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Hippocampus Found in the Virgin Islands

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What is a hippocampus, you wonder? Well, it is one of two
things. One, it is an area in the human brain, shaped like a seahorse and
extremely important in the formation of memories as well as generating
motivation and emotion. The second, it is a seahorse. And, with much
excitement…seahorses have been seen in the waters of the
Virgin Islands this summer!

After two
years of searching to no avail, I had resigned myself to the conclusion that
the scientists and dive professionals here to whom I’d spoken were
correct. There were no seahorses in the Virgin Islands.

there are! And, they have been seen in both the U.S. Virgin Islands and the
British Virgin Islands generating the conclusion that
they are not relegated to a single, small area.
Perhaps they have been here all along even though divers with 20 years’
experience have never noticed, since the seahorse is a master of camouflage
(that being his only protection).

According to Reef Fish Identification by Paul Humann,
sightings of the three species of Caribbean
seahorses, the Hippocampus erectus, reidi and
, are rare to uncommon
throughout the range. Sightings in the BVI and USVI within one
week’s time are cause for celebration.

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There are
approximately 35 species of seahorse in the world’s coastal waters. When
fully grown, they range in size from 1 to 18 inches in height. Seahorses are
highly specialized fish complete with pectoral fins that appear very much like
rather large ears. Their heads are elongated and crowned by coronets, each of
which is unique, providing scientists with a means to identify individuals.

snouts are long and bone like, and are used as weapons by males fighting for
territory. Their eyes move independently of each other. They have dorsal fins
on long, slim bodies that taper to a prehensile tail with which they attach
themselves vegetation. Seahorses’ bodies are covered in scales that have
evolved into armor like plates. They are predators but have no teeth and
swallow their diet of tiny brine shrimp or small fish whole, some consuming up
to 3,000 shrimp per day.

One of
the most interesting facts regarding seahorses is that the male is the one that
becomes pregnant. The female deposits her eggs into the male’s pouch
where they are fertilized and remain for 2-3 weeks before hatching as the male
quickly becomes pregnant again. From 40-380 ‘ponies’ are produced
with each hatching but for each thousand ponies hatched, scientists estimate
that only 2 reach maturity.

They are
fed upon by marine predators such as crabs, rays, and fish. Storms play havoc
with the delicate little seahorses because they live so close to shore and are
torn from their anchors; cast on to beaches or washed out to sea where they die
of exhaustion while swimming.

Man plays
a large part in the decline of seahorses worldwide. How often have we seen
dried seahorses on key chains and jewelry, or embedded in plastic paperweights
and, yes, even decorative toilet seats, or displayed in ugly
‘ocean’ scenes with dyed shells and a small sign stating “A
Souvenir of XXXXX Beach”.

countries and the Chinese in particular have been using seahorses in folk
medicines for over 500 years, believing that ingesting them enhances virility,
prevents hardening of the arteries, and asthma.

aquarium trade has a devastating effect on not only seahorses but many other
marine species as well. Collectors pay high prices for live seahorses. Many of
the seahorses die before reaching their final destination while those that
survive to reach commercial and private aquariums soon die from lack of proper
care and food; the life expectancy of a captive seahorse being less than one

having witnessed and reported someone collecting fish in a protected area, I
will not divulge where the seahorses were seen; and, I hope that those readers
fortunate enough to find a seahorse will view him from a distance and
appreciate his uniqueness but, remain silent as well.

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Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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