by localized habitat loss and degradation due to coastal development and by being caught as bycatch in demersal trawl fisheries. Bycatch levels are thought to be low.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: Globally, all seahorses are listed on Appendix II of CITES.

In Australia all syngnathids have been subject to the export controls of the Commonwealth Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1982 since 1 January 1998 (Lourie et al. 2004). All syngnathids and solenostomids were gazetted as marine species under s248 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) Act 1999.
In New Zealand seahorses cannot be targeted by commercial fisheries, but can be sold to Licensed Fish Receivers as regulated quantities of bycatch.

This species occurs in several marine protected areas, including Jervis Bay Marine Park.

Classifications [top]

9. Marine Neritic -> 9.1. Marine Neritic - Pelagic
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.2. Marine Neritic - Subtidal Rock and Rocky Reefs
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.6. Marine Neritic - Subtidal Muddy
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.7. Marine Neritic - Macroalgal/Kelp
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.9. Marine Neritic - Seagrass (Submerged)
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.10. Marine Neritic - Estuaries
10. Marine Oceanic -> 10.1. Marine Oceanic - Epipelagic (0-200m)
12. Marine Intertidal -> 12.5. Marine Intertidal - Salt Marshes (Emergent Grasses)
12. Marine Intertidal -> 12.6. Marine Intertidal - Tidepools
15. Artificial/Aquatic & Marine -> 15.11. Artificial/Marine - Marine Anthropogenic Structures
15. Artificial/Aquatic & Marine -> 15.12. Artificial/Marine - Mariculture Cages

In-Place Research, Monitoring and Planning
  Action Recovery plan:No
  Systematic monitoring scheme:No
In-Place Land/Water Protection and Management
  Conservation sites identified:No
  Occur in at least one PA:Yes
  Area based regional management plan:Yes
  Invasive species control or prevention:Unknown
In-Place Species Management
  Harvest management plan:No
  Successfully reintroduced or introduced beningly:No
  Subject to ex-situ conservation:Unknown
In-Place Education
  Subject to recent education and awareness programmes:Yes
  Included in international legislation:Yes
  Subject to any international management/trade controls:Yes
1. Residential & commercial development -> 1.1. Housing & urban areas
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Unknown ♦ severity:Unknown ⇒ Impact score:Unknown 
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.1. Ecosystem conversion
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.2. Ecosystem degradation

1. Residential & commercial development -> 1.2. Commercial & industrial areas
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Unknown ♦ severity:Unknown ⇒ Impact score:Unknown 
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.1. Ecosystem conversion
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.2. Ecosystem degradation

1. Residential & commercial development -> 1.3. Tourism & recreation areas
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Unknown ♦ severity:Unknown ⇒ Impact score:Unknown 
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.1. Ecosystem conversion
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.2. Ecosystem degradation

5. Biological resource use -> 5.4. Fishing & harvesting aquatic resources -> 5.4.1. Intentional use: (subsistence/small scale) [harvest]
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Unknown ♦ severity:Unknown ⇒ Impact score:Unknown 
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

5. Biological resource use -> 5.4. Fishing & harvesting aquatic resources -> 5.4.3. Unintentional effects: (subsistence/small scale) [harvest]
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Unknown ♦ severity:Unknown ⇒ Impact score:Unknown 
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

5. Biological resource use -> 5.4. Fishing & harvesting aquatic resources -> 5.4.4. Unintentional effects: (large scale) [harvest]
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Unknown ♦ severity:Unknown ⇒ Impact score:Unknown 
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

1. Research -> 1.2. Population size, distribution & trends
1. Research -> 1.5. Threats
3. Monitoring -> 3.1. Population trends

Bibliography [top]

Amaoka, K., Matsuura, K., Inada, T., Takeda, M. and Okada, K. (eds.) 1990. Fishes collected by the R/V Shinkai Maru around New Zealand. Japan Marine Fishery Resource Research Centre.

Armstrong, P. 2001. Genetic and morphological variation in pot-bellied seahorses (Hippocampus abdominalis): is there evidence for two species? B.Sc. (Hons.) Thesis, School of Aquaculture, University of Tasmania.

Bahr, A., Sommer, S., Mattie, B., and Wilson, A. B. 2012. Mutual mate choice in the potbellied seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis). Behavioral Ecology 23(4): 869-878.

CITES. 2016. CITES Trade Data Base (Hippocampus abdominalis). Available at: (Accessed: 19-August-2015).

