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.