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!