As a boy, my mother would take me into Carlisle, the big city (population 100,000), located 10 miles from Brampton (population 4,000), the small market town in which I was brought up. One thing I liked to do, as probably every child does, is to peruse pet stores, although my mother was quite impervious to my entreaties to return home laden with various cute creatures. Fish didn’t interest me much (children are tactile and soon grow tired of watching things swim around without being able to touch them) until the day I first saw seahorses. I must have been 4 years old, perhaps 5 at most, and I was utterly transfixed by these strange, quite unearthly beings. There is something eerie about their appearance and their very slow movements in the water that seems to hint at another, hidden truth: they are alien creatures transplanted on earth. Perhaps I’m being hyperbolic here, but the seahorse is a fish unlike other fish and unique in all marine life. And let’s face it, there are some weird and positively bizarre life forms in the oceans of our planet.
It’s quite easy to see where the equine nomenclature came from and people have always seen a horse’s head in the features of this delicate fish; the genus name is hippocampus which comes from the ancient Greek for horse (hippo) and sea monster (kampos). The French term, hippocampe, derives from this root, a suitably exotic name which shames the sheer banality of the English one. The Greek term has a nod to the strangeness of the beast but also to its savagery. Looks are rather deceptive in this case for the seahorse is an unreconstructed predator, its long snout being developed in order to devour escaping plankton and small crustaceans, of which it consumes massive amounts since it is bereft of a stomach meaning that food passes through its tiny system very quickly. Unlike most fish, our greedy friend doesn’t have scales, only a thin layer of skin arranged in rings, and it’s also a very poor swimmer. The dwarf seahorse, for example, only covers a distance of 5 feet per hour. It is for this reason that it prefers to use its tail as an anchor and patiently wait for food to comes its way. Nature has compensated the lack of nautical speed with camouflage. The upright posture of the seahorse also aids it to pass as a reed or plant to any unsuspecting smaller prey which should have the misfortune to venture near its stationary post.
This past weekend I visited the Birch Aquarium in San Diego, part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and encountered a close relative of the seahorse belonging to the same family, Syngnathidae: the leafy seadragon. I had never seen this particular fish before nor even heard of it, and I captured the image above of one. It is an absolutely ravishing animal, one which inspires wonder at the beauty and ingenuity of nature. And dare I say it, points to the hallmark of a Creator who has so patently designed the intricacies of life in all of its forms? Its name refers to the leafy protrusions all over its body which serve as superb disguise, making it resemble seaweed or an aquatic plant. Behind this visual beauty is the harsh reality of the fact that this fetching piscine specimen survives by daily acts of extinguishing the life of other creatures through means of stealth. One could describe it as the politician of the sea.
The little fellow is also often monogamous (though not all are, many tend to be) and, famously, the male carries the fertilized eggs instead of the females, allowing the French adjective enceinte for pregnant to be used in the masculine form of enceint and therefore an anecdote for a grammar class on a rainy afternoon. Lest it be thought that male seahorses are completely nurturing, the father has nothing more to do with the upbringing of the young once they are born and released from his pouch. Sounds familiar. What is absolutely astonishing and more so than the males carrying eggs to birth, is the fact that seahorses engage in an elaborate courtship ritual. While they normally have disjointed and somewhat clumsy movements, preferring to remain at rest, they will spent on average 8 hours in a mating dance. Not only that, this dance is incredibly graceful and really stunning to behold. There’s a clip, here. It’s tempting to anthropomorthize the creature and to see human traits in this; at the same time, such an expending of energy and time in purely evolutionary terms serves no purpose or function. Yet again, this lovely animal gives pause for thought.
Today’s cufflinks capture a little of the elusive allure of the seahorse. The pair is made by the Japanese artist Toshikane Arita. The company is something of an enigma in terms of its history but we know that it was active from the 1940s to the 1960s. This pair is made out of porcelain with sterling silver backs and dates to the 1950s and is a marvelous work of art. The vivid almost turquoise blue is embellished with some careful hand-painted detail, notably in gold leaf. What is interesting is that this looks like a pregnant male. The seahorse has long functioned as a symbol of strength and tenacity, something that was resonant with post-World War II Japan which was on a difficult road to economic and psychological recovery. And we can all find something that hits home in that search for inner resources of fortitude that we think we don’t have and yet with which biology and genetics -and our Creator- has endowed us.