Save the seahorses, save the world!
April 5, 2009 2:09 PM   Subscribe

They're sold embedded in plastic as paperweights, dried as curios and used as decorations for tourist trinkets. But the seahorse, so little researched that we don't even fully understand its taxonomy and only found out how it reproduces in 2007, is threatened, and so are its habitats. No one's really sure how many are left (they're still being found in new and unusual places like the Thames, and new species are frequently discovered), but marine biologists are sure there's far fewer than there used to be. (It's not all depressing - there's cute video and bizarre mating rituals and birth processes, as well as lots of information inside.)

Environmentalists from Britain to Canada to Hawaii to Singapore are working to protect the threatened seahorse, but seahorses by the thousands are still being smuggled in to the US to be used as aphrodisiacs, aquarium additions or room decor, and are now rarely seen in the wild. American University has a sobering overview of the seahorse trade; over the years, the takes of seahorses are getting smaller, as are the seahorses that are taken. It's no wonder they're now so rarely seen in the wild.

And that's a shame, because they are seriously funky, weird and fascinating creatures. Their mating dances are beautiful and romantic (a href="video); they actually twine their tails together during the courting process. Their sexual roles are reversed by human standards; the female seahorse (cover your eyes, kids!) inserts an ovipositor into the male's brood pouch during the sex act, and if all goes well this impregnates the male. Male seahorses give birth, sometimes with a flurry of fry, other times looking like something out of Alien. Most female seahorses aren't the love 'em and leave 'em type, though; even in non-reproductive seasons, seahorse couples meet up in "their spot" daily to perform little romantic courtship rituals.

Scientific organizations are working hard to close the knowledge gap. The Seahorse Sleuth program sponsored by the University of Auckland, University of Papau New Guinea, McGill University, and the South Australian Museum endeavors to identify seahorses (including previously unknown species) using their DNA.

Several organizations are working to make the public aware of the issues surrounding seahorses. Dr. Amanda Vincent, the world's leading expert in the creatures, founded Project Seahorse to save them. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is opening a huge exhibit about the seahorses, featuring seahorses and related species such as pipehorses and leafy sea dragons (video here and here). By saving seahorses, we can also save the most threatened bits of our oceans. To transmute a phrase from Heroes, "Save the seahorses, save the world!"
posted by rednikki (30 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent post.

I love seahorses.
posted by Elmore at 2:27 PM on April 5, 2009

Not to worry: if it can be forever lost and/or ruined, humans beings will always find a way.
posted by belvidere at 2:34 PM on April 5, 2009

I love seahorses.
And unicorns.
posted by iviken at 2:35 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wonderful post, great links, I just can't get past this, though:

It's no wonder they're now so rarely seen in the wild.

It would have escaped my attention had the prior sentence been "Now, seahorses are named as such because they live in an aqueous habitat, unlike humans."
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 2:42 PM on April 5, 2009

Here in lower Manhattan, a river preservation group set up a booth with aquariums. They had a few kayaks out on the Hudson River, pulling in animals and displaying them as "look what we just pulled out." They had a seahorse in there.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:53 PM on April 5, 2009

I was confused when the post said that male seahorses carried the pregnancy. I wasn't sure why that side was called male then, but a quick wikipedia read informed me that the female actually deposits an egg into the male who then fertilizes it internally.

So the egg producer is the female, but in seahorses the egg is moved into the male before it is impregnated.

Knowledge is power!
posted by HappyEngineer at 2:56 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks, HappyEngineer, I probably should have pointed that out in the post!
posted by rednikki at 3:11 PM on April 5, 2009

I love sea horses, and I love lookin' at 'em.
And I love sea shells. I love sea shell things.
I love things with sea shells and sea horses on 'em.
Like blankets, and towels, and little bags...
I love 'em!
Sea horses, forever!

posted by lisawin at 3:17 PM on April 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

I used to keep a salt-water aquarium in high school and had two sea horses in it that I pulled from the St. John's River. They were pretty common then, especially in mangroves, and neat as hell to keep. Difficult, but neat. I ended up releasing them after a few months.
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:26 PM on April 5, 2009

The Monterey Bay Aquarium exhibit is pretty cool, by the way. I got to check out the member preview yesterday. As cool and funky as sea horses are on video, somehow they're even more amazing in person (I was surprised).
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 5:31 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

So how do we convince people who ingest seahorses for 'their kidneys' and for 'potency' that phosphate binders, antihypertensives, and Viagra work better than seahorses?

/seahorses are indeed cute, but that's not the only reason we should stop overharvesting and try to preserve their habitat
posted by porpoise at 5:40 PM on April 5, 2009

Forget convincing 'em. Just start making seahorse-shaped Viagra lozenges.... er, make that "prescription strength genuine seahorses."
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:45 PM on April 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Whoa, that "flurry of fry" video was incredible!

If only we could have listened in on all the little "WeeeeeeeeEEE!"s that were going on!
posted by orme at 5:52 PM on April 5, 2009

I know I said "WeeeeeeeeEEE!" when I saw all those little tiny seahorses.

I love seahorses. I am a sucker for beasts with snoots and curly tails.
posted by louche mustachio at 6:22 PM on April 5, 2009

I watched a documentary on the seahorse trade a couple of years ago that made me physically ill. There were hundreds of seahorses, dried, lying in heaps while this greasy old dude talked to the documentary crew about the 'mystical qualities' of the seahorses. I wanted to punch him.

Seahorses are amazing. And I love sea dragons, too. This site has more videos of them, along with many other awesome photos of the critters of the seas, including my most favorite sea critters of all, the nudibranchs.

