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Saving the seahorse: Monaco works to protect their prancing horse

Backed by Prince Albert II, a scientific expedition set-out to research and protect the endangered Mediterranean seahorse.

Prince Albert II hands the scientists the seahorses to be placed in a protected area. © Institut océanographique

They don't seem to notice the media hype that surrounds the glass basin in Monaco's Oceanographic Museum. They float calmly in the water, with their primeval-looking trunks, slender, dark bodies and curved hulls. At just 12 to 16 centimetres, they are a real speciality: Hippocampi Guttulati, spotted seahorses native to the Mediterranean. And they are about to take a big step: they are to leave the sanctuary of the Centre monégasque de soins des espèces marines (CNSEM) after months of rearing and accompaniment, back to their native waters off the coast of Monaco.

Male seahorse in the Oceanographic Museum's "Centre monégasque de soins des espèces marines" (CNSEM) © P. Pacorel - Institut océanographique Monaco

Seahorses are among the most endangered species in the world, especially in the Mediterranean Sea, and are threatened with extinction. The few specimens that can still be found are being driven further and further away by human interference. In order to counteract this and to find out more about the dancers of the marine world, the Institut océanographique, together with the organisation BIOTOPE and the Prince Albert II Foundation for the Environment, has launched a study on the hippocampi. The team led by Patrick Louisy, scientific director of the seahorse expedition, wants to study the mysterious inhabitants of the Mediterranean more closely and develop strategies for better species protection.

Master of camouflage at a depth of 20 metres

The project moves between observation and conversation; behaviour and habitats are to be observed, researched and preserved. However, to obtain valid results, diving suits and breathing masks had to be put on first: Between June and September 2020, volunteer divers spent 160 diving hours off the Principality looking for the animals. With their light to dark brown skin, distinctive colour-contrasting rings and speckled spots on their slender bodies, the Mediterranean seahorses are true masters of camouflage. After some searching, three proboscideans were finally located in around 20 metres of sea depth just off the coast of Monaco, captured and brought into the pools of the Oceanographic Institute.

A seahorse birth in captivity

What divers and researchers alike had not expected was the secret that a seahorse held: The pregnant male allowed the scientists of the Oceanographic Centre to witness a seahorse birth live. And so suddenly there were seven little individuals, observed behind glass panes just a few metres away from their home waters, nursed up and finally prepared for their big return to the sea.

From the capture off Monaco to the examinations at the Oceanographic Institute to the re-release, personally accompanied by Prince Albert II. Photos: © M. Dagnino + F. Pacorel + P. Fitte - Institut océanographique and © Eric Mathon - Palais princier

The big return to home waters

In the late afternoon of 16 June this year, the time had finally come: after several months in the aquarium, the exotic marine animals were released back into the wild. To prevent damage to reproductive processes, males and females were released separately off the coast of Monaco after a genetic analysis and genetic matching. On the side of the Roche St. Nicolas and in front of the quay wall in Fontvieille, small, spotted creatures now dance among the algae and coral at a depth of 20 metres. The unique marine animals will continue to be protected in the future. Using modern photo recognition and natural characteristics, scientists can identify the seahorses again and again and continue to monitor them.

-Sabrina Reitnauer

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