Reflecting on SyngBio, the global gathering for seahorse, pipefish & seadragon people

By Lily Stanton

I’ve just had the most amazing week in Florida, filling my head with wonder and my heart with joy.  I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first International SyngBio meeting where hundreds of researchers and professionals from all over the world were set to meet in Tampa, Florida. After all, I am new to the Syngnathid world. But, I reasoned, what better place to learn about seahorses, pipefishes, pipehorses and seadragons than a meeting full of the leading experts in the field?

As it turns out, I had underestimated just how fun and rewarding SyngBio would be, full of collegiality and intellectual excitement.  The schedule was jam packed with interesting talks and social events.  With far-flung topics ranging from sexual selection and genomics to husbandry and aquaculture, I was fascinated by the range of presentations and impressed by their excellence.  It was just wonderful to hear from people who are based all over the world, all focused on these improbable fishes.  

Ribboned pipefish, Haliichthys taeniophorus, at The Florida Aquarium

Ribboned pipefish, Haliichthys taeniophorus, at The Florida Aquarium

I really appreciated the diversity of the SyngBio experience, where passion for these fishes was ever-present. Our first social event was set against the background of the main reef exhibit at the Florida Aquarium. Under dimmed lights, we sat in amazement as presenters shared their personal scientific stories and photos about their research. Even the curious green sea turtle named Flip couldn’t resist coming closer to catch a glimpse of the activities happening right before her, rather upstaging the wonderful story telling.

My brain strained to keep up with the wave of new knowledge.  Throughout the meeting, we learned of everything syngnathid, from a new species of pipehorse to the fascinating world of seahorse communication (did you know seahorses click, growl and purr?). There were also alarming tales of annihilation fishing in India, the devastating effects of trawling in Southeast Asia and the extraction of seahorses for the dried trade in Portugal. All this nicely intermixed with a good dose of inspirational conservation success stories of seagrass restoration in the Tampa Bay Estuary, citizen science helping save seahorses through iSeahorse Philippines and the imaginative use of discarded fishing traps to create “seahorse hotels” in Australia.  We learned how to train your dragon - your seadragon that is - and how “The Secret Lives of Seahorses” exhibit broke attendance records at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Indeed, these fantastical fishes have captivated the imagination of many people for many years.  And for me, it is no different.  I could feel my excitement about these fishes growing, the more I discovered.

Heading out into the warm waters of Tampa Bay to participate in the BioBlitz

Heading out into the warm waters of Tampa Bay to participate in the BioBlitz

I even observed some syngnathids, up close and personal in their natural habitat. Among the many memorable moments I had at SyngBio, the best by far was the field excursion.  We were spoilt for choice, having to decide between a behind-the-scenes tour of the Florida Aquarium or the Mote Marine Laboratory, Bird watching or BioBlitz, a chance to immerse ourselves (literally) with the wild animals. I, of course, chose BioBlitz and was thrilled at the opportunity to get out into the warm waters of Tampa Bay and push small nets through seagrass beds to sample the improbably small dwarf seahorses and pipefishes.  My choice did not disappoint, I was delighted to see many wild seahorses and pipefish for the very first time! A truly magical experience. One I will not soon forget.  These fishes are just so tiny … and happily so abundant in the restored habitats of Tampa Bay.

The beautiful University of Tampa

The beautiful University of Tampa

The fun lasted until the very end.  SyngBio concluded with a fantastic boat cruise and an evening banquet – complete with crazy awards – at the Florida Aquarium. An enjoyable evening had by all with new found friends and colleagues. It will be hard to top the stunning scenery and amazing hospitality of our hosts at The University of Tampa and the Florida Aquarium but I am sure the next set of organizers are up for the challenge. See you all in a few years’ time!   
 

Endangered Species Day

“Extinction Lasts Forever” reads the colourful poster of a seahorse, wrasse, turtle, and octopus beside my desk at Project Seahorse.  It reminds me of the poster hanging in my room as an undergraduate biology student, the one that said, “Protect them: because once they’re gone it’s too late.”

