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Philippine Seahorse (Hippocampus spp.)

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A great number of rare and exotic animals exist only in the Philippines and its surrounding waters, giving the country the distinction of having the highest level of biodiversity in the world. But this distinction was soon overshadowed by the fact that the Philippines has been dubbed as the "hottest of the hotspots" by no less than the Conservation International.

In the past century, the country's rainforests were reduced to only eight percent of their original size. A number of animals endemic to the Philippines had been presumed extinct even before they were studied. More indigenous animals existing today might soon follow.

The same problem threatens the country's marine life. The level of biodiversity in the country is believed richest under the sea. Its coral reefs cover an area greater than 10 percent of its land area. Also, the country has the most diverse coral species in the world. More than 500 of the world's 700 coral species are found here. However, approximately 80 percent of these coral reefs have been damaged.

The Philippines is part of the Coral Triangle - a region roughly bounded by the Philippines to the north, Indonesia to the west, and Papua New Guinea and Australia's Great Barrier Reef to the southeast. Most seahorse species, probably the most peculiar creatures in the water, live in the Coral Triangle.

There are at least 50 known seahorse species in the world. They inhabit temperate and tropical waters but most of them are concentrated in the warm coastal waters of the Philippines. Seahorses are small saltwater fish belonging to the Syngnathidae family (order Gasterosteiformes), which also includes pipefish and sea dragons.

The seahorse's scientific genus name, Hippocampus is a Greek word, which means "bent horse." Seahorses range in length from about 2 inches to 14 inches. Known for their small compressed body covered with 50 rectangular body plates, they also vary in colors - white, yellow, red, brown, black, gray, spotted or banded. The tail is prehensile, and the tubular mouth sucks in small shellfish, shrimp, larvae and small crustaceans as food. The head and foreparts, usually carried upright, resemble those of a horse. They swim vertically and beat their fins up to 70 times a second.

Seahorses spend most of the day resting by anchoring themselves with their tail. They wrap their tails around corals, seaweeds, eelgrasses or any other convenient object on the ocean floor. They have no caudal or tailfin. In order to swim, they use their pectoral fin and dorsal fin, a transparent fin on their back that beats 20 to 30 times per second. The dorsal fin moves the seahorse forward. The pectoral fin controls which way the seahorse is going to turn. Normally, they swim in an up-and-down fashion. They do this by controlling the volume of gas in their bodies.

What makes seahorses even more unique is their reproductive behavior. The male seahorse is the one that becomes pregnant, endures labor and gives birth to the young. The reproductive cycle starts when the female seahorse deposits 100 or more eggs into the pouch of the male's abdomen. The male releases sperm into the pouch, fertilizing the eggs. The embryos develop within the male's pouch, nourished by their individual yolk sacs. Incubation may last two to six weeks, depending on the seahorse species. After the embryos have developed, the male gives birth to tiny seahorses about one centimeter long. <

Seahorses have a relatively long courtship, from three to seven days. They practice faithful monogamy, mating exclusively with the same partner during their lifetime. They perform greeting dances every morning to confirm their bond. They entwine their tails and sway to the rhythms of the ocean currents. They form long-term bonds that enhance their reproductive output. If one member of the pair is fished, its partner also stops reproducing for a prolonged period. When it eventually does repair, reproductive output of the new pair may be lower.

Seahorses have been associated with mythology. The Chinese believe that seahorses have magical or medicinal effects. They are used for the treatment of respiratory disorders, throat infections, arteriosclerosis, kidney disease, goiter, lymph disorders, skin diseases, lethargy, infertility and sexual impotence. It was also reported to be a potent aphrodisiac that has been used by the Chinese and other Orientals, centuries before the controversial Viagra.

Because of this Chinese practice along with the aquarium trade, seahorses have been overfished, forcing the World Conservation Union to list 32 seahorse species as "threatened". An estimated 20 million seahorses are taken from the wild each year, 95 percent for Chinese medicine, according to Project Seahorse.

At least 47 nations and territories around the world are involved in buying and selling seahorses. The largest known importers are China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Among the largest exporter is the Philippines. In the Philippines alone, about 70 percent of seahorses disappeared as a result of massive fishing in the past 10 years. Buyers from China offer $250 to 450 per kilo of dried seahorses, and $1,500 per kilo of live ones. For this, Filipino fishermen have harvested seahorses to near extinction.

There were efforts being made to save the remaining population of seahorses. The Project Seahorse has a program to educate fishermen in the Philippines on how to conserve seahorses. The program calls for farming seahorses in ponds. Whether it will be successful or not depends on the participation of local fishermen and importers of these wonderful marine animals.

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