Seahorse rescue in a race against time to reverse decline
Seahorse husbandry 101 isn’t in the degree outline, but for two UTS postgraduate students caring for endangered seahorses will be a summer job to remember.
As summer jobs go for aspiring aquarists, it doesn’t get much better than caring for seahorse couples and hundreds of “perfect, miniature replica babies” known as fry. UTS Science graduates Jillian Chambers, 24, and Taylah Starc, 23, are playing a key role in a unique breeding project led by SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, designed to save White’s seahorse, Australia’s only threatened seahorse species.
The conservation project brings together collaborators from the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) Fisheries and the University of Technology Sydney.
The recent listing of White’s seahorse, also known as the Sydney seahorse, as an “endangered” species in New South Wales means the project is vitally important for reversing the decline in seahorse numbers in the Sydney region.
Aquarist and Seahorse Expert at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, Robbie McCracken, says the project aims to “successfully breed, raise and release White’s seahorse back into the wild”.
I’m thrilled to have two fantastic masters research students that can support the project and contribute to the recovery of the beautiful Sydney seahorses as a long-term initiative.
UTS Professor of Marine Biology
Jillian and Taylah have been overseeing breeding pairs, including pregnant males, collected from Sydney Harbour in early November, now housed in a new custom built facility at SEA LIFE. Both say the highlight so far has been watching the births of the first baby seahorses.
“It has been amazing watching the fry grow and develop from birth to now. We feel like proud parents,” Jillian said.
Taylah recalls arriving in the morning to clean the tanks and “noticing two little babies in the tank.”
“I spent the next two hours waiting in anticipation of the birth. It was so exciting when it finally happened. I was quite surprised to see how long the birth actually took.
“The male seems to have contractions like a human for hours before finally giving birth to the brood,” she said.
A male seahorse having contractions and giving birth to tiny seahorses, known as fry.
UTS Professor of Marine Biology, David Booth, who is supervising the students while they study for a Master of Science in Marine Science and Management, said “We were excited to be invited to work on this important project.”
“I’m thrilled to have two fantastic masters research students that can support the project and contribute to the recovery of the beautiful Sydney seahorses as a long-term initiative,” he said.
The long-term aim is to support the overall recovery of the species with the installation of “seahorse hotels” in Sydney Harbour, which will encourage the recovery and ongoing breeding of White’s seahorse. Much of their natural seagrass, sponge and soft coral habitat has disappeared.
Dr David Harasti, Senior Marine Scientist with DPI Fisheries and UTS Alumni, has more than a decade of experience working with seahorses and will oversee the release and follow-up.
“One of the key aspects of this project is that we will be implementing a monitoring program to assess how the babies go once they are released back into the wild. This will involve lots of diving surveys at the seahorse release sites to assess their growth, survival and if they start breeding in the wild. The installation of the seahorse hotels will also provide a new home for the seahorses within Sydney Harbour and we will closely monitor how this conservation tool helps the species to recover,” he said.
The SEA LIFE Trust’s “Ocean Youth” are helping with the Seahorse Hotel construction, along with Seadragon Diving Co. and Sydney-based Indigenous Sea Rangers with support from DPI’s Marine Estate Management Strategy (MEMS).
Jillian and Taylah say they are thankful to be involved in a project surrounded by passionate researchers and aquarists who have “guided and shared their knowledge with us” adding that “the volunteering experience will help us build career options and benefit our employability”.
To find out more about the White’s seahorse, visit the NSW DPI website.
And visit SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium to learn more about the Seahorse Project.
Jillian and Kaylah’s fun facts about seahorses
- Seahorses have one partner for life and every morning they perform a little dance ritual to reaffirm their relationship
- The male seahorse carries the babies and gives birth to them
- Seahorses camouflage to their surroundings in order to hide from predators – in the SeaLife Sydney Aquarium seahorses living in the seaweed have taken on bright yellow colours whilst those on the netting and rocks are dark brown
- Colours help seahorses communicate emotions and intentions
- White’s seahorses aren’t necessarily white – the species is named after John White, Surgeon General to the First Fleet – they come in a variety of colours