Horses And Dragons cover

Horses And Dragons

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Seahorses and Seadragons have fascinated people throughout history and across time. Their bodies are intricately armored and appear adorned with fanciful appendages and even chameleon-like eyes. It is the fathers that not only incubate the eggs but even give birth. Myths and legends about these fanciful ocean-dwelling horses and dragons have been written across cultures, whether actually inspired by these intriguing sea creatures themselves, or mere fantastical inventions.
The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, opened an exhibition of seahorses, seadragons, and their relatives on May 2


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Horses and Dragons

Leafy Sea Dragon, Photo Courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific

Horses and Dragons

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, opened an exhibition of seahorses, seadragons, and their relatives on May 27, 2016!

People have a long-standing fascination with seahorses and seadragons, with their intricately armored and appendage-adorned bodies, chameleon-like eyes, and the dutiful dads that incubate the eggs and even give birth. Humans throughout history have created mythologies about ocean-dwelling horses and dragons, whether inspired by these sea creatures themselves, or fanciful inventions.

Biology and Distribution

Seahorses and seadragons, as well as pipefish and ribbonfish, are all in the family Syngnathidae, which contains more than 200 species. The word Syngnathidae comes from the Greek words syn, meaning fused or together, and gnathus, meaning jaws.

All syngnathids have fused jaws, as well as other common characteristics: They have rigid bodies and swim by rapidly fluttering their fins, males incubate the eggs and hatch the young, and they live in temperate and tropical waters.

Seahorses tend to live between three to five years, while seadragons typically have lifespans of five to seven years.

Three Species

Only three official species of seadragon have been discovered: the leafy, weedy, and ruby seadragon, which was only just discovered in 2015. Josefin Stiller, the scientist who made this discovery, will give a talk at the Aquarium on July 19.

Seadragons are found only in the ocean waters off the southern and western coasts of Australia. They inhabit temperate coastal waters where there are rocky reefs, sand patches, seaweed beds, and seagrass meadows.

Seahorses, however, are much more widespread. They are found all over the world in tropical and temperate shallow waters.

They're Fish!

Seahorse Photo Courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific

They're Fish!

Seahorses are fish, with a bony spine, gills, and swim bladder. They also have rigid bony plates covering their bodies and prehensile tails that they use to grasp and anchor themselves to seagrass or coral on the seafloor. They use dorsal and pectoral fins for locomotion.

Fact: They're Not Strong Swimmers

Seahorses beat their fins up to forty times a second—too fast to be visible to the human eye.

Most syngnathids stay close to their home habitat, not being very strong swimmers. However, since they can be carried by strong currents or drift with floating ocean debris, some end up miles from their birthplace.

There is one exception: Pot-bellied seahorses sometimes swim hundreds of yards during the course of a day.

Size

Seadragons grow to a maximum length of about 18 inches.

Like seahorses, the outer skin of seadragons is solid, limiting their mobility. They swim through the water by rapidly oscillating their small, almost translucent fins and using their tails as rudders.

Adaptations that help syngnathids evade predators and find prey include their ability to change the color of their skin to blend in with the flora and fauna in their habitat.

I See You

Ribbon Dragon, Photo Courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific

I See You

Their markings and appendages also contribute to their camouflage. In addition, their bony exterior might be a deterrent to some predators, as it makes them harder to swallow. Their eyes can move independently like a chameleon’s to help spot their prey.

Quick Eaters

Syngnathids do not have teeth or stomachs.

Because they lack stomachs and therefore cannot store nutrients, they eat almost constantly, feeding on mysid shrimp and other small crustaceans, plankton, and larval fish.

They use their long, thin, tubular snouts to create a strong suction with which to rapidly intake in their food. The feeding movement of syngnathids is among the fastest-known movement of a vertebrate animal—it takes just six milliseconds for them to suck in food items.

Click, Pop, Chirp

They expand a joint on the lower part of their snouts and swallow their prey whole.

