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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Book Review: Poseidon's Steed: The Story of Seahorses, From Myth to Reality

“But seahorses hold a secret intimacy, a special reward for the keen-eyed.  And perhaps deep down I held on to a childhood suspicion, an irrational part of me that didn’t quite believe that seahorses really do inhabit the oceans.  Seeing one felt like glimpsing a unicorn trotting through my garden.”

When visitors come to the zoo, they expect to see specific animals – monkeys and bears, giraffes and zebras.  When they go to the aquarium, on the other hand, their expectations are a little more general.  They expect to see… fish.  And for the most part, they are all just that – fish.  There are very few groups of fish which stand out in the mind of the visitor, sharks being one obvious exception.  There is another group of fish, however, which is so unique, so spectacular, so utterly different from anything else in the sea that any aquarium visitor can identify it in a moment.  Those are the seahorses.

Seahorses are like no other fish; in fact, for a long time, early scientists weren’t even sure that they were fish.  Maybe they were crustaceans.  Or baby dragons.  Or who knows what.  What is known is that throughout human history and culture, from the folklore of pre-Columbian Latin America to the rock paintings of Australia to the treasure hordes of the Middle East, people have recognized that seahorses are special.

In Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, From Myth to Reality, marine biologist Helen Scales takes readers on a tour through the world of seahorses, both as they exist in real life and as they exist in our collective imagination.  Starting with a description of her first ever encounter with wild seahorses while diving of the coast of Vietnam, she welcomes the reader to the world of the most remarkable fish in the sea.  We are treated to detailed descriptions of the courtship and mating of seahorses, the only animals on earth where males get pregnant and experience childbirth (and I appreciate Scales anticipating and answering the question I’ve always had – then what makes them males?)  We explore sea horses in myth and culture, from ancient societies to Pokemon.  I’d always vaguely thought of seahorses as being pretty cool, but it wasn’t until reading some of the descriptive passages of their lives, their behaviors, and their courtships that I really realized just how bizarre and unique they really are.

Most distressingly, we’re given a glimpse into the dangerous world that seahorses find themselves in today.  Like rhinos, tigers, bears, and turtles, sea horses are threatened by the demand of their bodies for Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Scales’ description of the history and philosophy of TCM is the best I’ve read ever.   As a counterbalance, however, we’re also taken to a unique Filipino fishing community, where community-based conservationists are using seahorses as a flagship species to save their endangered reefs from dynamiting, poisoning, and overfishing.

Seahorses in captivity – both in public and private aquariums – receive a special chapter.  Scales describes the birth of the public aquarium, and notes that seahorses were some of the first fish to be displayed in them.  She then offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, TN, describing the care and breeding of seahorses in modern aquariums.  While emphasizing the need to protect seahorses in the wild, Scales calls attention to the importance of zoos and aquariums in introducing the public to seahorses and other animals, giving them a chance to meet and become infatuated with such unique creatures.

I’m somewhat of a wimp around water, and have never taken to SCUBA diving, so I don’t expect to ever meet a seahorse out in the wild.  Not that I should expect to, anyway; the author notes the great difficulty that she had in finding them, having searched for them on countless unsuccessful dives before finally encountering one.   Still, seeing seahorses in aquariums, and having them as a reminder that there are still wild ones roaming the oceans of the world, is enough for me.  It’s certainly enough to remind me what Loren Eiseley once wrote – “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

And, he might have added, “It is called the seahorse.”

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