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Morphological and behavioral limit of visual resolution in temperate (Hippocampus abdominalis) and tropical (Hippocampus taeniopterus) seahorses

  • HIE RIN LEE (a1) (a2) and KEELY M. BUMSTED O’BRIEN (a1) (a2)


Seahorses are visually guided feeders that prey upon small fast-moving crustaceans. Seahorse habitats range from clear tropical to turbid temperate waters. How are seahorse retinae specialized to mediate vision in these diverse environments? Most species of seahorse have a specialization in their retina associated with acute vision, the fovea. The purpose of this study was to characterize the fovea of temperate Hippocampus abdominalis and tropical H. taeniopterus seahorses and to investigate their theoretical and behavioral limits of visual resolution. Their foveae were identified and photoreceptor (PR) and ganglion cell (GC) densities determined throughout the retina and topographically mapped. The theoretical limit of visual resolution was calculated using formulas taking into account lens radius and either cone PR or GC densities. Visual resolution was determined behaviorally using reactive distance. Both species possess a rod-free convexiclivate fovea. PR and GC densities were highest along the foveal slope, with a density decrease within the foveal center. Outside the fovea, there was a gradual density decrease towards the periphery. The theoretically calculated visual resolution on the foveal slope was poorer for H. abdominalis (5.25 min of arc) compared with H. taeniopterus (4.63 min of arc) based on PR density. Using GC density, H. abdominalis (9.81 min of arc) had a lower resolution compared with H. taeniopterus (9.04 min of arc). Behaviorally, H. abdominalis had a resolution limit of 1090.64 min of arc, while H. taeniopterus was much smaller, 692.86 min of arc. Although both species possess a fovea and the distribution of PR and GC is similar, H. taeniopterus has higher PR and GC densities on the foveal slope and better theoretical and behaviorally measured visual resolution compared to H. abdominalis. These data indicate that seahorses have a well-developed acute visual system, and tropical seahorses have higher visual resolution compared to temperate seahorses.


Corresponding author

*Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Dr Keely M. Bumsted O’Brien, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia. E-mail:


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