Special muscles in the snout can widen to accommodate different sizes of prey. They use their camouflaging abilities to ambush prey that floats nearby.

Seahorses make a clicking, popping, or chirping noise when feeding caused by the movements of their jaws. Scientists have also observed the noise underwater when the animals are disturbed. At the Aquarium, aquarists report being able to hear the sound and feel the vibrations it causes during feeding times.

When about 100 lined seahorses were previously on display, aquarists say the noises could be heard from outside the exhibit.

Dinner is Served

Leafy Sea Dragon, Photo Courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific

Dinner is Served

The Aquarium’s juvenile seadragons and seahorses are fed brine shrimp and rotifers, microscopic animals that are propagated on site. Adults are fed mysid shrimp. The Aquarium’s divers are often able to collect live mysid shrimp locally. Live food is more nutritious and more enriching, because the seahorses and seadragons have to hunt for it. Frozen food is used to ensure a steady supply when live mysid shrimp are not available.

Re-creating Nature

Syngnathids’ natural prey, mysid shrimp, constantly graze in the wild leaving their stomachs packed with nutrients.

To replicate this in an aquarium environment, the aquarists have begun to experiment with supplements to the seadragons’ food. The seadragons are also fed more frequently throughout each day than the other syngnathids.

The frequent feedings and supplements are implemented to ensure the seadragons have excess energy to put toward reproduction.

Propagation and Reproduction

Weedy sea dragons usually become fully grown and ready for breeding at two years old. Like their seahorse relatives, male sea dragons brood the eggs.

However, the eggs are incubated on the underside of the tail on a brood patch instead of in a brood pouch, like that of seahorses.

The female lays between 250 and 300 eggs. She deposits them in the skin of the male to be fertilized, covering most of the undersides and sides of his tail. Incubation lasts six to eight weeks.

When hatching starts, the male releases only a few eggs at a time. He may take from hours to days to release the entire brood.

Similar Process

Tiger Tail Seahorse, Photo Courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific

Similar Process

Seahorses go through a similar process, with the males incubating eggs in their brood pouches for four to six weeks.

Pairing Up

At the Aquarium, aquarists report that male seahorses seem to release their young early in the morning.

Seahorses form pairs that last the duration of the breeding season.

The Aquarium’s staff members who care for seahorses say that it is easy to spot these pairs during the breeding season because they often latch together by their tails and follow each other around the tank.

Successful First!

Weedy Sea Dragon, Photo Courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific

Successful First!

In 2002 the Aquarium of the Pacific was the first facility in the world to successfully breed weedy sea dragons. Juveniles bred at the Aquarium were distributed to other aquariums and zoos across the United States.

Setting The Mood

Aquarists shared the processes and methods they used with colleagues at other facilities.

The Aquarium’s staff members have recently begun to alter various aspects of the seadragons’ habitats to better simulate conditions in the wild and prompt reproductive activity. These efforts include adding new pumps to create a stronger flow of water and specialized lighting to mimic the lunar cycle.

Aquarists have also added sargassum, a type of seaweed typically found in wild seadragon habitats, to the Aquarium’s exhibits. The seadragon exhibits are the only places at the Aquarium where flash photography is prohibited because of the animals' sensitivity to changes in light.

Mythological Creatures

With their widespread distribution in the World Ocean, seahorses have been pulled up in fishermen’s nets and intrigued people for thousands of years.

While they may not have been inspired by real syngnathids, many cultures have imagined the existence of undersea horses.

Drawings made by Aboriginal people 6,000 years ago in Australia depict the Rainbow Serpent, a creator deity, that bears a striking resemblance to seahorses and ribbon dragons. Scientists theorize that some of these images were created during a sea level rise event and heavy storms that drove the creatures nearer to shore or perhaps caused them to wash up onto beaches.

Poseidon

Ribbon Dragons, Photo Courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific

Poseidon

In ancient Greek mythology, Poseidon, the god of the sea, was thought to travel in a golden chariot pulled by a team of four mythical creatures, half-horse and half-fish.

