A photo of a lined seahorse taken by ‘citizen scientists’ Nédia Coutinho and Martin Roy. Photo: UW Distribution

A photo of a lined seahorse taken by ‘citizen scientists’ Nédia Coutinho and Martin Roy. Photo: UW Distribution

Do the math: There are 48 species of seahorse…that we know of.

They inhabit shallow coastal waters along every continent except Antarctica –hundreds of  thousands of kilometers of coastline.

Their range encompasses nearly every ocean and sea between 50 degrees north and 50 degrees south latitude.

Of the 48 species, 26 are listed as Data Deficient by the IUCN, meaning scientists don’t know enough about the animals to determine their conservation status; 11 are endangered.

Add to that, the fact that most divers have never seen one — seahorses are solitary or live in pairs; are small and can change color to match their surroundings; move slowly and seldom cross more than a few feet of open water.

And finally this:  In the whole world, there are fewer than 15 seahorse biologists studying the animals in the wild.

iSeahorse, the App

iSeahorse, the App

That’s why in October of 2013 marine conservationists from the University of British Columbia, Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and John G. Shedd Aquarium, launched iSeahorse, a website and smartphone app that allows anyone who photographs or spots a seahorse in the wild, to report their finding and upload their images to the iSeahorse Database.

“By leveraging the enthusiasm of everyone from fishers to SCUBA divers to people on vacations at the beach, we’ll create a more comprehensive picture of seahorse populations around the world. This in turn will inspire new scientific research and practical conservation measures that can help protect ocean habitats,” says Chuck Knapp, vice president of Conservation and Research and Louis Family Foundation Conservation Chair for the Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research at Shedd.  (UBC Press Release)

And their work paid off.  In the first eight weeks iSeahorse logged 173 observations from just about every corner of the world –Africa, Australia, South America, and Asia.  These included 23 species, some of which are rarely seen.  To date, iSeahorse has received 354 observations from 322 members, documenting 27 different species.

And then on May 22, Project Seahorse announced a rare sighting of a seahorse in Canadian waters — the first one in 13 years.  On Oct. 12 last year, divers Nedia Coutinho and Martin Roy photographed and filmed a lined seahorse (Hippocampus erectus) that they spotted off St. Margaret’s Bay, Nova Scotia, about 40 kilometres from Halifax.  They uploaded their images to iSeahorse.org on April 1 where it quickly caught the eye of seahorse biologists.

“This is a thrilling discovery,” says Amanda Vincent, director of Project Seahorse.(UBC Press release)

The lined seahorse is listed as Vulnerable by IUCN based on inferred declines of at least 30% caused by targeted catch, incidental capture, and habitat degradation. Thus, every observation is important.

“Finding them in Nova Scotia is very interesting and very exciting to help us understand we’re part of their range,” [Vincent] said in an interview from her Vancouver office.  (Vancouver Sun)

Lined seahorse Photo: Brian Gratwicke (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Lined seahorse Photo: Brian Gratwicke (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Of course, seahorse biologists aren’t the only scientists to benefit by citizen scientist initiatives, but this story serves as a great reminder of how valuable such programs can be, especially in these days of massive cutbacks to research and scientific programs. Having the worlds’ citizens out there logging observations and images can be immensely helpful to scientists with tight budgets who are spread too thinly across large expanses of land or sea.

So, if you’re headed for the tropics to dive or snorkel, grab the app and see what you can do …

Scientists from Project Seahorse and seahorse experts around the world will use your observations to better understand seahorse behaviour, species ranges, and the threats seahorses face. We will use this knowledge to improve seahorse conservation across the globe.  (From the iSeahorse App description)

Maybe you’ll even get some rare footage like this:

Video courtesy of Nédia Coutinho and Martin Roy of UW Distribution.