See a Seahorse, Save a Seahorse

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Citizen scientists can use an iPhone app or online tool to log seahorse sightings to help seahorse conservation.

Weedy pygmy seahorse.  (Hippocampus pontohi)

Weedy pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus pontohi)

With the head of a horse, the tail of a monkey, and the belly of a kangaroo, seahorses look almost like mythical creatures, and their unique abilities make them no less fantastical. Seahorses have eyes that operate independently of one another, don skin that changes color, and exhibit a reversal of gender roles when it comes to pregnancy. Unfortunately, these interesting fish (seahorses are indeed fish!) are a threatened species as a consequence of habitat destruction and overexploitation. One of the challenges seahorses conservationists face is the lack of information on the 48 or so different varieties of seahorses, their populations and where exactly in the world’s oceans they live. Through Project iSeahorse, an online citizen science project with an accompanying iPhone app, users can turn their vacation seahorse sightings into important data for conservation efforts.

“iSeahorse sightings have already increased our understanding of where seahorses live,” says Tyler Stiem, communications manager of Project Seahorse, the marine conservation organization that runs iSeahorse. “Several species have been found by citizen scientists where they were either thought to be extremely rare or not even exist based on published literature. Knowing where a species lives is the first key to protecting its populations.” Just last month, two divers spotted a lined seahorse in Nova Scotia and used iSeahorse to report this rare occurrence in Canadian waters.

iSeahorse app

iSeahorse app

Users can create a simple account with iSeahorse and log in to add seahorse observations. The project asks for information regarding the type of seahorse encountered, when and where the sighting occurred, and the habitat it was found in. Users can also upload any photos taken to help identify the species observed. The iPhone app is also a great educational tool adorned with beautiful photos for users to learn more about the varieties of seahorses and their tell-tale characteristics. For example, the weedy pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus pontohi; top image) found in Indonesian waters is a mere half-inch in length whereas the pot-bellied seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis) can grow up to over a foot tall and has a protruding tummy, as its name suggests.

Conservationists recognize seahorses as a flagship species–a species that incites public interest to understand and protect an ecosystem. Likely due to their cute, cartoon-like appearances and quirky lifestyles, seahorses can be used to attract attention to marine environments in jeopardy that might otherwise be ignored. ”Flagship species are also a surrogate measure of the health of their ecosystem, as a healthy ecosystem will harbor healthy populations,” Stiem explains. “If high levels of pollution or habitat degradation occur, seahorses will not survive. Therefore healthy seahorse populations mean healthy coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds, all of which are important components of coastal ecosystems worldwide.” In addition, scientists perceive seahorses as a lens into better understanding of reproductive biology, since males uniquely carry offspring through the gestation period, and this poses another case for protecting the oceans’ biodiversity.

Project Seahorse also hopes to raise environmental awareness through their citizen science project and encourage practices that help protect the earth’s marine ecosystems. Seahorses are often exploited for their use in traditional medicines and as souvenirs.  In addition, shrimp farming and trawling affect the seahorse population and contribute to habitat destruction. According to data from Project Seahorse, every year approximately 2.2 million seahorses are caught in trawl nets, and one pound of shrimp procured for human consumption reflects ten pounds of other marine organisms unintentionally ensnared. The more participation projects like iSeahorse gain, the better chance that legislation can be drafted to promote better harvesting practices to protect marine life.

So if you’re headed for a beach vacation this summer, consider downloading the iPhone app or creating an iSeahorse account to log seahorse sightings that you encounter!

Resources: Project Seahorse

Images: Top image courtesy of Wendy Hoevenaars/Guylian Seahorses of the World; bottom image courtesy of Sheetal R. Modi.

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.


Sheetal R. Modi does research for a biotech start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering where she focused on the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. When she’s not tinkering with microbes, she enjoys science communication and being outside.

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See a Seahorse, Save a Seahorse by CitizenSci, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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