South Africa's First Species Of Pygmy Seahorse Discovered Hiding In Plain Sight

The white netting of Hippocampus nalu make it difficult to spot, but it was there all along. © Richard Smith - OceanRealmImages.com

Rachael Funnell 21 May 2020, 14:36

A new species of pygmy seahorse has been discovered in South Africa, the first-ever pymgy species discovered in Africa. Called Hippocampus nalu, meaning "here it is" in the local Xhosa and Zulu languages, the minute species was discovered hiding in plain sight among the known seahorse species of Sodwana Bay. The researchers, whose discovery is published in the journal ZooKeys, highlight how the discovery acts as a reminder that there could be other undiscovered species waiting to be found in Africa's oceans.

Pygmy is a prefix used to describe uncharacteristically small species, which perhaps explains why H. nalu was able to go undetected for so long. At 2.7 centimeters (1.06 inches), the largest pygmy seahorse known to science is barely bigger than an adult fingernail and most others are smaller than that. Combined with their camouflage, it’s unsurprising that a species like H. nalu, which comes in at 2.2 centimeters (0.9 inches), could stay hidden from science, but following a tip-off from a local diver a team led by Graham Short from the California Academy of Sciences were able to track the tiny animal down.

A juvenile Hippocampus nalu. © Richard Smith - OceanRealmImages.com

This tiny master of disguise begins life a honey-brown color, later developing a white netted pattern, allowing it to blend into its shallow coral surroundings, around 12-17 meters (40-55 feet) deep. It's the first of its kind to be discovered not just in Africa but in the Indian Ocean, with its closest known relatives found in Southeast Asia, over 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) away. As well as meaning "here it is", "nalu" also means "surging surf" in Hawaiian, which describes the habitat where the seahorse is found and is also the middle name of the person who alerted the researchers to the existence of the species, Savannah Nalu Olivier.

"This discovery shows how rewarding it can be when researchers and the general public work together," said Dr De Brauwer, a research fellow in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds, in a statement. "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. Being a part of the team that discovered this amazing creature is definitely a career highlight."

Hippocampus nalu. © Richard Smith - OceanRealmImages.com

The coastal waters in the western Indian Ocean represent an exciting opportunity for marine researchers as the lack of research funding in this biodiverse region means there is likely much more to be discovered beneath the waves. Research into elusive species such as H. nalu is important as such species are vulnerable to human interference and overfishing, and without sufficient knowledge of these animals we risk losing them before suitable conservation efforts can even be put into place.

"What an exciting journey—from a chat on a beach to finding the first South African pygmy seahorse! The coastal waters of South Africa have a lot to offer and hopefully this little pygmy is just the start of more amazing seahorse and pipefish discoveries," said study co-author Louw Claassens, of the IUCN Seahorse, Pipefish and Seadragon specialist group and director of Knysna Basin Project. "This should be a call to action for all divers. New discoveries might just be around the next reef."

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