Helen Scales

seahorse with cuttlefish eggs

Seahorses with dangerous underwear

Seahorses are masters of disguise. They really are. They can grow a coat of weedy sprouts and change their skin colour to seemlessly match their surroundings. No wonder a cuttlefish recently mistook a seahorse for a blade of seagrass and covered it in eggs, as seen in this video on the BBC news website.

The egg-laden seahorse was caught on camera by underwater cameraman Manuel Enrique Garcia Blanco in Spain while working with PhD researcher Fiona Read.

But this isn’t the first time a seahorse has been used as an impromptu cuttlefish nursery.

While researching my book Poseidon’s Steed I tracked down a copy of the 1958 book The Sea-Horse and its relatives by Gilbert Whitley and Joyce Allan from the Australian Museum in Sydney (it wasn’t easy – the British Library and University College London copies have both gone missing. In the end I found a second hand copy on amazon – my copy once beloned to the Patchogue Medford library – complete with library ticket, last borrowed on 9th August 1982. It has that wonderful old book smell).

It’s a lovely book, filled with stories, science and illustrations including a “century” of species, many of which are now considered to by synonyms.

When I saw the BBC video clip I immediately remembered a drawing in Gilbert and Allan’s book. It shows two seahorses that have met a similar fate.

Gilbert and Allan tell a “Nursery Story for Adults” with a rather unhappy ending. In 1948, German naturalist, Heinrich Dathe, wrote about his discovery of a dead seahorse washed up on an Italian shore, its body covered in cuttlefish eggs. He assumed the poor seahorse – resembling a seller of toy balloons – must have passed away, encumbered by his unusual load.

But this wasn’t the first time Dr Dathe found evidence of a cuttlefish mistaking a seahorse for a piece of seagrass. While imprisoned in a concentration camp in  Rimini, Southern Italy, a friend presented him one day with a glass jar, filled with seawater and containing its own, miniature prisoner.

On closer inspection, it was a seahorse decorated in miniature bunches of grapes, slung about its midriff like a pair of bathing trunks festooned with hand-grenades. It was another seahorse covered in cuttlefish eggs.

So it seems that seahorses put on such flawless seagrass impersonations they run the risk of ending up with very dangerous underwear.

And fortunately, there was a much happier ending for the Spanish seahorse caught on camera with its young cuttlefish hitchhikers. This one survived its ordeal thanks to Garcia Blanco and Read who carefully removed the eggs from its tail and let the seahorse go on its way.

Now that’s got to be a nursery story worth passing on.

This post originally appeared at my old blog wildoceanblue.co.uk

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  1. […] & Allan, an awesome out of print natural history guide from the 1950s. And there’s a story to go with it. This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 27th, 2012 at 12:50 am. It is filed under Ocean Critters […]

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