New Zealand's First Ever Pygmy Pipehorse Given Māori Name In Historic First

Honoring the manaia pygmy pipehorse's unique location, Short and Trnski decided this was an opportunity to approach the Ngātiwai kaumātua for a name. Image courtesy of Short et al. © Richard Smith – OceanRealmImages.com

For the first time, a new pygmy pipehorse species has been found in the waters of New Zealand – and in another world first, it has been given a Māori name. This is thought to be the first time an indigenous group has been involved in the formal scientific naming of a new animal species.

Described in the journal Ichthyology and Herpetology, the tiny candy cane-like pipehorse, a relation of both seahorses and pipefish, has been named Cylix tupareomanaia by authors Graham Short and Dr Thomas Trnski, in collaboration with kaumātua (senior leaders) of Ngātiwai. Found primarily within Ngātiwai’s rohe (customary territory), Short and Trnski approached the leaders to share in the naming of an animal new to science but long known to their iwi.

The new genus name, Cylix, comes from the Greek and Latin word for chalice or cup, due to the cup-like crest on the top of its head not seen in any other pygmy pipehorses. The species name, tupareomanaia, or Tu Pare o Manaia, translates as “the garland of the Manaia.” Manaia is the Māori name for a seahorse, combined with the location where the type sample was found, Tu Pare o Huia (Home Point), near Whangaruru on Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island. The pare, or garland, also refers to the crest on the pipehorse's head.

“I feel privileged that we have been able to incorporate mātauranga Māori [knowledge] in the naming of Cylix tupareomanaia and collaborate with Ngātiwai for this taonga [treasure] of the ocean,” said Dr Trnski, head of Natural Sciences at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland Museum, in a statement.

“As far as we know, this is the first animal in the world to have the naming Authority include a tribal name. It is overdue recognition of traditional knowledge that can contribute to the discovery of new species.”

manaia pygmy pipehorse
Image courtesy of Short et al. © Irene Middleton @seacologyNZ

Growing up to just 6 centimeters (2.36 inches), about the size of your little finger, and coming in a variety of colors, the manaia pygmy pipehorse (as it will be commonly known) is adept at hiding in the fine seaweed of the rocky reefs of the north-east coast. 

Initially spotted by divers in the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve around a decade ago, it was mistaken for another seahorse species until 2017 when photographers Crispin and Irene Middleton mentioned they had found this new specimen to Short, a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences and Australian Museum, and he recognized it as new. 

"I grew very excited since it was my chance to properly look at it. So with the help of Tom Trnski of the Auckland Museum, we obtained the specimen and after studying it under the microscope I knew right away it was not a seahorse but a new species and genus of pygmy pipehorse," Short told IFLScience.

"Pygmy pipehorses and seahorses are superficially similar in appearance in having an angled head and prehensile tail. However, they differ in many ways but principally in the way the head looks. Most pygmy pipehorses have a prominent bony ridge on their head whereas seahorses have a distinct bony coronet on their head. The new species has a distinct bony coronet on its head as well... However, CT scans of the skeletal structure of the head reveal that the coronet is formed by completely different bones than those in seahorses."

manaia pygmy pipehorse
Image courtesy of Short et al. © Irene Middleton @seacologyNZ

Excitingly, it's not just a new pygmy pipehorse, but the first-ever found in New Zealand waters. 

"In neighboring Australia, they have five species of pygmy pipehorses where fish diversity in this family (Syngnathidae) is quite high," Short added. "So, New Zealand gets its own new species of pygmy pipehorse not found anywhere else. Also, this is a new genus of pygmy pipehorse not found in Australia, which makes it even more special."

Honoring the manaia pygmy pipehorse's unique location, Short and Trnski decided this was an opportunity to approach the Ngātiwai kaumātua for a name. The Manaia is a tupuna (ancestor), a guardian figure often found in Māori carving and jewelry.

“The naming of this taonga is significant to Ngātiwai as we know there are stories from our tupuna about this species, but the original name has been lost as a result of the negative impacts of colonisation,” Ngātiwai kaumātua Hori Parata said. “We are pleased to have gifted this species a new name that asserts the mana of Ngātiwai and would like to thank the kaumātua for their involvement in this very special piece of work.”

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