Animals

A new species of pygmy seahorse discovered in South Africa

This newly discovered seahorse is about the size of a lentil and its nearest relative lives 8,000 km away.

Photo by Dylan McLeod on Unsplash

Photo by Dylan McLeod on Unsplash

A new species of pygmy seahorse has been discovered off the coast of South Africa in Sodwana Bay, beguiling scientists with its unique look, miniscule size – only 2.7 centimeters – and far-off distance from its relatives.

An international research team studied the tiny pygmy seahorse in 2019, after it was spotted by chance by diving instructor Savannah Nalu Olivier who was exploring algae on the seafloor of the bay. But it wasn’t easy according to a press release from the University of Leeds in Australia. That’s because these enchanting sea creatures are camouflaged by its stony golden-brown exterior and is just about the size of a grain of rice.

The university said that finding these tiny creatures that nestle in the biodiverse coral reef is: “harder than finding a needle in a haystack.” The tiny pygmy is officially named Hippocampus Nalu, or “here it is” in the local Xhosa and Zulu languages and highlights that the species was there all along even before its accidental discovery. You can watch this extraordinary discovery on YouTube.

This is the first time that a pygmy seahorse has ever been discovered in the Indian Ocean before, or anywhere along Africa’s coasts for that matter. In fact, the closest known pygmy seahorse species live 8,000 kilometers away in a bio-diverse region of the Pacific Ocean called the Coral Triangle.

Until now, all but one of the seven pygmy seahorse species have been found in the triangle; making this discovery particularly enigmatic.

The study – published in the journal ZooKeys on May 19, 2020, was led by Graham Short from the California Academy of Sciences and included seven other experts from around the world – reveals a number of peculiarities that differentiates this species from other seahorses.

While larger seahorses have gills on each side of their head, the Sodwana Bay pygmy seahorse has only one gill slit on its back. That would be “like having a nose on the back of your neck,” Short said in an interview with National Geographic.

The tiny seahorse also has a set of sharp spines on its back while other pygmy seahorses have flat tipped spines. The researchers haven’t figured out what it is used for but Short said, “many species of seahorses in general are spiny, so their presence [the sharp spines] could be possibly due to sexual selection—the females may prefer spinier males.”

For many in the scientific community, the sighting of this species has served as an important reminder that there are still many discoveries to be made, and that they may be hiding right under our nose. “This discovery shows how rewarding it can be when researchers and the general public work together.

Finding Africa’s first pygmy seahorse is a reminder that there could be other undiscovered species out there and the fact we know very little about the seahorse family,” Dr. Maarten De Brauwer, a research fellow in the Faculty of Biological Sciences and a member of the team said in the university’s press release.

The tiny pygmy seahorse reminds us that when we open our eyes, the natural world becomes an endless mystery; unknown species and even entire ecosystems are awaiting to be discovered in places we never thought possible.

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