Cornish seahorses

English: Pygmy Sea Horse on gorgonian fan.
Pygmy Seahorse on gorgonian fan: difficult to spot if you are a predator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine if you could create your own fantastical sea creature. Would you give it the ability to change colour enabling it to hide from its predators; the ability to look forwards and backwards at the same time; a prehensile tail to cling on to vegetation; a body covered in armoured plates; a long horse-like snout and the ability to grow and reabsorb spines? And would you make it so it was the male that gave birth to its young? Sounds too weird? Well, if you made a creature looking like that, then you would in fact have created a real-life animal – a seahorse.

Seahorses are an amazing fish. Not only have they evolved all of the above clever adaptations, but they are also strangely beautiful to look at with their stately and graceful swimming style. I have maybe been a bit cheeky with the title of this post as, thanks to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, we can find them living, breeding and swimming around much more of the UK coastline.  But they are here in Cornwall and I’ve been enjoying finding out more about them. (I should say at the start that I owe a big thanks to Neil Garrick-Maidment, Director of The Seahorse Trust, and the Trust’s very informative web site, for information about seahorses in Cornwall, and permission to use photographs.)

Spiny Seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus)
Spiny Seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus) (Photo credit: Jeff Whitlock)

There are two species of seahorse in UK waters: the Short-snouted Seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus, which secured a place on My Cornish Ark) and the Spiny Seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatuswith a longer snout and spines on its head and the top of its back). Both need seabed vegetation in which they can hide and hunt, and this dictates to a large extent where they are found in Cornish waters. The more choosy Spiny Seahorses (very much restricted to seagrass habitats) are mainly found along our south coast where there are large seagrass meadows, with Penzance Bay hosting a reasonably-sized population (NB. a group of seahorses is called a ‘herd’!). Short-snouted Seahorses can live in a wider variety of vegetation and are therefore more generally distributed. Both species also live around the Isles of Scilly. Even divers would be very lucky to see them, though – they are secretive and cryptic, most often seen when brought up accidentally by crab and lobster fishing.

Despite the few differences between them, our two native seahorses have a similar life history. Here are a few things I found out, but do get onto The Seahorse Trust website here for more in-depth information. I’ve also posted extra information, links and background on the What’s Wild in Cornwall Facebook page.

Pregnant male seahorse (photo credit: The Seahorse Trust)
Pregnant male seahorse (photo credit: The Seahorse Trust)
  • Each seahorse starts its life as a tiny ‘fry’ – a perfect miniature seahorse. It is actually the male that becomes pregnant – the eggs are transferred to him by the female and then fertilised by him and carried in his pouch. He gives birth to many hundreds of fry (the number varies between species) – check out this article and video for more (note the seahorse in the film is not a UK-native species). Very few of the fry – which eat plankton and are self-sufficient from birth – will survive – they make a tasty meal for other creatures.
Courting seahorses (photo credit: The Seahorse Trust)
Courting seahorses (photo credit: The Seahorse Trust)
  • Those seahorses that make it to maturity will generally pair for life. Their courtship dances are beautiful, and they meet every morning (the male and female in each pair hold separate but overlapping territories) to dance together – the secret of a good ‘marriage’, maybe?
  • Unlike other fish, seahorses don’t have scales, but an exoskeleton of hard bony plates.
  • They can see extremely well, and their eyes can in fact swivel independently of each other: they can see backwards and forwards at the same time – very useful when hunting for their prey of small crustaceans, especially as their upright posture, while graceful, means they are not fast swimmers.

As well as being fascinating in their own right, their sensitivity to environmental conditions makes them a good barometer of climate and ecosystem changes.  Most of you will be aware of the impact of the Chinese medicine trade on seahorses, and they are also taken for the pet and curio trade. Closer to home, they are vulnerable to the impact of dredging, damaging fishing practices and anchorages which destroy their habitat (I’ve posted a great little animated film on the Facebook page about how this can avoided – check it out). Marine Conservation Zones will offer some protection, so why not get onto the DEFRA webpage to respond to the consultation and lobby for more Zones to go forward (it may not be in Cornwall, but Studland Bay in Dorset is an important site for seahorses).

Seahorse
A seadragon – not a native, but too beautiful not to include! (Photo credit: Opals-On-Black.com)

In my next post I’ll give some information about other things we can do to help protect our marine environment in Cornwall.  Seahorses are just one of the many  important and interesting creatures we find beneath the waves, and they are worth fighting for.

