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POSEIDON’S STEED by Helen Scales


The Story of Seahorses, from Myth to Reality

by Helen Scales

Pub Date: Sept. 17th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-592-40474-2
Publisher: Gotham Books

A window into the life of an enticing marine animal “so strange and yet so perfectly pleasing.”

Humans have considered the seahorse something special for millennia, writes marine biologist and BBC radio host Scales in this fawning yet mostly professional investigation. Perhaps 6,000 years ago, Aborigines in Australia were painting them on their cave walls; Minoans were carving them onto their stone identification stamps 1,000 years later. Phoenicians and Egyptians put them on their sarcophagi. In Greek mythology, they were saddled by the Nereids, and they pulled Poseidon’s golden chariot. Contemporary marine science has given us a glimpse into their unusual makeup. Elementally, “ [s]eahorses look the way they do because it works,” writes Scales. Despites the advances of DNA testing, “[n]ot only does a question mark hover where the seahorses first began, but we also don’t know for sure when they evolved.” Strangely, the author later writes, “though we no longer need puzzle over…where they came from.” Scales occasionally overwrites—“Beneath a thousand-year of darkness hid a vast treasure trove, and unimaginable Aladdin’s cave”—but her strong suit is biology. She effectively examines the seahorse’s chameleon qualities, as well as the phenomenon of the males giving birth—the only such instance in the animal kingdom. The author is also adept at delineating the seahorse’s alleged healing powers, and she offers a fascinating study in the history of aquariums and the pursuit of “queer fish.” Scales then addresses seahorse farming—especially as it relates to their endangered status, caused mainly by trawling and fishing with explosives—and she argues strongly for their preservation.

The writing is uneven, but the author makes a solid case for a rare and wondrous creature.