Crowdsourcing Seahorses: New smartphone app offers hope for seahorse science and conservation

Marine conservationists from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago today launched a smartphone app that could lead to new discoveries about some of the ocean’s most mysterious and threatened animals — seahorses — and pave the way for similar efforts with other difficult-to-study species.

With iSeahorse Explore, ocean enthusiasts around the world can become citizen scientists who contribute to marine conservation with a few taps of their phone. The iPhone app is designed for people to quickly log seahorse sightings whenever they encounter an animal in the wild. 

“We’ve made important scientific breakthroughs with seahorses in recent years, but they remain incredibly enigmatic animals,” says Dr. Amanda Vincent, Director of Project Seahorse, UBC and ZSL’s joint marine conservation initiative, and Chair of the IUCN Specialist Group on Seahorses, Pipefishes and Sticklebacks.

Thanks to their small size and ability to blend into their surroundings, seahorses are difficult to study in the wild. Of the 48 seahorse species listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 26 are considered ‘Data Deficient’—meaning that there isn’t enough information for us to know whether these species are thriving, disappearing, or something in between.

“We know that seahorses are threatened by overfishing, destructive fishing practices, and habitat loss. Now we need to pinpoint populations and places that most need conservation action,” says Dr. Heather Koldewey, co-founder of Project Seahorse and Head of Global Conservation Programmes at ZSL.

iSeahorse Explore expands the number of people studying seahorses in the wild from a handful of scientists to hundreds and potentially thousands of ‘citizen scientists.’ As part of efforts to build a sustainable monitoring network, Shedd Aquarium and Project Seahorse’s joint postdoctoral research fellow, Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh, is in the field providing in-country training that will build a long-term citizen science program for Southeast Asia, including standard protocols for seahorse identification and tagging.

“By leveraging the enthusiasm of everyone from fishers to SCUBA divers to people on vacations at the beach, we’ll create a more comprehensive picture of seahorse populations around the world. This in turn will inspire new scientific research and practical conservation measures that can help protect ocean habitats,” adds Dr. Chuck Knapp, Vice President of Conservation and Research and Louis Family Foundation Conservation Chair for the Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research at Shedd.

The app and its feature-rich companion website, www.iSeahorse.org, represent a pilot collaboration with with iNaturalist.org, a leading citizen science group.

“With iSeahorse, we’ve created a suite of citizen science and conservation tools that can be readily adopted by other groups for other difficult-to-study species,” says Dr. Scott Loarie, co-Director of iNaturalist.org.

New features planned for the next phase of the iSeahorse website and smartphone app include sophisticated population monitoring and advocacy tools as well as a social media component.

“Working together with citizen scientists all over the world, we’ll accomplish big things for seahorses and other vulnerable marine species,” adds Dr. Vincent.

iSeahorse is made possible by the generous support of Guylian Belgian Chocolate, Harmsworth Trust UK, and Whitley Fund for Nature.

The iSeahorse iPhone app is available for download here. To learn more about iSeahorse and explore seahorse maps, species profiles, and other data, visit www.iseahorse.org.

 

ABOUT SEAHORSES

·       Approximately 13 million seahorses are traded globally, live and dead, every year around the world. They are used in traditional Chinese medicine, for display in aquariums, and as curios and souvenirs.

·       These tiny sentinels of the sea thrive in healthy habitats: conserving seahorses helps protect the oceans for all of us who depend on them.

·       Of the 48 seahorse species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 11 are listed as threatened. Twenty-six species are listed as Data Deficient, which means that we do not have enough information to confirm their conservation status.

·       Many seahorse species appear to mate for life. Where seahorses are monogamous, their pair-bonds are reinforced by daily greetings, during which the female and male change colour and promenade and pirouette together. The dance lasts several minutes, and then the pair separates for the rest of the day.