How an underwater photo led to the discovery of a tiny new seahorse species 

#GS3 #Ecology #Environment #Biodiversity #NewSpecies  

A new species of seahorse discovered in the waters of Sodwana Bay, South Africa, which falls within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site, in KwaZulu-Natal province. Finding a species like Hippocampus nalu also shows how little we know about Africa’s marine biodiversity, and how much more is left to discover. 

  • Hippocampus nalu grows to a maximum size of just two centimetres. It is the first pygmy seahorse ever discovered in African waters. 
  • Hippocampus nalu is physically and genetically distinct from the seven known species of pygmy seahorses. 
  • Its nearest relatives are found more than 8,000 km away in the Pacific Ocean. 
  • Seahorses are threatened all around the world. Many species are at risk of becoming extinct because of human activities such as bottom trawling, over-fishing, and habitat destruction. 
  • As a result, several species are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, to date no pygmy seahorses are considered threatened — because we simply do not know enough about them. 
  • By discovering more species, and learning more about these tiny creatures, scientists can offer advice on how best to protect them. 
  • Pygmy seahorses can also provide an important boost for tourism: scuba divers love these small species and are willing to travel far and wide for a chance to see them. 
  • If coastal communities and scuba divers alike are taught about the best ways to protect these species and others in the oceans, there can be huge economic and social benefits. 
  • The most astonishing part of this discovery is that it didn’t start in a laboratory, or with keen scientific minds assessing the likelihood of finding a pygmy seahorse in African waters. Instead, it began with a photograph. 

More to learn 

  • The discovery of the Sodwana pygmy seahorse is exciting for more than just its scientific value. It provides new insights into the global distribution of these tiny fish and paves the way for further exploration in other locations. 
  • Only a handful of research publications focused on the ecology of pygmy seahorses exist, so anything we can learn more about these critters will help the future conservation of this unique group. 
  • Finding a species like Hippocampus nalu also shows how little we know about Africa’s marine biodiversity, and how much more is left to discover. It highlights how important the observations of keen amateurs are to help scientists. 
  • If a keen fisherman did not consider a strange looking fish caught off the south coast of South Africa worth sharing with Marjory Courtney-Latimer in 1938, the discovery of the coelacanth, a living fossil, might never have happened. 
  • Similarly, without a diver’s sharp eyes and an expert’s initial questions, the world would still not know that the Sodwana pygmy seahorse exists. As scientists, being open to questions from the general public not only helps inform non-scientists, but can also help us make new discoveries. 
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