The 100 year old seahorse

How do you celebrate the anniversary of something that has been preserved for a hundred years? It is most definitely not a ‘birth’day. A ‘deathday’ doesn’t really have that ‘celebratory’ ring to it. Perhaps an anniversary of the ‘preservation day’ sounds quite nice.

Today on the 29th November 2013, we celebrate the 100th year anniversary of this little seahorse’s preservation day. And worth celebrating too, for she has a lot to tell us through her gorgeous old jar.

100 years ago this little seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus) was found. She may have been found dead, but as was the way 100 years ago, she was most probably collected. Mr R. S. Clark, a scientist at the Marine Biological Association, neatly wrote out a label and popped it, along with the seahorse, into a lovely ground glass jar full of spirit.

Preserved for 100 years, this spiny seahorse tells us more than we would think from its old glass jar.

Preserved for 100 years, this spiny seahorse tells us more than we would think from its old glass jar.

Why Clark preserved it in spirit is easy to understand when we look at other natural history collections. Most insects have a stainless steel pin pushed through their hard skeleton on the outside of their bodies (exoskeleton) and spend eternity pinned in drawers. This works well for these little critters as the external features are preserved.

All vertebrates (animals with a backbone) can have their flesh removed by being boiled, burried, or eaten by beetles leaving their skeleton to be stored in nice labelled boxes. Some vertebrates (namely mammals, birds and reptiles) can have their insides taken out and their skin pulled over a foam (or straw) mannequin which has a ‘life-like’ pose, known as a taxidermy mount. Alternatively, the skins of these animals can be treated and stored as they are, without being stuffed (called study skins). 

For those soft bodied creatures, or more delicate ones, preserving them in a fluid is the best way to keep them for the future. Pinning a sea cucumber wouldn’t really work, and stuffing a jellyfish would be very disappointing. Using a fluid (mainly ethanol or formaldehyde) preserves all parts of the organism, even the internal organs. It is used for preserving invertebrates (animals without a backbone), plants and even vertebrates too.

Mr Clark could have actually dried the seahorse to preserve it; many museum collections have dried specimens. This does preserve the external features, like pinning an insect. But the internal organs and tissue rot away. For me, dried seahorses loose a little bit of that magic. 

Seahorses are beautiful little fish with 54 different species around the world. They appear to be a relative newcomer to the seas, evolving from pipefish-like ancestors around 13 million years ago. It is well-known that the females will put her eggs into the male’s brood pouch, where he will look after the eggs until the young swim out.

Although they are really really bad swimmers, a recent study has shown that seahorses are actually masters of stealth. Their unique body shape lets them move through the water with out being noticed by the little marine animals it is trying to eat. Their snout slowly moves the water around its body, so it creates no ripples; and to a little animal that protects itself by detecting movement of ripples, the seahorse is invisible.

These enigmatic animals are very delicious food for many animals, including crabs, fish and penguins. They are a pretty easy meal because they are such terrible swimmers. But they face a bigger predator: man. It may not come as a huge surprise to find out that they are used in Chinese medicines, mainly to treat impotence. It appears to be a general them with Chinese ‘medicine’; men who cant get it up compensate by exterminating rare and exotic species. Humans can be a really stupid species sometimes.

It is also well known that these wonderful looking animals live exclusively in clear, turquoise tropical waters amongst colourful coral reefs.

Wrong.

When Mr Clark wrote the label 100 years ago, he wrote ‘Sound’; short-hand for Plymouth Sound. This little seahorse was collected from the waters around Plymouth!

In fact, there are two species of seahorses living along many parts of the coast of the UK; the Short Snouted Seahorse (Hippocampus hippocampus) and the Spiny Seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus). They can be found along the south, south west and south east coast, as well as around Wales, northern Scotland, the North Sea, and north and south Ireland. These beautiful creatures like to live amongst the sea grasses, but also man made objects like marinas. Recent studies have shown that they are a lot more adaptable to changes in the local environment than we think!

It is amazing to think that she was swimming with her other seahorse kind in the sea grasses along the coast of Plymouth 100 years ago. What’s more amazing is to know that they still are today.

I raise my warm mug of milky tea to celebrate this anniversary of it’s preservation day. 100 years dead. She may have lost a little colour in her cheeks, but at 100 years dead, she is looking rather good.

The author celebrating the preservation day of this beautiful seahorse. (Cup of tea is out of camera shot).

The author celebrating the preservation day of this beautiful seahorse. (Cup of tea is out of camera shot).

Further Reading:

The British Seahorse Survey: [click here]

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