Legends And Lore

This composite animal, called hippocampus (hippo meaning horse and kampus meaning monster in Greek), was depicted in murals and statues and on pottery, coins, and jewelry. Fishermen who came across real seahorses thought that they were the offspring of Poseidon’s hippocampi.

The Romans later renamed the sea god Neptune and used the same details in their versions of the stories. They also dried seahorses and used them as medicine.

Hippocampi appeared in artwork and crafts of other ancient cultures, from Bronze Age Minoans in what is now Greece, and Phoenicians who lived in the Fertile Crescent region of Lebanon, Israel, and Syria, to cultures from across Europe and Asia.

Fables

Ribbon Dragon,Photo Courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific

Fables

Stone carvings from Celtic cultures originating in seventh century Scotland depict a creature resembling seahorses. The Seri Indian people from Mexico have a fable that doubles as a seahorse origin story about a man who lived on Tiburon Island in the Gulf of California and was chased into the ocean with a sandal tucked into his belt. This sandal turned into the seahorse’s dorsal fin, according to this legend.

Timeless

In medieval Europe merchants hawked seahorses claiming they were baby dragons.

Seahorses were included in bestiaries, catalogues of animals also known as a book of beasts, which aligned with a medieval belief that all animals found on land had a counterpart in the ocean as a reflection of divine symmetry.

While seadragons have historically been less well-known around the world because of their limited range, they still have a mythological connotation because of their common name, inspired by dragons of Chinese legend.

Fantasy

Leafy Sea Dragon, Photo Courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific

Fantasy

Seahorses continue to play a role in the decorative arts and storytelling in modern times. They are emblematic of tropical oceans and signify qualities like whimsy, exotic fantasy, and playfulness. Images of seahorses still decorate our walls, clothing, and jewelry, and souvenirs of beach vacations.

Conservation

Both leafy and weedy seadragons are fully protected under Australia’s local, state, and federal legislation.

In the past special licenses were required to collect or export them, but in 2015 the Australian government stopped issuing these licenses. This means that aquariums displaying these animals must now rely solely on propagation programs and sharing seadragons among institutions to add their collections.

Leafy and weedy seadragons have been listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List since 2006. Like most coral reef inhabitants, seadragons are at risk because of habitat destruction due to human development, pollution, and agricultural fertilizer run-off.

An increase in water temperature as a result of global climate change may affect their survival if they are unable to adapt.

Complex Situations

Seahorses face similar pressures.

An additional threat to their populations is their use in traditional medicines and collection for the live aquarium trade and as curios. Although data is insufficient to measure the impact their harvest for these purposes has on overall populations, millions of seahorses are collected each year and several countries have opted out of international trade recommendations that could regulate their import and export and help protect wild populations.

IUCN lists eleven species of seahorses as Vulnerable, and one, the Knysna or cape seahorse native to South Africa, as Endangered. Most seahorse species tracked by IUCN are listed as Data Deficient. Because of their small size, their ability to camouflage, and their limited abundance, collecting data on seahorse populations is particularly challenging.

Dangers of Bycatch

Ribbon Dragon, Photo Courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific

Dangers of Bycatch

Harmful fishing practices like bottom trawling, which captures seahorses and seadragons and many other animals as bycatch, are particularly damaging to seafloor habitats and marine life.

Protecting The Future

Conservation groups like Project Seahorse are working with communities in areas where these animals are collected for use in the traditional medicine or curio trade. They are advocating for laws regulating the seahorse trade and training community members to become conservationists and preserve their local marine ecosystems.

To help conserve syngnathid populations in the wild, construction and development in coastal areas should be limited; fisheries should be well regulated, especially in shallow-water habitats where seahorses and seadragons live; and pollutants should be prevented from entering the ocean through run-off.

Preserving and protecting the ecosystems that are home to the beautiful and intriguing syngnathid family of marine animals will improve their populations and those of other animals in their habitats and ensure they continue to captivate generations to come.

Aquarium Of The Pacific