Download a map (pdf) of the route here
The contribution of the University of Algarve to the knowledge of the threatened marine biodiversity at a global level has been very important and an example is the research on the seahorse (Hippocampus) – a threatened iconic species.
At UAlg we also research the habitat where seahorses live – the seagrass areas of Ria Formosa - a most important blue infrastructure for the absorption of CO2, and contribution to carbon neutrality in the scope of the European Green Deal. In our institution we study the interconnection on both the marine and terrestrial environments in the surrounding area of Ria Formosa, a coastal lagoon, and we also monitor the impacts on this fragile ecosystem namely pollution, microplastics for example.
The itinerary for seahorse preservation aims to be a meeting point for students, staff, locals and tourists combining physical activity and outdoor activities and the observation of the beauty and sustainable in two works by Bordalo II, belonging to an array of around 200 pieces called “Big Trash Animal Collection” built several meters in height, through the 4 continents. One of these pieces of art is located in Praia de Faro (plastic style) built with plastic waste collected in a cleaning action promoted by UAlg V+ (Volunteering Group from the University) and partners, with the support of Faro Municipality and the other piece of art, at the starting point of the itinerary in Campus de Gambelas (neutral style) built with the same material however disguised with painting in a way to resemble the natural colour of the species.
Following the itinerary between these pieces of art we can also understand the biological life cycle of the seahorse depending on the Ria and on the seagrass as well as understand the threats in the surrounding areas and realize how we can all contribute to enjoy a healthier planet.
The itinerary UAlg Hippocampus was funded by the projects Hipposave (Mar2020) and Alimar (Fundo Azul) and the main goals are the knowledge, protection and conservation of the species as well as the awareness of the public for the problems and impact of sea waste. More recently the project Sustainable Horizons strives for a reinforcement of the connection of science with society by using this itinerary as an example of the link between scientists, undergraduate students and citizens in order to comply with United Nations SDG 2030, in Education Quality.
The 8 km itinerary is an interdisciplinary project combining the areas of Marine Biology, Sports, Environment, Health, Chemistry, Arts and the real contributions from citizens who collected part of the marine litter used to produce the pieces of art. It includes 5 panels with QR code with scientific information allowing a deep reflection about this threatened species, its habit and its enormous sensibility to the impacts and environmental degradation in the Ria Formosa.
UAlg HIPPOCAMPUS itinerary
At the Centro de Ciências do Mar, UAlg carries out one of the most comprehensive research regarding these species of seahorses whose habitat is the Ria Formosa, and which are illustrated at the starting point of the itinerary by Bordalo II 1st piece of art (neutral style (Neutral (bordaloii.com)).
Due to their singular appearance, seahorses have always enticed the human imagination, which in turn immersed them in profound mystery. Because of their morphology, notably different from all other species of fish, and of their peculiar living habits, they carry enormous affinity and interdependence with their habitat, and consequently a huge sensibility to environmental impacts and depletion they are subject to.
In the Ria Formosa, where in the outset of the 21st century extensive populations of the two unique European species of seahorses were recorded, the long snouted seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus) and the short snouted seahorse (Hippocampus Hippocampus), have their existence today, barely two decades elapsed, seriously endangered by a combination of factors of anthropogenic origins, of which the illegal fishing and the environmental decay are undoubtedly the most relevant.
Getting better acquainted with both their biology and their ecology, while devising and applying conservation mechanisms that allow for their protection, have been the purposes of the research carried out at the Universidade do Algarve, regarding these species. Their conservation has consequently acquired a sense of urgency, and it is now of the utmost importance the granting of comprehensive measures in order to prevent their extinction, so that they may not soon become mythical creatures of a distant past.
The alert for the conservation of the seahorses must be announced inland, because the earth pollution predominantly affects the marine environment. In the close proximity of this panel is located urban and industrial activity and a number of others exist in the natural area of the Ria Formosa that need to minimize the impacts of pollution.
The seahorses habitat lays in the tidal channels and on the seagrass areas of the Ria Formosa, so establishing the border between sea and land and forming a dynamical ecosystem where a direct connection between the wet area and the involving land area is established. By means of the adjacent drainage basin, the Ria Formosa receives in a natural way the draining waters that carry vital nutrients dissolved, which are then integrated in the trophic system through the microbial network, the primary products, algae and aquatic plants. However, these drainage waters can be a threat to seahorses because they carry dissolved chemical pollutant components and particulate marine litter like the plastics and the microplastics which will be integrated in the trophic network, thereby causing a negative impact on all aquatic species. As such, the ways how people utilize the surrounding areas of the Ria Formosa, where seahorses live, represent a dramatic impact on their survival.
