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Seahorse or Seadragon: What’s the Difference?

While seadragons sound like creatures of folklore, these colorful cousins of seahorses are very real and incredibly unique. These fishes in the same family have a lot in common, but a few distinct characteristics set them apart.

Here are some similarities and differences between these out-of-this-world animals!

A Barbour's seahorse, with its tail curled round some plants, anchors its long, ribbed body along the bottom of its habitat.

A Barbour's seahorse in Shedd's Oceans gallery.

Appearance

The scientific name for seahorses, Hippocampus, comes from the Greek words meaning "horse" and "sea monster." Both seahorses and seadragons have a head and neck that look like a horse, and long tube-like snouts to catch minuscule prey like plankton, small shrimp or crustaceans. Their bodies are also covered in segmented bony armor for protection against predators.

One of the most notable differences between seahorses and seadragons is that seadragons have small leaf-like appendages on their bodies that provide camouflage among lush kelp forests and seaweed. Seadragons are often more colorful than seahorses with bright yellows, purples, blues and reds on their body and appendages.

A yellow sea horse in oceans gallery, its long snout and curved neck distinctive.

Both seahorses and seadragons have a horse-like head and neck and long tube-like snouts.

Leafy seadragons have many long and short spines covered in "leaves" along their entire bodies to help them blend in with aquatic plants.

Seadragons have small leaf-like appendages on their bodies.

Tails and swimming

Both seadragons and seahorses are poor swimmers. Seadragons do not use their appendages for swimming and instead use tiny fins to slowly propel, steer and turn, but they mostly drift in the water’s current. This makes them look like floating seaweed to predators.

Seahorses use dorsal fins on their back for propulsion. They also take advantage of their curled prehensile tails to stop. A prehensile tail is used almost like a human hand for gripping. Seahorses will move short distances and grip onto seagrass and coral with their tails to anchor themselves.

A Tiger Tail Seahorse wraps its tail around a branch.

Seahorses can their curled prehensile tails like a human hand for gripping.

A pair of weedy seadragons swim together at Shedd Aquarium.

Seadragons drift in the water’s current, appearing like floating seaweed to predators.

Habitat

All three species of seadragons live among kelp in rocky reefs in the coastal, temperate waters of Australia. There are about 50 species of seahorses found across the world, mostly in tropical temperatures.

A juvenile Barbour's seahorse, less than an inch long, swims alongside its much larger parent.

Male seahorses and seadragons take the lead in carrying their young.

Reproduction

Male seahorses take the lead in carrying their young, as do seadragons. But male seahorses carry their young in pouches while male seadragons carry their eggs externally on the underside of their tails.