Researching our Local Seahorses

Koh Tao Seahorse

A young seahorse (Hippocampus trimaculatus) floats past the Hin Fai Biorock

Seahorses are a unique group of marine fishes that are are a favorite sighting by divers, snorkelers, and marine enthusiast. Despite their popularity and economic importance, still little is known about their abundance, habitats, reproductive success rate, and other ecological concerns. To better understand the dynamics of seahorses around the globe a collaborative program at the University of British Columbia and the Zoological Society of London has been launched called Project Seahorse.  One of the leading projects being undertaken by Project Seahorse  together with the John G. Shedd Aquarium is the launch of an online citizen science database at iSeahorse.org. The global database allows people to input their seahorse sightings to contribute to the scientific understanding of seahorses so that better policy and management actions can be implemented where they are needed. The group is also working on turning their research protocols into a Distinctive Specialty Course through PADI, similar to our Ecological Monitoring Program, so that they can increase the awareness and involvement of the diving industry in their study efforts.

 

Spiny Seahorse on Koh Tao

A spiny seahorse (H. spinosissimus) found near Chalok Ban Kao

 

The New Heaven Reef Conservation Program (NHRCP) is proud to announce our involvement and assistance to their efforts. Since April of 2013 we have been undertaking our own seahorse surveys, using a combination of the survey techniques proposed by iSeahorse.org and those we have developed ourselves. We have also shared the techniques we have developed with iSeahorse.org, so that they can integrate them into their PADI Distinctive Specialty Course.

 

Sea horses around Koh Tao

NHRCP Intern, Margaux, checks out one of her favorite animals

The NHRCPs efforts to track local seahorse populations arose while conducting research into the biodiversity of fishes in the Gulf of Thailand. We realized that very little is known about seahorses, other than the number of different seahorse species found in the Gulf of Thailand (up to 7). As seahorses are susceptible to many of the threats facing other coral reef organisms, we assumed that populations around the island must be under threat, but to what degree? After understanding the dynamics of our local seahorse populations, we may also want to help protect and even restore them. So there are many questions we must answer such as what species do we have, where are they found, when do they breed, and so on.

 

So far we have conducted about 10 seahorse surveys in various locations around the island, but have not seen any seahorses during our surveys. We have been focusing our surveys on the areas where we had previously spotted seahorses, or had them reported by other divers. These tend to be what we refer to as ‘muck’ environments; meaning the deep, sandy/muddy areas away from the coral reefs. Although we haven’t found any seahorses, we have found many other strange and amazing animals in the ‘muck’, making the seahorse surveys one of our favorite new activities. But this ‘null’ data is actually quite helpful, since after conducting over 3,000 meters of surveys with a combined diver observation time of over 4,400 minutes we can confidently say that seahorses are quite rare around our island. Still, we occasionally get reports of sightings that keep us optimistic, and even a few weeks ago a young girl found a live one washed up on the beach (which she later released back to the reef.)

 

 

Seahose survey recognition card

The new NHRCP recognition card for Seahorses

Students in our program will now receive training in seahorse ecology and populations studies, and will conduct seahorse surveys using our techniques and materials. Starting in October 2013, they will also be able to receive a recognition card from the NHRCP and iSeahorse.org. All proceeds from the sale of the cards will go to support iseahorse.org and the global protection of seahorses. After the launch of the Seahorse Specialty Course (early 2014) our students will be eligible to receive the PADI certification as well.

 

We are very excited about our collaboration to assist iSeahorse.org in their efforts to understand and track local populations. In July we were visited by PhD student Lindsay Aylesworth of Project Seahorse, and joined her for some surveys. She also treated us to a talk about Thailand’s seahorses and the work being done by the group. Later in September we will be joined by one of the group’s main researchers, Dr. Tse-Lynn Loh of the Shedd Aquarium. In addition to conducting some more survey’s around the island, we have also arranged for Dr. Loh to give a talk to the diving community and increase the local awareness and participation in the iSeahorse.org project.

Stamp for seahorses

See some more of the amazing things we have been finding during our seahorse surveys in our Macrophotography Gallery