Since they have no stomach for storing food, they almost constantly eat copepods, shrimp, fish larvae and other small tidbits. They also dance in their own way. During courtship, the pair rise and fall head-on into the water, communicating through color changes and tangled tails. Such a tango can last for several days. Then the couple stays together all season. And another special feature: the male is fertilized by the female – an evolutionary whim that is found only in seahorses and their closest relatives. She lays her yolk-rich egg in her stomach sac through the body opening, which is known as the egg-laying apparatus. After a few weeks, the swollen male goes through labor spasms and, depending on the type and size, from a few dozen to several thousand youngsters emerge in the stream. They float in water for a while and then settle down; Only a few of them could escape from their natural enemies in these early days. When a seahorse has to move from place to place, it swims upright, its back fin frantically flapping at a speed of up to 70 beats per second, while its pectoral fins are used for orientation. To stay in place, corals snip off seaweed or other hard objects on the ocean floor with their flexible tail. There, the seahorse, with its excellent camouflage, is as good as the invisible.
Trade and fishing threaten seahorse numbers
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists all forms of hippocampus on its Red List of Threatened Species. Many lack data. “We know nothing about the vast majority of species other than their systematic classification and basic description,” says Amanda Vincent, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Vincent leads the Seahorse Project, a joint conservation project between UBC and the Zoological Society of London. These knowledge gaps pose a particular problem with fish that are exploited in this way. The Seahorse Project estimates that commercial fisheries catch up to 76 million seahorses annually. “In the past, fishermen would throw them back into the sea,” says Hailey Hamilton, chief scientist at Virginia-based NatureServe Group. “Today you can see a customer standing at the sidewalk in many places waiting to be taken away.”
Sarah Foster, Program Director at Project Seahorse, explains that the most devastating factor for the population is bycatch. After the new CITES regulations were promulgated in 2004, global exports were supposed to move towards sustainability. “Unfortunately, most of the dried seahorse trade appears to have disappeared underground,” Vincent says. However, the live animal trade is now more dependent on captive breeding, reducing pressure on wild stocks. Hong Kong is by far the largest importer of seahorses. Large quantities also go to Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. This is mainly due to their use in traditional medicine. Dried seahorse is said to increase virility, fight inflammation, and cure all kinds of ailments – from asthma to enuresis.
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