Horsing Around in Mote Aquarium
By: Randolph Fillmore
Though he's only in his 20s, Mote Aquarist Shawn Garner is already a great-grandfather hundreds of times over. That's because he has successfully been nurturing new generations of seahorses at Mote Aquarium's Seahorse Breeding Program. The program was recently expanded into a new exhibit called The Seahose Conservation Laboratory in order to showcase this work.
Why seahorse conservation? Each year, millions of seahorses are collected alive in the wild and dried — some sold as traditional medicines, others sold as curios in souvenir shops. Through this trade, more than 25 million sea horses are consumed annually, causing concern that wild populations are becoming depleted and even endangered.
"By growing the seahorses here, we help educate our visitors, provide animals for other aquariums and reduce the need to remove them from the wild for education purposes," says Dan Bebak, Vice President of Mote Aquarium. "That just makes perfect conservation sense."
Seahorses are found all over the world, mostly in shallow, warm ocean waters. Here in Southwest Florida, one sea horse commonly found in our seagrass beds is called Hippocampus erectus, better known as the lined seahorse. This species is found as far north as Massachusetts and as far south as Brazil.
"In the wild, newborn seahorses have a one-in-1,000 survival rate," Garner says. "It feels great to raise babies to adulthood. You know you've done something right."
At Mote, easily 50 to 75 percent of the sea horses survive - that's quite astounding for a species that gives birth every 28 days or so.
Garner's superior baby seahorse survival rate results from providing an optimal environment with good water quality - changed twice daily - proper salinity and an exacting balance between acid and base, or pH. Garner also confesses to a few "feeding tricks" that provide the best growth results. And, of course, there are no predators.
The result? Every 28 days or so, a new generation of seahorse babies are born, grabbing the spotlight in the Aquarium, amazing and entertaining visitors. "The kids go nuts," Garner says. "Kids love them, especially the seahorse babies."
One of the most remarkable things about seahorses is that the males are the ones that actually carry the babies. Females deposit eggs in the male's pouch where the male fertilizes and carries them until they hatch. Males and females mate every day, even when there is no egg exchange. To mate, seahorses link their tails in an intimate curl, called "hitching," and then get nose to nose. "They make something like a heart-shape," says Garner.
Newborn seahorses are tiny, just a few millimeters, but grow .25 mm daily over the first few weeks. Full grown, they may be 4 to 5 inches long and live up to four years. Once born, staff feed the babies live zooplankton then slowly wean them to frozen foods.
Garner's seahorse breeding program also allows Mote Aquarium to swap seahorses to other institutions and aquariums. More than 20 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums nationwide display seahorses grown at Mote. (The AZA is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It sets strict standards for animal keeping.) In fact, nearly 40 percent of all lined sea horses on display at these facilities were born at Mote.
The initial expansion of The Seahorse Conservation Laboratory was supported in part by Ruden McClosky. Mote is currently seeking corporate sponsors to continue this work. For more information on corporate sponsorships for seahorses and other animals, please contact Stacy Alexander, Manager of Corporate and Donor Relations at email@example.com.
Scientific Name: Hippocampus erectus
Habitat: Seahorses are found world-wide, mostly in shallow, coastal tropical and temperate waters. They usually live among seagrasses, in flooded mangrove forests and on soft-bottom areas where sponges are abundant.
Breeding: A male seahorse becomes "pregnant" when a female deposits eggs in a male's pouch. Pregnancy usually lasts two to three weeks. As many as 200 baby seahorses, or fry, are born. Seahorses are typically monogamous.
Feeding: Seahorses consume as many as 3,000 brine shrimp per day. They have no teeth and swallow their prey whole. Since they don't have stomachs, meals pass rapidly through their digestive system. (That means lots of food and lots of exhibit cleaning!)
Size: Seahorses range from 1/4 inch to more than a foot.
Predators: Adult seahorses have few predators, which could be due to their ability to camouflage themselves or because of their bony plates and spines. Predators include crabs, large pelagic fish and humans.
Unique Characteristics: Seahorses communicate using a clicking sound created when they rub two parts of their skull together. They also change color when they socialize. Seahorse camouflage allows them to blend into their surroundings and helps them elude predators and ambush prey. The eyes of the seahorse can move independently.
Species: There are an estimated 35 species of seahorses.