Back from the brink – the Spiny Seahorse

Seahorse - back from the brink

At SEA LIFE we are immensely proud of all the conservation work we do, but if there is one thing that defines us and sets us apart, it is our work on the breeding of seahorses. Our work with seahorses is one of the biggest success stories for wildlife in recent years.

Seahorses are delicate creatures and highly susceptible to pollution so it is hardly surprising that they suffered a steady decline following the industrial revolution. At one time they were widespread around the south and west coasts of the UK. By the 1960s they were thought to be extinct as a breeding species, though one or two individuals turned up each year in fishing nets.

There are two types of seahorse that are native to the UK. The Spiny Seahorse, Hippocampus Guttulatus, is the only species to have bred around the coast of mainland Britain. The less common Atlantic or Short-snouted Seahorse, Hippocampus Hippocampus, breeds in the Channel Islands. Individuals have been known to wander into the English Channel.

By chance, in 1995, seven Spiny Seahorses were caught in a fortnight by fishermen in Weymouth Bay and brought, alive, to Weymouth SEA LIFE Park. Thanks to plenty of care and attention from our marine experts, all survived.

The Weymouth spinies began ‘courting' within weeks, but the first brood of more than 200 babies all perished because, try as they might, biologists could not find suitable food for them. Thankfully the centre was able to siphon plankton from its seawater pond by the time a second brood arrived. This proved to be the perfect baby food.

Hundreds of spiny seahorses, representing several generations, have now been successfully reared...and this success led SEA LIFE to try its hand with other species. As a result of this incredibly successful programme the Weymouth-based breeding programme has become world renowned for its capabilities. Their advice on husbandry and diet is sought by biologists working at other aquaria all over the world.

The programme serves two wider purposes. Firstly the knowledge that gets passed on means that many aquaria won’t have to source stock from the wild. It also demonstrates to home-aquarium enthusiasts that breeding them isn’t easy. It is very difficult to provide adequate care to seahorses in a home environment.

To date the Weymouth centre has bred ten species. They include some notable firsts - the Indonesian zebra-snouted seahorse Hippocampus Barbouri and the hedgehog seahorse Hippocampus Spinosissimus. The latter were born to an illegally imported adult pair confiscated by Customs wildlife officers at Heathrow.

Other species like the Australian big-bellied seahorse, the slender seahorse from the Caribbean and the yellow seahorse from the Pacific, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, have also bred prolifically.

The programme has been so successful that Weymouth opened the National Seahorse Breeding and Conservation unit in 2003. So many baby seahorses have already been reared there that satellite breeding facilities have now been set up at many other SEA LIFE centres.


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