Seahorses surface at the aquarium Marine marvels: Seahorses at aquarium

UP FRONT

March 29, 2001|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SEAHORSES have always been enchanting creatures. Although they have been on this planet for more than 45 million years, for ages people thought of them as imaginary - the same as mermaids and sea monsters.

In Greek mythology, Poseidon, ruler of the oceans, traveled through his underwater kingdom in a chariot drawn by giant seahorses.

No wonder that even today there are people who aren't sure if seahorses - actually small, bony fish - actually exist.

But seahorses, while somewhat elusive creatures, are very much real. And starting this weekend at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, you can see approximately 18 species of seahorses, along with similar aquatic creatures, in the new exhibit "Seahorses: Beyond Imagination."

"You can see people's faces light up when they look at seahorses. They're very attractive animals. People do believe that they're mythical," says Jorge Gomezjurado, senior aquarist at the National Aquarium.

Even the scientific name for seahorses, Hippocampus, acknowledges their mythical roots. The Latin word means horse sea monster. (The head and snout of a seahorse give it the appearance of a horse.)

The exhibit features nine tanks of natural habitats with hundreds of seahorses from exotic places such as the Galapagos Islands and Tasmania, and from places much closer to home, including the Chesapeake Bay.

The local seahorse species, known as Hippocampus erectus or the lined seahorse, lives in the shallow, salty waters and grass beds along the mouth of the Chesapeake near Virginia. They're tough to find, Gomezjurado says. "When I went to collect them, the first time I got eight seahorses in three hours, and the second time I found none at all."

Incidentally, he warns, if you happen to see a seahorse in the bay, don't pick it up. "You might hurt [it]." But if you accidentally snag a seahorse in a fishing net or crab trap, try your best to free it, he adds.

But who needs to pick up a seahorse in the wild when the aquarium has scheduled plenty of hands-on activities for the entire family during the opening-weekend celebration on Saturday and Sunday? Visitors to the aquarium will not only be greeted by Puffin, the aquarium mascot, they'll also meet a 7-foot-tall seahorse sculpture designed by Catonsville artist Jim Opasik, made entirely out of metal kitchen utensils like spatulas and cheese graters.

The aquarium also commissioned wildlife artist Jody Bergsma to create some seahorse artwork. She will be in the aquarium's gift shop both days from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to sign her work.

Children can make some seahorse-themed crafts and take home goodies like seahorse tattoos, bookmarks and magnets; and anyone under 15 gets to go home wearing a cool seahorse sun visor. Activities also include a performance by the Kinetics dance troupe Saturday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and a continuing quiz game in the aquarium's Lyn P. Meyerhoff Auditorium.

Mystery of the deep

As with many of the aquarium's attractions, the primary purpose of the seahorse exhibit is visitor education. Although Gomezjurado has been studying seahorses for many years, there are things about the creatures that he and other scientists still don't know. For example, there are 32 types of seahorses that we know of, "but there may be many more," he says.

As baffling as seahorses can be to those studying them, the species in the aquarium's exhibit should provide plenty of educational opportunities for visitors. Who knew, for instance, that seahorses come in all shapes, sizes and colors? There is the dwarf seahorse, which measures less than an inch tall and has babies the size of a pencil eraser. And then there is the Pacific giant seahorse, which can grow to a foot tall.

Seahorses can be black, brown, yellow, purplish, spotted and striped, and they can also change color like a chameleon to blend in better with their surroundings. The aptly named potbelly seahorse has a protruding stomach, and the tiger tail seahorse has a striped tail. All seahorses have a curly tail - a necessity because they are poor swimmers. To survive, a seahorse needs something to hold on to. Otherwise, it can be swept away in the current. Some seahorses will hang on to a single blade of grass for days at a time.

Gomezjurado and his fellow scientists are not sure just how many seahorses there are in the world. But they are certain that people kill nearly 22 million of the creatures every year. Seahorses have few natural predators because their bony structure makes them unappetizing to most animals. That makes man the biggest threat to their survival.

About 20 million seahorses a year are harvested for traditional Chinese medicine. Seahorses, in dried and powdered form, are used to treat everything from asthma to lethargy to impotence. Another million or two are used for beach souvenirs or sold to hobbyists for home aquariums.

Not good pets

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