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Overview of Seahorse Biology and Current Research
By: Dustin Circe 6/16/2011
I am an upcoming senior in the Rubenstein School at the University of Vermont, and majoring in Wildlife Biology. This summer I am interning with Laurel A. Neme PhD who runs a weekly radio broadcast called, “The Wildlife”, and is also the author of, “Animal Invesitgators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species”. Stationed in Burlington, VT, she broadcasts her hour long show every week, and it is my job to help her with the interviews and transcribe them. My first assignment was to transcribe an interview from Helen Scales, author of “Poseidon’s Steed”, and a marine biologist with a passion for seahorses. In the interview she spoke mainly about basic seahorse ecology, threats to seahorses, and how she grew up to love these unique creatures. This article is meant to provide an overview of seahorse biology and research for member of the UVM Wildlife Society and any others who may be interested. Ecology The name seahorse is derived from their equine appearance, even though they are a bony fish in the Syngathidae family. Species estimates range from 32 to 80, but the number is most likely closer to 39 according to marine biologist Helen Scales, and the sizes of these species vary from less than one inch to over a foot. Unlike most other fish, seahorses are encased in a thin skin instead of scales. Seahorses also swim upright, which is another trait unique to seahorses. They propel themselves very poorly through the water with the use of their dorsal fin and by rapidly fluttering their tiny pectoral fins, located behind their eyes, and they also have no caudal fin. They have long snouts which they use to suck up their food which primarily consists of small invertebrates and crustaceans such as amphipods and decapods (Storero and Gonzalez 2008), along with rotating eyes similar to those of a chameleon. They also have the ability to change their skin color to match their background as a form of camouflage, which is essential to survival in their habitat. Seahorses are most commonly found in shallow tropical and temperate waters all over the world. They prefer to live in sheltered areas such as seagrass beds, coral reefs, or mangroves. These areas are preferred in order to provide security from predators such as tuna and crabs. These habitats also provide perfect cover for ambushing small prey that crawling along their territory. They also float in the water and suck in small plankton and crustaceans. They spend their time hiding from prey or finding food to eat. They hide from prey with their camouflage, along with help from their strong tails in which they cling to whatever they can. They are not strong swimmers and prefer to cling to an object. The remainder of their time is spent mating and strengthening pair bonds with their mates. Many seahorses are monogamous, and they keep these strong pair bonds throughout their lives through their courtship activities. Before breeding, seahorses court for several days by dancing every morning. They do this in order to synchronize movements so the male can receive the eggs from the female when she is ready, because the male carries the eggs in a pouch until they are ready to hatch, not the females. Once the female is ready, she deposits the eggs into the pouch and the male releases his sperm into the seawater, so they can fertilize the eggs as they pass into the pouch. After courting and mating the female no longer has a role in the gestation and birthing process, but does continue the courtship dances every morning. The male carries the eggs for a two to four week gestation period, and after this period he will release 100-200 fries when they
are ready to be born, which usually occurs at night. The baby seahorses receive no parental care, therefore must learn to survive on their own. Seahorses breed all year round, so the male is immediately ready to receive more eggs the very next morning after the release. Current Research Behavior, mating rituals, and habitat use have all been thoroughly studied within seahorses, and current research is now geared towards molecular dynamics, genetic structure and species identification, along with how seahorses react to certain stimuli. One article by Stingh et. al (2011) discusses the important use of 16S ribosomal ribonucleic acid and cytochrome oxidase subunit as diagnostic molecular markers in the identification of the common seahorse (Hippocampus kuda) found in the east and west coasts of India. This ribonucleic acid was able to point out large differences in the genetic diversity of seahorses found in Indian waters. Lopez et. al (2010) looked at species identification and genetic structure of threatened seahorses in Spain. This was done through non-invasive DNA analysis of seahorse populations, after an intensive underwater survey in the Gran Canaria Island in Spain. The 16S ribosomal nucleic acid was used in this study along with microsatellite markers, short segments of DNA that have a repeated sequence, to identify different species and hybrids. No hybrids were found in this study, but the nuclear markers did uncover a low genetic diversity, which is essential information to support conservation strategies for this area. Anderson et. al (2011) looked at stress responses of seahorses to chronic noise exposure. They examined 32 lined seahorses (Hippocampus erectus); each was placed in either a loud or quiet tank for one month. Observations were made weekly, scored, and compared between all individuals. At the end of the experiment, the animals were euthanized and examined. Animals were deemed to be more irritated in the loud tanks, because they spent more time adjusting their tail onto different surfaces, and spent more time position themselves. However, the animals in the loud tanks habituated themselves to the loud noise after one week. The animals in loud tanks also made more pips and squeaks, suggesting they were irritated, and this trait did not lessen as time passed. Other morphological tests were run and they resulted in the same conclusion. When seahorses are exposed to loud uncomfortable noise, they are more stressed and become less healthy. There is much we can learn from observing and running experiments on seahorses, and any information gained is invaluable. In order for biologists and conversationalist to protect these species, studies and experiments must continue. There is always more to learn about a species, and the protection of each species is essential to maintaining biodiversity worldwide. Literature Cited Anderson, P. I.K. Berzins, F. Fogarty, H.J. Hamlin, and L.J. Guillette, 2011. Sound, stress, and seahorses: The consequences of noisy environment to animal health. Aquaculture. 311: 129.
Lopez, A., M. Vera, F. Otero-Ferrer, B. Pardo, P. Martinez, L. Molina, and C. Bouza, 2010. Species Identification and genetic structure of threatened seahorses in Gran Canaria Island (Spain) using microsatellite markers. Conservation Genetics. 11: 2431. Singh, K.V., W.S. Lakra, A. Gopalakrishnan, M.J. Modayil, A.K. Malakar, and R.C. Sobti, 2011. Molecular identification and phylogenetic relationship of seahorse, Hippocampus kuda (Bleeker 1852) using mitochondrial 16S rRNA and COI gene sequences from east and west coasts of Inida. Indian Journal Animal Sciences. 81: 97. Storero, L.P., and R. A. Gonzalez, 2008. Feeding habits of the seahorse Hippocampus patagonicus in San Antonio Bay (Patagonia, Argentina). Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. 88:1503. Related Links • • • Laurel Neme’s Homepage: http://www.laurelneme.com/ Helen Scales’ Homepage: http://helenscales.com/ Arkive: Images of Life on Earth: http://www.arkive.org/common-seahorse/hippocampus-kuda/
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