Denny, C.M. and Schiel, D.R. 2001. Feeding ecology of the banded wrasse Notolabrus fucicola (Labridae) in southern New Zealand: prey items, seasonal differences, and ontogenetic variation. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 35: 925–933.

Foster, S.J. and Vincent, A.C.J. 2004. Life history and ecology of seahorses: implications for conservation and management. Journal of Fish Biology 65: 1-61.

Francis, M.P. 1998. Coastal fishes of New Zealand: an identification guide. Reed Books, Auckland, New Zealand.

Gillanders, B. M., Tulloch, A. I. T., and Divecha, S. 2015. Regional Biodiversity Management Plan. Spencer Gulf Regional Sustainability Planning. Report prepared for the Upper Spencer Gulf Common Purpose Group. 57 pp.

Graham, D.H. 1974. A treasury of New Zealand fishes. A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, New Zealand.

IUCN. 2017. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. Available at: (Accessed: 7 December 2017).

Kingsford, M.J. 1986. Distribution patterns of fish during the planktonic period of their life history. PhD thesis. University of Auckland, Department of Zoology.

Kingsford, M.J. and Choat, J.H. 1985. The fauna associated with drift algae captured with a plankton-mesh purse seine net. Limnology and Oceanography 30(3): 618–630

Kuiter, R.H. 1993. Coastal fishes of south-eastern Australia. Crawford House Press Pty Ltd., Australia.

Kuiter, R.H. 2000a. Seahorses, Pipefishes and their Relatives. A Comprehensive Guide to Syngnathiformes. TMC Publishing, Chorleywood, UK.

Kuiter, R.H. 2001. Revision of the Australian seahorses of the genus Hippocampus (Syngnathiformes: Syngnathidae) with descriptions of nine new species. Records of the Australian Museum 53: 293-340.

Last, P.R., Scott, E.O.G. and Talbot, F.H. 1983. Fishes of Tasmania. Tasmania Fisheries Development Authority, Hobart.

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Lourie, S.A., Pollom, R.A. and Foster, S.J. 2016. A global revision of the seahorses Hippocampus Rafinesque 1810 (Actinopterygii: Syngnathiformes): Taxonomy and biogeography with recommendations for future research. Zootaxa 4146(1): 1-66.

Lourie, S.A., Vincent, A.C.J. and Hall, H.J. 1999. Seahorses: an identification guide to the world's species and their conservation. Project Seahorse, London, U.K.

Marshall, D. 2004. The interactions of the big-bellied seahorse with artificial structure. Unpublished B.Sc. (Hons) thesis, University of Tasmania, Australia

Martinez-Cardenas, L. and Purser, G. J. 2011. Effect of temperature on growth and survival in cultured early juvenile pot-bellied seahorses, Hippocampus abdominalis. Journal of the World Aquaculture Society 42(6): 854-862.

Martin-Smith, K.M. and Vincent, A.C.J. 2005. Seahorse declines in the Derwent estuary, Tasmania in the absence of fishing pressure. Biological Conservation 123: 533–545.

Martin-Smith, K.M. and Vincent, A.C.J. 2006. Exploitation and trade of Australian seahorses and their relatives (syngnathids). Oryx 40(2): 141-151.

Nickel, J. E. and Cursons, R. 2012. Genetic diversity and population structure of the pot-belly seahorse Hippocampus abdominalis in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 46(2): 207-218.

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Poortenaar, C.W., Woods, C.M.C., James, P., Giambartolomei, F.M. and Lokman, P.M. 2004. Reproductive biology of female big-bellied seahorses. Journal of Fish Biology 64: 1–9.

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Wilson, A. B. and Martin-Smith, K. M. 2007. Genetic monogamy despite social promiscuity in the pot-bellied seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis). Molecular Ecology 16(11): 2345-2352.

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Woods, C.M.C. 2003d. Effect of stocking density and gender segregation in rearing the seahorse Hippocampus abdominalis in culture (Teleostei: Syngnathidae). Aquaculture 218(1–4): 167–176.

Woods, C.M.C. 2005. Reproductive output of male seahorses, Hippocampus abdominalis, from Wellington Harbour, New Zealand: implications for conservation. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 39(4): 811–888.

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Citation: Pollom, R. 2017. Hippocampus abdominalis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T10057A54903879. . Downloaded on 16 December 2017.
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