At night I see stars and by day see horses. Felix Neck (and the Vineyard, by extension) is a good place to be.
It is not that the stars shine brighter here; you can see them from your home no matter where you are. It is seahorses that might be harder to find.
We only have one species of seahorse that can occasionally be found in our waters. This variety, the lined seahorse, or Hippocampus erectus (loosely translated “horse sea monster”), is elusive, preferring to curl up with some eelgrass and not be actively observed.
But there are two Island seahorses that can be easily seen, residing in the visitor center at Felix Neck. They are captive bred, since, for the protection of the species, it is not a good idea to take wild ones. We are quite lucky to have these — I am not one to look a gift seahorse in the mouth.
Perhaps I should, though, since even though not much comes from the horse’s mouth, a lot goes in. Seahorses are voracious eaters and can consume up to 3,000 brine shrimp (or other plankton) per day. With no teeth and no stomach, eating is a quick in and out affair. They swallow their food whole and like to eat all day long. These little vacuum cleaners of the sea might put a crimp in Felix Neck’s budget.
Seahorses don’t horse around. As members of the class osteichthyes, or bony fish, they are more like a striped bass or bluefish than an ungulate, or hoofed animal. They have fins, tails and an internal skeleton, but unlike fish, they don’t have scales. Heavy bony plates, comparable to armor, cover their bodies, protecting them, but also making them poor swimmers.
They can swim, though, using their pectoral (side) fins for balance, control, turning, and steering. Seahorses achieve forward movement by beating their dorsal (back) fin rapidly, up to 20-30 times per minute, so fast that you can’t see it moving (which is pretty respectable horsepower).
When the seahorses are not moving, they use their prehensile (grasping) tails to hold onto vegetation or each other in a romantic embrace. Seahorses maintain long-term faithful pair bonds, curling up together while entwining tails at dawn. This mating ritual includes a brightening of their color and a dance together. When in love, you might call them a horse of a different color.
By far, the most interesting part comes next. It is the males who get pregnant, gestate and give birth to their young. After their mating ritual, the female will deposit 500 or more eggs in the male’s pouch. He fertilizes them internally. Oxygen gets to the developing young via capillaries in the male’s tissues, and they are fed because the male releases the hormone prolactin, which stimulates the breakdown of the egg membrane, transferring nutrients to the developing seahorse. A superdad to be sure.
The young gestate for up to four weeks, depending on species. Labor can last up to several days before the males give birth. The new seahorses are on their own; no parental care comes after the birth. The male, though, can get pregnant again immediately after the birth. This is necessary for seahorse survival since only about 2 of thousands of birthed seahorses per pair will survive to adulthood. It is exhausting to think of being pregnant and giving birth over and over.
Tired or not, this horseplay is worth seeing. The only thing we ask is that you not hold our horses.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.