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Seahorses: riding on myths

Chyi Chung reports on the mysterious and misunderstood seahorse

Artwork by Chyi Chung

Poseidon, god of the sea, rides upon his chariot of hippocampi, fantastical creatures that possess the head and torso of a horse but the belly and tail of a fish. Their name mirrors their physique: a portmanteau of horse (hippos) and sea monster (campus) in Ancient Greek. Aptly so, hippocampus has been adopted as the genus of their real-life inspiration.

Seahorses are not an archetypal fish. From their equine appearance to upright swimming (as propelled by a small dorsal fin whilst steered and stabilised by even smaller pectoral fins), their uniqueness has been captured in their mythical counterpart. To date, 54 species of seahorses have been classified. They are found in shallow, tropical to temperate waters across most continents. Denise’s pygmy seahorse (H. denise), one of the newer species identified in 2003, favours the warm waters of the Indo-Pacific and measures less than an inch (2.4 cm); whereas the big-belly seahorse (H. abdominalis), found among the coral reefs between Australia and New Zealand, can grow up to 14 inches (35cm). Native to Britain are the long-snouted (H. guttulatus) and short-snouted seahorse (H. hippocampus); both species and their habitat have received protection from the UK government since 1981.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) drawn in 2004 imposes a ban on trading seahorse less than 10 cm in length worldwide. Despite this deterrent, a conservative estimate states that 15 to 20 million wild seahorses still find their way into the trading market every year, with many more unaccounted for caught by commercial fishing trawlers. Although a small fraction is sold to meet the rising demand for exotic pets and curios, it is undeniable that the majority enters the traditional Chinese medicine trade, where the misconceptions in the science of seahorses are a long cry from the seas of Greek mythology.

It is common fact that male seahorses undergo pregnancy; this biological role-reversal is also observed in other members of the Syngnathidae family including pipefish and leafy seadragons. The male seahorse fertilises eggs deposited by a female in his ventral pouch during a courtship dance that lasts up to 8 hours, featuring the entwining of tails and morphing of body colour. After 10 to 25 days, the eggs are hatched within the pouch followed by the expulsion of up to 2,000 fry (baby seahorses) which have less than a 1 in 200 chance of survival.

The Seahorse Trust reports that 90% of mature male seahorses harvested from the wild are also pregnant, which renders the situation doubly worse. Traditional Chinese medicine believes that consumption of pregnant male seahorses can cure impotence and improve virility. In addition to this, it is also offered as treatment to a plethora of illnesses from asthma and atherosclerosis to skin ailments and goitres, none of which have any scientific basis. Dried seahorses that were once purchased in their whole form from traditional stalls have been replaced with crisply packaged bottles of ground seahorse pills. The source of the latter is almost impossible to track, which in turn makes the ban on undersized seahorses increasingly difficult to implement.

It is easy to dismiss traditional treatments as pseudoscience and their efficacy as a placebo effect, guaranteed by cultural beliefs that have prevailed over centuries. However, in light of today’s wealthier and consumerist society, it is important to re-evaluate traditional practices that are becoming increasingly unsustainable. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that 41 seahorse species are under threat, highlighting the adverse effect of the wild seahorse trade on its population. Fewer than 20 scientists are studying seahorses worldwide; there is a dearth of information on 27 species, with many more species yet to be identified. But in order to do so, seahorses will have to break free of their myth as miraculous cures.

All images are original artwork by Chyi Chung.

From Issue 13

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