Morphological Variation in the Seahorse Vertebral System
The vertebral system in Hippocampus hippocampus is highly specialised because of the vertical locomotion and tail prehensility. The vertebral elements represent a special case of morphological changes, being the metameric structures organised along a natural functional series. We investigated the shape changes along the vertebral spine in H. hippocampus through geometric morphometrics, in order to describe functional and structural patterns. Actually, the dorso-ventral tail bending ability in the genus Hippocampus is one of the most impressive morphological modifications in the evolutionary history of fishes. Vertebrae were analysed using a 2D configuration from the left lateral view. The variation along the vertebral series suggests the identification of cervical, abdominal, dorsal, and caudal groups. The first three (cervical) elements and the lOth (supra-dorsal) structure show peculiar morphologies and local adaptations, associated with neck angulation and dorsal fin muscles, respectively. The vertebral size decreases from the anteriormost element backward, with some local variation at the dorsal area. Major changes are related to allometric variation at the neural región. The caudal elements are characterised by a marked size decrease, with consequent allometric shape changes involving the rotation of the posterior vertebral opening. This allometric trajectory leads to a natural ventral bending of the tail, promoting its prehensile function. This morphological survey suggests an interesting structural network between posture, locomotion, and vertebral anatomy, underlying the main functional changes in the Hippocampus biomechanics. Geometric morphometrics is rather suitable to approach metameric studies in terms of serial variation and functional adaptations.