A day in the life: studying seahorses in Brazil

By Lindsay Aylesworth

As Project Seahorse PhD student Lindsay Aylesworth prepares for her first field season in southeast Asia, she remembers her formative experiences as a seahorse researcher.

On June 12, 2002, the world as I knew it changed. I stepped into my wetsuit, donned my mask, and stuck in my regulator as I took my first plunge into what would become my life of adventure as a marine biologist. My love of scuba diving and science led me to Australia, the Great Barrier Reef and the James Cook University, where I serendipitously stumbled upon my love for seahorses.

My final project for a marine biology class required an oral presentation on the conservation status of a species that lived in the ocean. I stood outside Professor Geoff Jones’s office inspecting the list of possible species. The only problem was that all the species names were in Latin. The obvious characters like Delphinus delphis, (sounds like dolphin right?), were already taken.

As I gazed at the list, one struck my fancy, Hippocampus. Cool, I thought, sounds like HippopotamusI signed up to present on Hippocampus, which turned out to be the scientific name for seahorses, and the rest is history! I found out that they can camouflage themselves to blend in with the environment (the ultimate challenge for an experienced scuba diver), they can mate for life, and they are the only fish species that can hold your hand. My fascination with seahorses was born.

I’ve spent the last six years wandering my way to Vancouver – gaining international research and policy experience in a variety of ocean topics – to pursue my PhD studying seahorses. As I write this introduction, it is October 2012. I’ve been a PhD student for ten months and I’m excitedly planning my first field season.

After intense reading, thought provoking discussions, and deep thinking I have decided on a topic – understanding the impact of fishing on food availability for seahorses, and what this means for population growth and reproduction. I’ve decided on a geographical location – Southeast Asia, and a species - Hippocampus kuda, the yellow seahorse.

 I’m planning to leave January 1st to begin my work. I’ll be sharing many an update from the field, but before I do, I wanted to share my previous experience of studying seahorses in Brazil. Prior to starting my PhD, I spearheaded a project in the northeastern state of Ceará, Brazil to identify the microhabitat preferences of the longsnout seahorse, Hippocampus reidi. It was quite the adventure, but I thought it would be interesting to share what it was like to live a “day in the life” of a seahorse researcher in Brazil as it will make for an interesting comparison for a “day in the life” in Southeast Asia.

A day in the life: studying seahorses in Brazil

The alarm goes off. It’s 5:30 a.m. I can already smell the bread in the oven at the bakery below my apartment. I’m based in Mundaú, Ceará in northerneastern Brazil. A day in the life of a seahorse researcher is based on the tides. Today low tide is at noon, which means an early start. I head down to the bakery to pick up breakfast and snacks for the day. Next, I visit the dock to check in with the boat captain, Raimundo. I take the fuel tanks for the boat to be filled, and head back to the apartment to gather the research team and supplies – wetsuits, fins, masks, slates, GPS and sunscreen.

Travel time to field sites can vary anywhere from a few minutes to several hours by boat. Today I plan to visit one of the distant sites in an estuary down the coast, since the tide schedule gives us plenty ofdaylight hours for traveling and research. By 7:30 a.m. we’ve loaded all the gear into the boat and off we go.

By 10 we’ve arrived at our field site, a mangrove estuary just inland from the Atlantic Ocean. If low tide is at noon, you can plan that from 10:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., you will be nice and salty, searching and seeking for seahorses. Our subject of the day is the longsnout seahorse, Hippocampus reidi, one of two seahorse species found in Brazil.  H. reidi is listed as a ‘data-deficient’ species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which means that there is not enough information about this species to determine its conservation status.

We are studying their habitat preferences to identify where they like to live and what threats they may face. The three hours of field work are generally the most exciting of the day. How many seahorses will you find? Will there be any juveniles? Will you find any pregnant males? As a seahorse researcher, it's never guaranteed that you will find your subject. Seahorses are masters of disguise, and can elude even the most well-trained eye, so it's always an exciting moment when you are able to find one.

By 10:30 we have donned our masks, snorkels and wetsuits, and slipped into the water. The team snorkels around looking for seahorses and recording habitat information. After visiting several habitats without success, our third location of the day brings an excited shout from one of my research assistants. Hidden in between the mangrove roots and oysters is a little seahorse!

At four centimetres, it’s one of the smallest ones we’ve found, definitely a juvenile. This is really exciting because during our six months of research, so far we have found fewer than 10 juveniles.

Juveniles are extra-hard to find because of their size and their camouflage abilities. There’s very little information on where juvenile seahorses live. After the seahorse fry are born, they spend part of their lives in the open ocean. But no one is sure how long they stay there or where they go — whether they ride the currents until they find a coastal habitat to call home, or if like sea turtles they return to the place (usually an estuary, reef, or seagrass bed) where they were born.

By 1:30 p.m. the tide has started to rise. We pack our gear and ourselves into the boat and head back to shore. When we arrive back at the dock, I discuss logistics for research tomorrow with Raimundo.  My research assistants rinse the equipment in fresh water to avoid salt corrosion. Then everything is hung up in the afternoon sun to dry.

After a good meal and warm shower, the data, photos and video are entered into the computer and the underwater slates cleaned. If it's not too late in the day by the time this is all done, emails are answered (if the internet works), and a friendly game of soccer is taken up with the local children. After soccer, the research team and I enjoy a cold coconut, while watching the sunset from a sand dune.

All photos: Lindsay Aylesworth/Project Seahorse