April’s featured iSeahorse observation - a Jayakar’s seahorse from Egypt

April’s featured iSeahorse observation is a Jayakar’s seahorse (Hippocampus jayakari). This lovely portrait was taken off the coast of Dahab, Egypt, by iSeahorse user poseidon. The username poseidon is certainly apt for a fish-whispering diver, as the Poseidon of Greek mythology is said to ride a chariot pulled by aquatic equines called hippocampi, which allegedly have horse heads and fish tails (sort of like seahorses… or horse mermaids!). 

Seahorse giving birth (with a manatee in the background)!

seahorse_and_manatee_katieg628-iseahorse.jpg

Our featured iSeahorse observation for March comes to us from West Palm Beach, Florida. This interesting picture was captured by iSeahorse user katieg628. It shows the lined seahorse, Hippocampus erectus, giving birth to many juvenile seahorses. Seahorses and their relatives are among the only fish species to give live birth, as can be seen here in the photo.

 Males brood the eggs in their brood pouch and then give birth to live young, which travel into the water column and float with currents for dispersal.

In addition to being lucky enough to catch a live seahorse birth, Katie also unknowingly caught a glimpse of a manatee (Trichechus manatus)! The manatee shares habitat with seahorses in the western Atlantic. Both the lined seahorse and the manatee are considered Vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List. Seahorses share their ocean homes with many other important marine species, which is a big part of why Project Seahorse operates under the mantra "Saving seahorses means saving our seas" — protecting habitat that seahorses depend on also helps protect the homes of countless other species, contributing greatly to the overall health of our oceans and planet.

Meet Rosie - a bigbelly seahorse from Australia

February’s featured observation is actually three sightings of one bigbelly seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis), all posted recently by iSeahorse user Andrew Trevor-Jones but recorded over the course of several years off the coast of New South Wales, Australia. This rotund beauty has been dubbed “Rosie”. She was identified as the same individual based on her distinctive spot pattern. 

First featured iSeahorse sighting of 2017 - a thorny seahorse

The first showcased iSeahorse sighting of 2017 is of a thorny seahorse, Hippocampus histrix. It was found within the boundary of Mafia Island Marine Park, a region in Tanzania consisting of island, coastal and ocean ecosystems that are internationally acclaimed for their biodiversity.

The Japanese seahorse - November's highlighted iSeahorse observation

November’s featured iSeahorse observation is of a Japanese seahorse, Hippocampus mohnikei. This little fish was spied off the Cambodian coast during a formal seahorse survey conducted by Projects Abroad Cambodia. The sighting is rather timely, considering the recent publication of a paper illuminating updates in knowledge about this species’ range, habitat and threats.

Where conservation happens

Where conservation happens

When I left for the CITES CoP, I told my 5 year old son that I was going to a meeting where all the world’s countries were coming together to make sure that all the animals and plants around today would be around when he grew up – and I left South Africa still convinced that this is exactly the best way to describe the CoP. 

Science is cool... and it's about time we showed kids that!

Science is cool... and it's about time we showed kids that!

Midshipmen are not ordinary fish - their songs are loud enough to wake houseboaters, they have rows of small light-producing organs that resemble buttons on the uniforms of naval officers (hence their name), and the males come in two distinct reproductive types, guarders and sneakers.  However when Let’s Talk Science at UBC (LTS) was looking for a cool science project to get students from underprivileged Surrey high schools excited about BC's marine ecosystems, a strangeness or hook is exactly what was wanted.

The West African seahorse- this month's highlight

September’s featured iSeahorse observation comes to us from the Island of São Tomé. Nuno Vasco Rodrigues spotted a group of five West African seahorses, Hippocampus algiricus, near a small island off the west coast of Gabon, West Africa. This species is one of two occurring in the eastern Atlantic Ocean off of Africa (the other being Hippocampus hippocampus)

Getting excited about export regulation … really!!

Our job was to find common challenges and opportunities for managing wildlife trade among seahorses, sharks, rays, humphead wrasse, European eels, and sturgeons.  These very cool fishes are united as the first wave of fishes to come under global regulations, requiring that no export threaten wild populations.  While that sounds good, the challenge, as ever, lies in the implementation … and that was our focus.