So you want to know: What’s this seahorse doing in my trap?

First published in the MLA Newsletter, December, 2012.

In Norway, finding a seahorse is bad luck for fishermen because they believe that they scare off the fish. Many Asian cultures believe that seahorses carry mystical powers and they are, therefore, utilized for healing purposes in Eastern medicine. I have heard that here in Maine many fishermen believe that finding a seahorse is good luck, and since there were quite a few seahorses found by lobstermen this past month, let’s just continue to believe that.

Photo by Monique Coombs.

What we know about seahorses is that they are usually found in warmer waters, tend to hide in sheltered areas like seagrass or coral reefs, and are named appropriately because they look like a horse. They use their tails to hold onto seagrass, though they cannot curl their tails backwards, and they can be up to 14 inches tall depending on the species. There are three seahorse species found in the Mediterranean Sea, and there are four species from North America to South America. Their genus is Hippocampus, coming from Ancient Greek: hippos meaning “horse” and kampos meaning “sea monster.”

The seahorses’ main predators are tuna, crab, and rays. They feed on smaller crustaceans and have phenomenal camouflage capabilities. Their “S” shape is also unique to them and specific to their method of feeding. Seahorses are thought to have developed from pipefish, and while pipefish are strong swimmers, seahorses are not. The pipefish can swim to its prey; seahorses use their camouflage to hide from their prey and wait for them to float or swim near. When the prey comes close, the seahorse stretches out its long neck and tilts its head to slurp its prey. It is a very quick motion because the seahorse packs a lot of energy in its neck muscles.

One of the most fascinating things about seahorses is that the male is responsible for both courting the female and carrying the eggs. That is right; the boy gets pregnant. In order to impress a female seahorse, the males have competitions in which they pull each other by the tail around the sea floor. They also display their pouches to the female by opening and closing them. The female will deposit up to 1,500 eggs into a chosen male’s pouch. He will then carry the eggs for up to three weeks, and give birth to as many as 200 fully developed tiny seahorses. The tiny seahorses exit the male via the same pouch that the eggs were deposited. The pouch is on the male’s stomach. When the baby seahorses are born, it looks very similar to that scene in the movie Alien when the alien bursts out of the man’s chest. The male seahorse is not responsible for any of the upbringing of the offspring and will even mate again after a few hours.

In October and November a few seahorses found in traps were brought to the attention of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. All were caught by the same lobsterman (he’s going to have some terrific luck!). Another seahorse was caught by my husband, Herman Coombs, out of Mackerel Cove, Bailey Island. He found the seahorse on one of his end lines. It was at the beginning of October, so the seahorse may have come closer to the surface hoping to get a bit warmer. It was probably holding on to the end line with its tail, thinking that it was similar to something on the sea floor.

It is hard to say how many seahorses have been found this year in the Gulf of Maine. They are not common in our waters because they rarely travel past the elbow of Cape Cod. Those that do are considered strays. In fact, one source sited only two sightings ever in the state of Maine, one documented and one unconfirmed case. Yet in this past couple of months, I know of five seahorses found in traps and have heard of quite a few more. If you find a seahorse, the best thing to do is to put it back and hope that it brings you some good luck!