I hope you are all happy and salty.
This month I’d like to focus on a particular type of animal; the seahorse! Seahorses are an animal which I am currently putting effort into understanding, as I am expanding on topics which I can lecture on at the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program. In the past my understanding of their ecology and biology has been rather limited. I mean, I know they are cute and charismatic animals but in the past few weeks, I have begun to understand just how cool these creatures really are!
So, this month I would love to introduce you to the wonderful world of the ‘horses’ of the sea!
They are from the genus Hippocampus, and even though they look quite different; seahorses ARE actually fish! They don’t have scales and instead have a hard exoskeleton (external skeleton, like a beetle), often with many ‘spikey’ points running along their back and body. They started evolving about 53 million years ago from a similar animal called pipefish (much like seahorses but stretched out and have a different feeding strategy). They are ambush predators which feed on small crustaceans. It is funny actually, how seahorses are amongst some of the quickest ambush predators on the planet, even though some species are such slow-moving animals, and will only travel at about 1.5 meters per hour! Their ambush strategy is possible due to their body shape, and I highly recommend a watch on YouTube, it’s awesome!
First thing I would like to note is their reproductive strategy. It is completely opposite to ours in the way that the males have to make the energy investments to reproduce; wouldn’t it be the best if we could pass on pregnancy to the men! The females still produce eggs, and the males’ sperm; just like us, however the female will place her eggs into his ‘brood pouch’, where he will carry them and invest energy into for about 30-40 days, before giving birth to up to 2,000 young! Since they are r-selection species in their reproductive strategy (this groups animal which birth many young and don’t provide care to juveniles), dad doesn’t help out his babies; and simply wishes them well once they are born.
Male seahorses have been known to give birth and be pregnant again by the end of the day. Talk about baby-making machines! In addition to all this unusual reproductive activity, the courtship displays of seahorses (the activity in which one animal persuades the other into mating) can take up to days of a special ‘dancing’ routine where the seahorses will get the ‘feel’ of each other and can hopefully transfer the female eggs into the male’s pouch. All this is initiated by the females; the ball is entirely in the girl’s courts in the seahorse world!
So Seahorses are pretty interesting creatures, but why are they actually important?
Well, there’s a few reasons! They play a role in the food chain; they prey on bottom-dwelling organisms such as small invertebrates, they also are prey themselves, being eaten by larger fish species. Removing any part of an ecosystem has the potential to disrupt these communities. The biggie here however, has got more to do with the way in which we feel about these animals, they are charismatic and very aesthetically pleasing and so, people generally like and care about them.
This means that they are able to be used as a flagship species; which is a type of animal that acts as an ambassador for the habitats in which they live, such as seagrasses, mangroves, reefs, seaweeds and muck habitats. Since people are generally more inclined to help support charismatic and relatable animals, the protection of them (in this case, seahorses) can unintentionally mean supporting and protecting every other animal that shares habitats with them. It’s a win-win!
Seahorses, like most animals in the ocean are being threatened. We can do a few things to help.
– Join monitoring programs and become citizen scientists! Understanding more about their population dynamics, habitat and life cycles can help with their conservation.
– Donate money or your time to conservation projects which are working to protect these animals habitats, such as iSeahorse; a program set up to help citizen scientists have their data utilized for conservation purposes.
– Avoid Seafood, especially shrimp/prawns. Over 2/3rd of the worlds prawns come from trawler nets; an incredibly destructive means of fishing which has a terrible ratio of by-catch. For each kilo of shrimp caught, about 10 kilos of other marine animals are caught too, which are usually thrown overboard dead or dying and wasted. Some of the worst ratios recorded have been in Australia, with a ratio of nearly 1:20 (prawn/shrimp: other marine life)
Around Melbourne, where I am from- there are abundances of seahorses and sea dragons- and they frequent along the whole southern coast of Australia. I hope you guys will go out and find some!
In the meantime, keep using those voices of yours for environmental awareness and do good by the environment. I’ll speak to you next month!
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