Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Surprise, it’s Seahorses!

January 1, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 


BWGB June 2014

Who doesn’t love the seahorse? Images of seahorses are often found cascading across bed linens and beach towels, and on all sorts of coastal-themed knick-knacks (I happen to have a beautiful set of seahorse coffee mugs). However, did you know that in addition to seahorses showing up on housewares and being featured in artwork, this unique species is actually found in our local waters? 

Many are surprised to learn that seahorses are not only found in tropical coral reef environments, but also exist in limited numbers in Long Island’s waters.  Our own native seahorse species,Hippocampus erectus, aka the lined seahorse, is quite a magnificent animal.While lined seahorses are currently on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Endangered Species, our local seahorse population is protected from commercial harvest thanks to New York State Legislation (S13-0310, En Con L). This helps prevent wild seahorses from showing up in markets to be used for medicinal purposes or in aquarium shops to be sold as pets.  Nonetheless,the population is still in peril, mainly due to lack of habitat availability. 

BWGB June 2014aSeahorses exhibit mate fidelity (i.e. they are monogamous) and are very habitat-dependent. Mating seahorse pairs display complex social behavior requiring a complex habitat to implement. Although little is known about seahorses in the wild, they appear to migrate offshore in winter, but return to the same location year after year for their lifetime.  This pattern of site fidelity creates seahorse “hotspots,” a key factor for consideration in restoration efforts.  It is thought that by ensuring the existence of ample protective habitats in or near these “hotspots”established pairs of seahorses will continue to reproduce.The juveniles will also settle into the protective habitat, increasing the likelihood of them surviving to adulthood — thus helping the population thrive.

Locally, seahorses prefer eelgrass meadows as habitat, but the decline in this habitat type is a factor that has limited the number of these creatures able to survive in our waters.  Hope is not lost, however, due to the efforts of many hard working professionals in Cornell BWGB June 2014gCooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Marine Program (CCE) towards increasing habitat through eelgrass restoration (more info at segrassli.org). 

CCE’s eelgrass habitat restoration efforts have led to major advances in creating more habitat for a variety of local marine species, including our beloved seahorses.  After providing a hospitable habitat, CCE’s next step is increasing the population of seahorses by initiating a breeding program.The program is headed by Kim Manzo in the Suffolk County Marine Environmental Learning Center in Southold.  Manzo has been working hard for many years, in conjunction with regional seahorse experts and her shellfish hatchery colleagues, to develop a feasible method for successful breeding.  Seahorses are notoriously difficult to raise in captivity, and are very sensitive to a variety of conditions, so this job has not been an easy one, but Manzo continues to persevere, for the sake of the seahorses!BWGB June 2014b

The long-term goal of the breeding program involves launching a full-scale research and restoration project that would allow for release of aqua cultured seahorses into their preferred eelgrass habitat, as restored by CCE’s Marine Meadows Program.  While CCE is hard at work, there are things you can do to help. Since part of the overall seahorse restoration effort involves data collection in order to better understand the population distribution of the species,CCE is calling on all boaters and citizen scientists to help identify seahorse “hotspots.” If you happen to observe any seahorses while you are out enjoying a day on, or in, the water, take note of your location and let Manzo know so she can log the account to her survey records(kp92@cornell.edu). If you find a live seahorse, please keep handling to a minimum (maybe a quick photo) and then release it right where you found it. This limits stress and doesn’t break any pair bonds. Want to help further? Ask about sponsoring CCE’s efforts by “Adopting a Seahorse!” 

Thanks to CCE’s Eelgrass and Seahorse Educator Kim Manzo for contributing to this story.Kimberly Barbour is Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Marine Program’s Habitat Restoration Outreach Specialist. She may be reached at kp237@cornell.edu and 631-461-5294.


By Kimberly Barbour


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