Seahorses feed exclusively on small crustaceans which they capture by remaining motionless and then striking suddenly. Their preys are, in turn, part of the primary levels of the trophic chain, the zooplankton, often of dimensions similar to those of the micro plastics (which are mistakenly ingested as food) causing that the seahorses, like so many other species existing in the Ria Formosa, be indirectly affected by the pollution originated inland.
The seagrass areas are extensive banks of underwater seaweed, which display an important capacity to absorb the CO2, blue carbon credits, with a major potential to attaining the carbon neutrality by 2050. The seagrass areas of the Ria Formosa generate unique, complex and productive habitats which enhance the global health conditions, whether being human or innate animal species, like the two genders of autochthonous seahorses (Hippocampus Guttulatus and Hippocampus Hippocampus). These iconic creatures depend on seaweeds and on their respective complex structure for camouflage, protection and prey capture, while they keep firmly attached to the seaweed filaments, by using their prehensile little tails therefore avoiding to be dragged away by strong currents. The Hipposave project also comprises actions towards environmental requalification in designated areas and included in the two protected marine areas recently created within the scope of the project and integrated in the protection and conservation plan for these species.
The Ria Formosa saltpans “Salinas”, like the ones that can be observed from this panel, that may also host a number of seaweeds which hold a protection status (Genera Ruppia) and the maintenance and recovery of these long-abandoned infrastructures will also add to the prosperity of the seahorse and of the Ria Formosa ecosystem.
The seaweed areas of the Ria Formosa have been vanishing due to illegal captures of bivalves with unlawful fishing methods (dragging devices), fishing boats and touristic activities boats, and the associated anchors, dredging activities, blooms of seasonal algae (Ulvas) and competitive invading algae (Caulerpa).
In the Faro Island channel, the 4th panel of this itinerary, and already enjoying a broad vision of the main areas of the Ria Formosa, we can observe underwater seagrass areas where huge populations of seahorses once existed.
These animals, which are not easily observable because of their camouflage strategies, as mentioned in the previous panel, exhibit peculiar habits of life, thereby forming enduring pairs, and the male nurses and protects their progeny inside a pouch located in the abdomen until the hatching of the eggs.
The breeding season goes between May and August, and each reproductive cycle takes approximately one month. The breeding rate is dramatically low, with an offspring of only 200 to 400 juveniles in each egg laying of which the greatest part will not survive due to the effects of predation or lack of nourishment.
Because of their poor swimming ability, they come absolutely still for the most part of the time, while bonding themselves to the seaweed filaments from which they depend upon, or even to other bottom structures, by means of their prehensile fragile tails.
The seahorses live in shallow zones of the Ria Formosa, like the ones that can be seen from where we are now, and depend on these habitats of greater structural complexity in order to settle, and camouflage themselves, and seek for sustenance.
The itinerary ends here, by the 2nd piece of art by Bordalo II, style Plastics Plastics (bordaloii.com) and symbolizes the enormous sensibility of these species regarding the global changes, anthropogenic and climate changes. Seahorses are considered representative species of the ecosystem in which they live in and provide indications of the environmental quality.
The continuous depletion of the seahorses species that we have been witnessing in the past few years, reveals the dramatic impact on the Ria Formosa, exclusively by human responsibility. This action comprises a set of activities which include navigation and the ensuing underwater noise pollution, vessels mooring, environmental degradation of multiple origins and illegal fishing.
Among these, the illegal fishing is the most consequential, both directly, because of the capture of the seahorses and of many more species for human consumption, and indirectly, because of the utilization of unlawful trawl fishing methods that lead to a continuous change in the bottom structure of the Ria Formosa and necessarily in the habitats where these species occur.
Globally the illegal fishing brings on both a high loss for the marine biodiversity, where seahorses are only one of many endangered species, and the undermining of the sustainability of the ecosystem of the Ria Formosa and of the Planet alike. Furthermore, in order to revert this situation, collective and individual actions will be crucial for the safeguard of the seahorse, of the Ria Formosa and of the Global Ocean.