SEAHORSES ARE JUST
FOR THEIR OWN GOOD
Those quaint creatures, seahorses, thrive in temperate and tropical waters
around the world, are popular exhibits in aquariums in many countries, dried and
used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, and eaten as a seafood
delicacy in Asia.
I recall that as a small boy aeons ago I was intrigued to
discover a tiny seahorse swimming (prancing?) in a rock pool in Sydney Harbour.
A few weeks ago, I found a sun-dried seahorse washed up on the beach near my
home 50 miles north of the city. Since seahorses are thought to live only one to
five years, depending on the species, it probably wasn't the same one.
When I returned home, I searched the internet to learn more about these queer
fish, and discovered enough bizarre facts.to form the basis of this story.
"Seahorses are more than mythical creatures depicted in paintings; they're
real," Shelby Roby-Terry wrote recently in the Indianapolis Star.
"They're also real fish. But you'll have to get past their horse-like heads,
monkey-like tails and kangaroo-like pouches (each of which has a purpose) to see
the fins and gills. They are so much in demand that they are fast heading
towards being listed as an endangered species."
The Indianapolis Zoo's latest exhibit features 300 long-snout, pot-belly,
dwarf, lined, Mediterranean and Knysna seahorses, plus a few sea dragons and
pipefish. Visitors are told that:
- Male seahorses -- not females -- give birth to babies.
- Seahorses swallow their food whole, because they don't have teeth.
- They can match their colour to the places they live, protecting them
from potential predators.
Seahorses may also change colour temporarily during courtship, says the
World Wildlife Organisation's website, adding: "Couples have a daily greeting
dance that occurs just after dawn. The dance can last up to 10 minutes, after
which the couple separates for the rest of the day. Most species of seahorses
are monogamous, forming pair bonds that last at least the entire breeding
"The male seahorse gives 'birth' to baby seahorses. The female seahorse
deposits eggs into a brood pouch on the male, where they are fertilized. In the
male's brood, the seahorse eggs hatch and develop into baby seahorses. After
almost two weeks of being 'pregnant,' the male 'gives birth' to the baby
seahorses, with labor taking up to three hours."
One of the most popular exhibits at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium ("the world's
aquarium") was Seahorse Symphony, which ended a five and a half year run
"We don't know the number of seahorses living in the wild, but we do know
that their numbers are declining," says the Shedd's very interesting website.
"According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and
Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species, most species are ranked
as 'vulnerable,' meaning that they soon may become endangered."
Many seahorses are listed as threatened according to international or
national criteria. Seahorse trade is now largely unregulated, but all 32 species
were recently provided protections under CITES (Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species). From this month (May 2004), trade will be
controlled through a system of permits to ensure that it is sustainable and
In 2002, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species
listed one species of seahorse as Endangered, 20 species as Vulnerable
and the remaining 11 species as Data Deficient.
"Last year, 47,700 live seahorses worth about $40,000 were imported for
aquaria trade," Asha Popatlal reported last month on Channel NewsAsia. "TCM
[Traditional Chinese Medicine] practitioners import some two tonnes of dried
seahorses annually, worth about $170,000. They are used as an ingredient in
products to cure ailments such as asthma, swelling and impotence."
In Melbourne, the Herald-Sun said that Port Phillip's pot-bellied
seahorse was at risk from poachers cashing in on soaring demand from China,
where the creatures were used as sex stimulants.
"There are fears that poachers linked to Hong Kong's 'seahorse mafia' have
moved into Australia, as traditional sources in Asian waters are fished out,"
the newspaper reported.
"The global seahorse trade is worth an estimated $100 million, with more than
25 million exported to China each year. Parts of the seahorse are the key
ingredient in a Chinese aphrodisiac and can sell for up to $1000 per kg.
Australia's 13 species are protected under federal and state laws, so their
numbers remain strong."
While researching this story, we found a useful
line of trivia at the bottom of the World Wildlife Fund's informative
webpage on seahorses. It has nothing to do with those delightful creatures,
but we can't think of a better tagline:
An elephant could stand on the tongue of a blue whale.