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SEAHORSES ARE JUST
TOO POPULAR
FOR THEIR OWN GOOD

Pot-Bellied SeahorseThose 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 season.

"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 last January.

"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 legal.

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.

Links

 

Story first posted May 2004

Copyright 2004

Eric Shackle

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