The tip of the tail: molecular identification of seahorses for sale in apothecary shops and curio stores in California
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Millions of seahorses a year are traded internationally, with many eventually sold at retail shops as curios, as aquarium pets, and especially for use in traditional medicine. The entire genus is now protected by CITES, but conservation measures have been limited in part by difficulties with species identification and incomplete understanding of trade patterns. In this study, we use molecular techniques to make species- and population-level identifications of 56 seahorses sampled from both traditional medicine and curio shops in San Francisco and central California. Seahorses from medicinal sources included unexpectedly large numbers of the eastern Pacific Hippocampus ingens, a species poorly protected by current CITES export recommendations. Curio shops were dominated by H. barbouri, a spiny species that has been reportedly confused in trading records as H. histrix. Specific populations of origin could be inferred for several species through comparison with publicly available phylogeographic data. Our results underscore the strengths and weaknesses of current recommended export regulations, and we suggest that molecular forensics can help in verifying trade documentation and developing more effective conservation measures.