Seahorses Strut Their Stuff

They're not thought of as fish, but the delicate animals with the amazing adaptations swim into the aquarium's spotlight with a $1 million exhibit opening today.

March 31, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

In a marketing survey for its new exhibit - "Seahorses: Beyond Imagination" - the National Aquarium in Baltimore asked people what kind of animals they thought seahorses were.

"Bugs," they said. Or "sea stars."

"People don't think of them as fish," said exhibit designer Nancy Hotchkiss.

That's the first thing aquarium officials want visitors to learn when they step into the new nine-tank display, which opens today and cost nearly $1 million to develop and present.

For most people, it will be their first face-to-snout encounters with seahorses, their cousins the pipefish, and the fantastically ornamented sea dragons. There will be 23 species in all, all of them swimming in roomy and faithful reproductions of their natural habitats.

Although they don't look like fish, or swim like fish, Hotchkiss said, "they're fish with some amazing adaptations."

The best-known of those adaptations is that among these species, it is the males that get pregnant, not the females. The male seahorses receive eggs from their mates' extended oviducts, fertilize them within a protective pouch, and nourish the resulting embryos until they're big enough to be released into the ocean currents.

The unique adaptation may give the females time to develop another set of eggs, so that they're ready for fertilizing as soon as the previous brood is born.

Barely the size of mosquito larvae, baby seahorses by the hundreds are born as fully formed, miniature adults, ready to go off hunting on their own.

Spotting babies

Visitors who press their faces to the exhibit's two-sided tanks may catch a glimpse of the babies. They'll also be astonished at how nimble and flexible these creatures are, despite the bony plates that cover and protect their bodies.

They are weak swimmers, propelled by dorsal and pectoral fins that flutter in a blur like hummingbird wings. But they can twist and flex, and reach out with their prehensile tails and curl them around a branch of coral, or seaweed - or a mate.

If all that has escaped most people, it's no wonder. Although seahorses are found from tropical to temperate coastal waters around the world- including the lower Chesapeake Bay - most of us encounter them only in tourist traps, where their stiff, dried husks are sold as souvenirs.

They're also sought-after by the home aquarium trade, which will pay thousands of dollars for some sea dragons.

The most voracious consumer of seahorses is the Chinese traditional medicine industry, which harvests an estimated 20 million per year, to be dried, ground up and sold as a remedy for asthma, pain, lethargy and, of course, impotence.

There are no hard numbers on the health of seahorse populations worldwide, said Jim Anderson, curator of the aquarium's new exhibit. But those who harvest them say they're catching fewer of them, and the ones they find are smaller.

"It's thought that the populations can't withstand the harvesting of 20 million per year forever," he said.

The National Aquarium's exhibit will take a cautious position on these issues.

"We're not in a position to say that traditional medicine is bunk," Anderson said. Nor is it impossible for skilled aquarium hobbyists to keep seahorses successfully, although it isn't easy.

The exhibit will, however, take a stand against the trinket trade. "It doesn't make sense to harvest seahorses to sell them as ornaments," he said.

Visitors will also be reminded that habitat destruction right here on the Chesapeake - especially the loss of bay grasses over the last three decades - has cost uncounted native striped seahorses their homes. Water quality improvements, sediment control and restoration of the bay grasses hold the key to their recovery.

"Public education is the key to preserving these delicate animals," said Joseph Geraci, director of biological programs at the aquarium. "Aquarium staff are committed to making its millions of visitors aware of the problem. We hope they will be inspired to be an active part of the solution."

The biological family called Syngnathidae, which means "fused jaw," has evolved more than 200 species, including 32 species of seahorse and 180 of pipefish.

The wrangler

Buying and collecting representative specimens, and learning to breed and care for them have been the responsibility of aquarist Jorge Gomezjurado.

Born in Ecuador, Gomezjurado was captivated by seahorses he studied in the Galapagos Islands, where he worked at the Charles Darwin Research Station. He later bred them for San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium, a part of the California Academy of Science.

He began building the aquarium's colony almost two years ago.

Located on the first floor of the Columbus Center in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, his 1,800-square- foot laboratory now breeds and nurtures thousands of Syngnathidae in tanks totaling more than 10,000 gallons.

Dozens of water pumps create a din in the room as they keep water in the 90-gallon tanks clean and aerated. The floor is cluttered with hoses, tools and buckets. But the tenants seem happy.

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