- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2001

Sea horses have many peculiarities, starting with their funny snout-and-tail shapes. They are monogamous animals. Their eyes move independently of each other. They are born fully formed and receive no parental care. They can change colors to avoid predators.

But Nancy Hotchkiss, an exhibit developer with the National Aquarium in Baltimore, says one aspect of sea-horse life draws interest from a particular segment of the people she talks to.

"The male sea horse is actually the one who gives birth, and he'll give birth to hundreds at a time, " she says. "This whole idea makes our female visitors very happy."

Chances are that everybody who visits the National Aquarium's newest exhibit, "Seahorses: Beyond Imagination," will find something that makes them happy. The aquarium has 22 of the 32 known species of sea horses, sea dragons and pipefish on display for the next two years, offering visitors a rare and up-close glimpse into the lives of these creatures.

"We want visitors to have an eye-to-eye experience with sea horses, and because their eyes move independently of each other, two people can have a different experience with the same animal at the same time, " Ms.Hotchkiss says with a smile. "This will be one of the largest collections ever displayed."

Among the sea-horse species on display are the lined sea horse, the only species found in the Chesapeake Bay; the dwarf sea horse, the one people usually associate with the dried souvenirs that they might have bought as children; and the leafy and weedy sea dragons, which resemble floating seaweed.

Aquarium officials say the exhibit is designed with four goals in mind: to help people see that sea horses are indeed fish; to show the various coastal habitats in which sea horses live; to show how close some species of sea horses live to people in this area; and to show how human behavior affects sea-horse populations negatively and positively worldwide.

Alison Scarratt, the museum's curator of fishes, says every species of sea horse is threatened by overfishing and loss of habitat. Chinese medicine has used sea horses for centuries, and many others have been harvested for souvenirs. Most sea-horse species are listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union, a group formed in 1948 of international government agencies and private individuals to encourage wildlife preservation and research.

"Sea horses tend to cling to things with their tails, including nets, " Ms. Hotchkiss says. "So they're not the hardest things in the world to catch, unfortunately."

Another reason sea horses are threatened is the increasing loss of their natural habitats, especially in this area.

"Ninety percent of the natural sea grass beds in the Chesapeake Bay have been completely lost," Ms. Scarratt says. "We can offer solutions and provide alternatives to harvest stock and help rebuild the coastal habitats."

The aquarium itself has built a sea-horse lab to help breed sea horses and create self-sustaining populations.

The exhibit also will feature video, interactive displays and high-tech graphics to show various aspects of sea-horse life.

"Seahorses: Beyond Imagination" will run for two years at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, 501 E. Pratt St. (Pier 3 at the Inner Harbor). The aquarium's hours vary by season, so visitors are encouraged to call the aquarium at 410/576-3800. Tickets for the aquarium cost $15 for adults, $12 for seniors 60 or older, $8.50 for children 3 to 11, and free for children 3 and younger. Group discounts are available.

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