Poseidon's Steed

Bookshelf: Poseidon’s Steed

Poseidon’s Steed – Helen Scales

Poseidon's Steed
Poseidon's Steed

Poseidon’s Steed is marine biologist Helen Scales’ first book; its subject is the seahorse. The book is short – I read it in less than half a day whilst convalescing with a cold – but packed with everything that is interesting about seahorses.

I am well acquainted with the pull that these (mostly) tiny creatures exercise on people – Tony has been obsessed with seeing a seahorse for years, and I was delighted to share in his first sighting during a dive in the Knysna lagoon just after we met. The Knysna (or Cape) seahorse, Hippocampus capensis, features towards the end of Scales’ book, where she discusses the threats to its habitat and its extremely limited geographical range.

The first section of the book situates seahorses in culture, myth and history, and reveals that they have been venerated and depicted in art and design for thousands of years. Scales hops – seemingly – from topic to topic with great ease, and before you realise it she’s painted a complete picture of the seahorse and its role in human life for generations.

Scales describes seahorse biology, clearing up for me the reason why we saw such colour variation among the seahorses we spotted in Knysna: they are able to change their body colour at will. This makes it tricky to differentiate species, but extensive research has placed the current known number of seahorse species at about 40. Unique among animals, the male seahorse actually experiences pregnancy, and these creatures exhibit great fidelity to their mates. Pipefish, those close relatives of the seahorse, are also covered.

Seahorses are popular exhibits in aquaria – including tanks maintained by private individuals – and Scales traces the history of the aquarium from its origin in Victorian times, when it satisfied the prevailing mania for collecting and categorising. Husbandry of seahorses for aquaria is big business, and Scales mentions a company called Ocean Rider as an example of seahorse breeders. This takes the pressure off populations of wild seahorses, which are particularly vulnerable to human exploitation and pollution because they exhibit such habitat fidelity.

Seahorses are also vulnerable because they have attained almost mythic status in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and are used to cure all manner of ailments. A chapter on their role as medicine gives perspective on the use of species from both the plant and animal world as medicine – Scales locates TCM nicely in history, tracing its development and explaining the difficulties of testing whether a specific item – such as ground up seahorse – can cure a specific ailment (the holistic approach taken by practitioners of this type of medicine means that each individual receives a very specific, tailored cocktail of medications).

Project Seahorse began in 1996, in response to the realisation that harvesting of seahorses from their habitats was far more widespread and intensive than had been suspected. The project was piloted in the Philippines, and involved the local community – who derived income from the seahorse trade – in setting aside part of the ocean on their doorstep as a no-take marine reserve. The community also allowed researchers to measure and weigh the seahorses that they did harvest, and logged their catch daily for study purposes. The results have been encouraging, and it is clear that involving the local community – who make a living from the resource – in the conservation effort was key. Project Seahorse has subsequently expanded its reach and scope considerably.

Seahorses do not perform a misson-critical role in our oceans; they are not a “keystone species“, and if we remove all of them our oceans won’t collapse and cease to function as ecosystems. In the epilogue, Scales quotes David Attenborough (from page 4 of this interview) as saying that the primary reason for conservation of our natural world is “Man’s imaginative health”.

I can partly support this view, but I think it’s the English literature major in me that’s getting behind it. Certainly, in the case of the seahorse, the greatest loss would be the sense of wonder experienced daily by visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium  and many other public aquaria, scuba divers in Australia, Mozambique, the Knysna Lagoon, and visitors to countless other sensitive locations around the world where these creatures are found. There is, on the other hand, a hint of arrogance in claiming that the primary reason for us not to damage the earth and decimate her species is for our own good. Elsewhere in the interview Attenborough says:

The fundamental issue is the moral issue – and I’ve always said that. The moral issue is that we should not impoverish this world.’

And this, I think, is the point: for us to have arrived, at the end of a process longer than we can adequately comprehend, and behave as though our late arrival gives us licence to wreak havoc on ecosystems that have existed – in balance, without interference – for aeons – is wrong. Just wrong.

Whale sharks are one of the species referred to as charismatic megafauna – species with wide popular appeal that can be used as icons by conservationists and elicit disproportionately strong responses to appeals for their protection. Perhaps seahorses should be listed as charismatic microfauna (I’m not entirely sure that’s a formal name for anything!) – they seem to capture the imagination all out of proportion to their size.

There is much to love about seahorses. You can buy the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.


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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.