Patagonian seahorses send excited chills down my spine

By Amanda Vincent

I may have been shivering with cold, but my heart was leaping with excitement … I was face to face with the Patagonian seahorse, Hippocampus patagonicus, and it was magical. The species was only described in 2004 and is assessed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. It is still only known from three locations in Argentina, two in the northern province of Buenos Aires, near Uruguay, and one more way down south in Rio Negro province in Patagonia. I was in the colder southern location in a tidal channel that should be home to dozens of the wee fishies.

My wonderful guides were Dr. Diego Luzzatto and Dr. Maria Gabriela Pujol. Diego is the leading seahorse scientist in Argentina – based with CONICET, Argentina’s national scientific research agency – and active in research and conservation, with interests in taxonomy, biology, ecology, culture, fisheries, trade and fisheries management. Gabriela leads on outreach communications about H. patagonicus through the Lorenzo Scaglia Municipal Museum of Natural Sciences. She also maintains an active research programme on seahorses, in Mar del Plata, executing intensive surveys of H. patagonicus in the same manner and same location every month.

At Diego’s invitation, I had come to Las Grutas / San Antonio area to help support his frontline seahorse conservation work, support that is particularly needed in developing countries. Most of the world’s 43 species of seahorse are studied and supported by one conservationist, or none at all. Frontline conservationists commonly ask for training, advice, and encouragement. It is vitally important that Project Seahorse, acting as the IUCN Seahorse, Pipefish and Stickleback Specialist Group, provide them with as much support as possible, that they may be locally effective within a global context. Short field visits can be hugely efficient in creating momentum for notable efforts in conservation. They can also be incredibly fun and informative for the visitor, in this case me.

My highest priority was to meet the Patagonian seahorses for the first time. So dawn saw us heading off to a tidal channel where Diego had previously found these fishes. He was hopeful we might get lucky again, if we could time our swim to the turn of the tide. And if I could survive the cold. I was only travelling with a Lycra stinger suit, not a wet suit, and the water was, umm, very Patagonian. Still the channel was very shallow and I was a hardy Canadian, right?

 Tidal flats, seahorse habitat in Patagonia. 

Tidal flats, seahorse habitat in Patagonia. 

We threw ourselves in and started searching on snorkel, our faces almost touching the bottom, so shallow it was. I always find the first search in an area unnerving; how do the seahorses of this species disguise themselves in this habitat? Will I ever spot even one? After all, I’m meant to know a lot about seahorses. Diego felt the pressure, too, I know, on his home turf. I stared at every bit of sponge and minor rock, seeking that tell-tale tail. The ebbing tide slowed to a crawl and still we searched.

Then suddenly there he was, a pregnant male, far larger than I had expected and very calmly staring at me. Watching him led us to spot another, somewhat similar to the first. Now that we had hit slack tide, seahorses were popping up everywhere. Our total tally was 16 seahorses, 10 males (all pregnant) and six females, all found in water less than one metre deep. They ranged greatly in appearance from seemingly delicate to very robust, from tan colour to flaming orange, and from about 7 to 10 cm height. Gabriela and I took the first videos and photographs, respectively, of this species in the wild. It was magic from start to finish and we only gave up when the cold finally dulled my excitement. We bounced out jubilantly and exuberantly agreed that much more can be done at the site, as long as the tide is right.

Three pregnant Hippocampus patagonicus males and one female (bottom right) found in tidal waters less than one metre deep.  Photos by Amanda Vincent/Project Seahorse.

 Diego and Amanda, happy and excited after finding multiple Patagonian seahorses 

Diego and Amanda, happy and excited after finding multiple Patagonian seahorses 

During my short visit, I was also able to help Diego and Gabriela with their work on citizen science, project planning, grant applications, and manuscript development. Going forward, I’m excited about our new relationships of trust and our clear rapport over shared conservation ambitions. Diego has agreed to become a member of the IUCN Seahorse, Pipefish and Stickleback Specialist Group and to serve as the in-country National Seahorse Expert for iSeahorse while Maria Gabriela Pujol agreed to become an Ambassador and trends monitor for iSeahorse. There is much we can and will do together, buoyed up by our shared excitement about the funky Patagonian seahorse.

Huge thanks to Diego and Gabriela for such a warm welcome, and to Diego for his tremendous generosity in arranging all the logistics and driving us vast distances. Further thanks to Point Defiance Zoological Society for a wonderful unrestricted donation that was allocated towards this work, with the Society’s approval. We also thank the Pew Fellows Program for Marine Conservation for covering the cost of travelling to South America, in the context of that group’s annual meeting. Additional funding was provided by unsolicited individual donations to Project Seahorse through the University of British Columbia.