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Vol. 17, no. 4
August/September 2014

 

Poseidon’s Dragons 
 

Story by Catharine Lo

Photo by Elyse Butler

 

“Every little girl has a book with mermaids, and the mermaids always have a seahorse,” says Waikiki Aquarium director Andrew Rossiter. But while people are familiar with seahorses, says Lassiter, “they may not know the details.” Like the fact that seahorses are monogamous or that they mate every morning by “hitching” their tails while the female delivers the eggs into the male’s pouch, like a kangaroo’s. (After two or three weeks, he—yes, he—delivers about two hundred babies, and he—yes, really!—often gets pregnant again the next day.) Or that seahorses eat by “snicking,” a lightning-speed sucking action that pulls food into their toothless, tubular mouths.

 

Such details — so much wilder than childhood impressions — are revealed in the Waikiki Aquarium’s new exhibit, Amazing Adaptations—Seahorses, Pipefishes and Seadragons, which opened July 4. Among the showstoppers in the LED-lit displays are the flamboyant leafy seadragons and the weedy seadragons, so well camouflaged they’re easily mistaken for algae.

 

Seahorses, seadragons and pipefish are members of the Sygnathidae family, which means “fused jaw” (hence the snicking). They’re a huge draw for aquariums, but they’re expensive to procure and even more expensive to maintain. They eat almost constantly, ingesting one thousand-plus mysis shrimp a day. At $.10 a shrimp, they’re no cheap dates. Fortunately, the aquarium’s Live Foods Research Unit will breed sustainable, disease-free plankton for its hungry sygnathids. A live food tank and a seahorse nursery are also featured in the exhibit, part of Rossiter’s plan to shift from an attraction-based aquarium to one focused on education, conservation and research.

 

According to curator Shawn Garner, only one out of a thousand seahorses survives in the wild. Garner, who sports a seahorse tattoo on his wrist, is a sygnathid breeder who has shared the offspring with sixty-nine zoos and aquariums. He hopes to maintain a 50 to 100 percent survival rate so the aquarium can help ease the pressure on wild populations. The big challenge: to breed a leafy seadragon, a feat no one has accomplished. At the moment, all the leafy seadragons in aquariums are wild-caught.

 

Lassiter’s team, which he describes as “the right people with the right attitude at the right time,” is hopeful that they will be the first to successfully breed a leafy seadragon in captivity.

 

waikikiaquarium.org

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