My Cornish Ark

Like me, you may have enjoyed watching David Attenborough last night (Friday 9 November) on the BBC talking about which 10 endangered species he would save by taking on to his ‘Ark’.  I was both entranced by the charismatic  (and in some cases, very cute!) species he chose, but also saddened to be reminded about the threats facing them – all are at some danger of extinction, all because of us humans.

It got me thinking about what species from Cornwall I would want to save in my own Ark.  So here is my list (of 8 rather than 10) – not all are unique to Cornwall, but all can be found here (for now) and are loved members of our Cornish countryside. It’s also a list based on my own knowledge and interests – what species would you choose?

Red-billed Chough flying in Penwith, Cornwall,...
Chough flying in Penwith, Cornwall, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Cornish Chough: No apologies for the Cornish prefix – although making a comeback elsewhere across Britain, this is an iconic bird of Cornwall. Absent from Cornish shores for three decades, a breeding pair first reappeared on the Lizard in 2001 (they’re still there! – choughs pair for life). The population has been growing since and choughs can now be found all around the Cornwall coast, in no small part due to the amazing army of volunteers organised by the RSPB who help each year in nest monitoring and guarding. A conservation success story – fingers crossed for the chough!

2. Hedgehog: Hedgehogs are in trouble across the UK. A report The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2011 found that numbers have decreased by 25% in just 10 years – and that’s a conservative estimate. More research is needed into why, but loss of habitat is doubtless one reason. I’d like to see more hedgehogs in Cornwall, so they are in my Ark.

Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus)
Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. Basking sharks: I’ve yet to see a basking shark on the Cornish coast, though I’ve been trying – I fell over and hurt my knee on the coastal path last year when spending more time gazing oceanwards than at where my feet were going! Like the Choughs, these plankton-feeding majestic creatures are on the increase, due to their comparatively recent protection from commercial hunting, as shown by recent research. They’re in my Ark to make sure the success continues – I’m not sure how I’m going to fit a pair in, though!

English: A female of Marsh Fritillary (Euphydr...
A female Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4. Marsh Fritillary Butterfly: This is one of our most endangered butterfly species. It’s hanging on in a few locations in Cornwall, thanks to the work of various wildlife charities, including the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Butterfly Conservation (plus the dedicated volunteers of its Cornwall branch). I’ll need some Devil’s Bit Scabious in my Ark as well, of course – the food plant of its caterpillar.

5. White-clawed crayfish: This is another seriously endangered species – our only native freshwater crayfish – at threat from being outcompeted by the introduced non-native American Signal Crayfish, which also carries a fungal infection fatal to our home-grown species. Buglife and the Environment Agency have been leading on conservation efforts for this small but beautiful creature, including a release in Cornwall, so here’s hoping for success.

Skylark
Skylark (Photo credit: Sergey Yeliseev)

6. Skylark: A lovely bird, and we do still see it in Cornwall but, like all farmland birds, it has been seriously declining.  I was once walking a little-used heathland path in the Cornish spring and accidentally disturbed a skylark who was nesting, hidden away right at the path’s edge – I retreated and watched to make sure she made it back safe and sound, but skylarks are in my Ark as an apology to her, and because I would hate to lose the sight and song of this bird from our Cornish countryside. Read the chapter ‘Hope for farmland birds’ in Mark Avery’s excellent book Fighting for Birds for a balanced and insightful account of efforts to save this and other farmland birds.

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Short-snouted Seahorse (Photo credit: Philippe Guillaume)

7. Short-snouted Seahorse: Some people are surprised to learn there are seahorses round the British Coast, but there they are, nestling beneath the waves. Mostly they are found in the warmer south-west British waters, including Cornwall.  All are at risk – partly due to disturbance to the eelgrass and seagrass beds they need for their habitat – and the Short-snouted Seahorse is the rarest. Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Living Sea’s programme works to protect the places they live, as does The Seahorse Trust. Possibly my favourite fish, they are welcome in my Ark!

8. Pigmy RushIn a departure from Ark-ish tradition, I am including a plant on my Cornish Ark. Pigmy Rush is an endangered plant, found in Europe, but in the UK only found on the Lizard in Cornwall. It is one of the smallest rushes, and colonises bare ground so likes land that is a little bit disturbed. Thanks to conservation management efforts, it has done well over the last year or so, including at Windmill Farm where artificial disturbance has been successful. You need to get up close and personal to appreciate its pink-flushed beauty, but it’s worth the effort!

What do you think? What would you save?