In order to investigate the occurrence of rare seahorses in the German North Sea, scientists have collected the first specimens of such washed-up sea animals for a research project with the help of citizens. "We now have six pieces," said the deputy director of the Oldenburg State Museum of Nature and Man, Christina Barilaro, the German Press Agency.
In the research project, the researchers have been relying on the help of people walking on the beach for about a year. Anyone who finds dead seahorses washed up on beaches should report the finds and hand them in to national park houses in the Wadden Sea in Lower Saxony. The scientists want to investigate the occurrence of seahorses with a more detailed investigation of the finds.
"You can't just take them home with you"
The animals found are put on ice in the national park houses and then brought together to the Oldenburg State Museum on the mainland. The first six finds from the islands of Juist and Wangerooge have now reached the museum collection. Some of the animals had already been collected before the start of the research project. There are already other finds, as indicated by reports of finds in the online portal "Beach Explorer," said Barilaro. But not all finds registered there have been handed in so far.
"The animals are under protection, you can't just take them home with you. You have to leave them in the wild or give them to official places like the national park houses," said Barilaro.
In fact, the short-snouted seahorses have almost disappeared from the Wadden Sea since the 1930s. As part of the project, researchers at the Thünen Institute for Sea Fishing in Bremerhaven also want to investigate why the animals are now being sighted more frequently. Seahorses need seaweed, algae or seagrass meadows that are constantly flooded with water as breeding grounds. Such habitats are currently not known off the coast of Lower Saxony - but off the Dutch coast and in the English Channel.
One theory is that the animals drift out of the Netherlands as a result of winter storms and are washed up on the East Frisian Islands. "But it turns out that the seahorses can be found all year round," Barilaro said. "We didn't expect that and it's very exciting." It is unclear which alternative habitats there might be for seahorses in addition to seagrass meadows. Stone chutes on offshore wind turbines are conceivable, for example.
Researchers rely on the help of summer vacationers
In Schleswig-Holstein, where the research project is also running, two seahorse finds have been reported this year, as the head of the WWF Wadden Sea Office Hans-Ulrich Rösner said. A find was made in St. Peter-Ording in January, and a second in February on Sylt. Unlike in Lower Saxony, the finders in Schleswig-Holstein are not called upon to collect the seahorses and send them to specific locations. Therefore, he does not know what happened to the finds, said Rösner.
The nature conservation organization WWF extended the call to report seahorses to the northernmost state last November. The reason for this was a find at the end of September in the Wadden Sea area between Pellworm and Hooge.
Findings of seahorses in the Baltic Sea have hardly been documented to date. Only in the Great Belt off Denmark, i.e. near the transition from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea, have few animals been found.
For further finds, the researchers are also counting on the help of the many expected summer vacationers. Findings of dead animals should be documented with photos and a ruler, such as a euro coin, and then handed in to the national park houses, Barilaro said.