The seahorse was the first creature to really capture my imagination when I was a child. I remember seeing about them in a picture book and not quite believing they could be real - the thought of something that shape making its way silently, upright, through the sea seemed impossibly romantic. Then, when I became a feminist, learning that the male bore the young lifted these fish even further in my estimation.
Unfortunately, now that I am in this unique moment with other Gentle Footprints authors I find that the seahorse too is if not endangered then certainly vulnerable.
Why? Boat anchors and bottom dredging by fishermen damaging their habitats - they're quite fragile and don't adapt well to changing conditions; they're used in Chinese medicine (20 million a year taken); they're kept as pets (a million a year taken, of whom 99 percent are dead within six weeks). They're also captured, dried and sold as decoration (a million a year - I know, what is the matter with us?).
They're fish but they don't swim well. They get around by beating their dorsal fins 30-70 times a second and steering with pectoral fins on either side of their head. It's tough, so they prefer hooking their tail around the grasses they live in and just bobbing around. The eyes, on either side of the horse-shaped head, can move independently. How can you not love a creature that bobs around looking forwards and backwards at the same time? It's handy when looking for food - they eat things like small crustaceans, tiny fish and plankton and estimates are that adults eat up to fifty pieces of food a day. They don't have teeth but slurp the food up through their snouts. They don't have stomachs either thus the need to eat all day. Babies, apparently - called fry - eat sixty times that amount.
Which leads to the birth business. It was once widely said that they mated for life and were faithful, but this may not be true (they only live for about four years anyway). The female deposits the eggs in the male's pouch and he fertilises them there, then carries them for 14 to 28 days. They court for several days before breeding, and while the young are incubating the female comes to visit every day, where there's a greeting ritual. Depending on species there may be between fifty and fifteen hundred fry and contractions can last for twelve hours.
Of course, like all fish, once the young - fully formed miniature seahorses - are expelled there's no more nurturing and dad's ready to receive the next batch of eggs the morning after the night he's given birth. As we saw with NeiraKeto the octopus (see "Closing Circles" by Anne Cleasby in Gentle Footprints) thousands of them don't survive. With seahorse fry fewer than 0.5% of the brood survive, what with predators and delicate little bodies being washed away into colder waters. It seems very wasteful of life (why not have fewer and look after them?) but these creatures have been around one way or another for 40 million years.
We have two British indigenous species, the spiny and the short-snouted, found mainly all down the west coast and the south coast and there are another 28 species worldwide, including the fancifully named winged seahorse, hedgehog seahorse, giraffe seahorse and sea pony.
Oh, and they don't live in groups but can you guess what a whole bunch of them together are called? A herd of seahorses...