Great post!
posted by winna at 7:27 PM on April 5, 2009

Hooray for sea horses! I have one tattooed on my tummy.
posted by serazin at 8:09 PM on April 5, 2009

Instead of demanding trade in seahorses be stopped, Project Seahorse has taken the bold stance of encouraging sustainable harvest and aquaculturing[pdf] of seahorses. Its so easy to scream why its wrong to keep overfishing them, but if they did, it would fall on deaf ears. And lets face it, the only reason people care about seahorses is because they're cute and look like little ponies. The bangai cardinal is at must greater risk and yet attention has only recently been seriously looked at for protection. In the end, they're all just fish.

One thing to note, the link for Hawaii goes to a group that owned by a commercial organization, Ocean Rider. I'm not sure how legit they care when compared to the other seahorse conservation organizations listed here. But they are known for bad business practices (BBB gives them an F), trademarks their names, and then sells them at exorbitant prices, and claim you can not legally sell or trade the offspring. Among a laundry list of other shady business. Lumping them in with real research/conservation efforts is a horrible disservice what real conservation groups are trying to get done.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 8:59 PM on April 5, 2009

Great post!
posted by humannaire at 9:23 PM on April 5, 2009

What is this, Sea Horse Captain?
What sisis sea horse sea shell party?
Who didn't invite me!
Why didn't I get invited, sea horse sea hell?
What is this
Get real!
posted by apostrophe at 9:49 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am proud to have kept and bred a few species of freshwater fish that are extinct in the wild. I have small breeding colony of a fish originally from my mothers hometown in Mexico, which I got through a German breeder. It is hard, but is is nothing compared to breeding seahorses.

A biologist I know managed to breed 2 species of seahorses in Mazatlan, as a hobby, after 6 years and thousands of dollars in equipment. In 2006 he tried to sell his captive breed seahorses to a specialty aquarium and as a result he was investigated by the Mexican environmental agency. According to them and their biologists, it is impossible to breed those seahorses in captivity. He was able to escape jail and big fines after giving the bureaucrats and their biologists a tour of his fish room, showing them his very detailed logs and videos and basically giving them a free seminar on seahorse breeding.

It is still illegal for hims to sell his seahorses, for it is still officially impossible to breed them, but he is now allowed to keep a "wild" colony at home. A wild colony that breeds in his tanks. I don't know if this makes his tanks officially a part of the Pacific Ocean, which would suck, because the government owns the land up to 10 meters from the high tide line of any natural body of water.

If anyone want to keep seahorses at home, I think a minimum of a few years of difficult saltwater aquarium experience, one or two published papers, ten thousand dollars and a 10 year commitment should be the minimum requirements. That is, until guys like my friend do to seahorse keeping what the reef people have done with nano reefs (you can keep happy stable tropical corals in a 5 gallon tank, with $300 worth of equipment, if you are crazy obsessive, which was completely impossible 15 years ago).
posted by dirty lies at 11:41 PM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Posts like this are the reason Metafilter makes the world a better place.

Thanks nikki.
posted by hifiparasol at 12:40 AM on April 6, 2009

Doing a Google image search on leafy sea dragons can keep you entertained all afternoon.
posted by hifiparasol at 1:05 AM on April 6, 2009

Seahorses are awesome. I actually work for Project Seahorse as a marine biologist over in the Philippines. Our research methods actually involve tickling them (not even kidding) to get them to release their holdfast so we can measure them. They are the only fish that I know of that wants to hold your hand. Like unicorns, they are damned hard to spot, though.
posted by eagle-bear at 2:28 AM on April 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Excellent post. I saw one while snorkeling in Hawaii last year, and I now realize how lucky I was.
posted by Ella Fynoe at 3:57 AM on April 6, 2009

I find them somewhere between surreal and nightmarish myself, and discovering that they have no stomachs (can that be true?) hasn't helped.

Excellent post, though.
posted by Phanx at 5:50 AM on April 6, 2009

Dirty Lies, we might know the same guy. Unless there are two people in mazatlan breeding seahorses!

Keeping them isn't so hard, I'd be surprised to find out that the government really believed it was "impossible" to keep them, considering there is a growing niche market of people raising seahorses. Some public aquariums have a hard time finding other aquariums to take all the young. IIRC, there is a lot of corruption in that area of the government, and that was the biggest stumbling block.

Then again, I've seen many news articles from public aquariums saying they've been the "first" to do something that aquarists have been doing for years with seahorses. So maybe there isn't a lot of cross talk between agencies, countries, etc . . .
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:36 AM on April 6, 2009

By keep, I mean breed.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:36 AM on April 6, 2009

[insert clever name here], thanks for the information about Ocean Rider. I thought I did all the requisite digging, but I should have dug a little further!
posted by rednikki at 7:55 AM on April 6, 2009

I was just at the aquarium last week and super sad to see the exhibit wouldn't be opening until today. Le sigh.
posted by sararah at 8:35 AM on April 6, 2009

Keeping them isn't so hard

Yeah, I'd like to add that when I kept mine, I was very much an amateur (under more experienced guidance). The hardest part was the 30 minutes a day of essential tank maintenance that it required. It was made easier by the fact that I was receiving a grade in my high school marine biology class based largely on the survival of my specimens (only two of us risked collecting and keeping sea horses), but even without the extrinsic motivation, I'm pretty sure a fair few interested and responsible adults could do pretty well with keeping them, especially if they already have salt-water tank experience. I think that experience might have been the academic highlight of high school now that I think about it.
posted by mrmojoflying at 9:53 AM on April 6, 2009

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