A tip-off from a local diver has resulted in the discovery of SA’s first pygmy seahorse species in Sodwana Bay, on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast.
An international team, including experts from the University of Leeds and California Academy of Science, published their research in the scientific journal Zookeys.
According to a University of Leeds statement, the discovery of the tiny creatures is usually rare and difficult.
“At less than 2.7 centimetres, the largest pygmy seahorse is not much bigger than a fingernail, but most of the known species are smaller still. It comes as no surprise that finding these elusive creatures in the hustle and bustle of a coral reef is harder than finding a needle in a haystack.
“This is, however, exactly what happened last year in the Sodwana Bay region, off SA’s east coast. After a tip-off from a local diver, a team of researchers discovered the Sodwana pygmy seahorse.”
“It hints at the vast number of potential other undiscovered species that live in Africa’s oceans,” said De Brauwer.He said seahorses and their relatives are highly vulnerable to human impacts and overfishing.
“Without the correct understanding of their conservation status and suitable conservation measures, many species might be lost before they are discovered.”
Study co-author Louw Claassens, IUCN Seahorse, Pipefish and Seadragon specialist group and director of Knysna Basin Project said: “What an exciting journey — from a chat on a beach to finding the first SA pygmy seahorse.
“The coastal waters of SA have a lot to offer and hopefully this little pygmy is just the start of more amazing seahorse and pipefish discoveries.
“This should be a call to action for all divers — new discoveries might just be around the next reef.”
Seahorses have sparked the imagination of people across time and cultures, but even in the strange world of pregnant fathers with grasping tails, pygmy seahorses stand out as peculiar, the university said.
“This beautiful fish is the first of its kind to be discovered in the Indian Ocean, let alone Africa.
“Its closest relatives live more than 8,000km away in Southeast Asia.
“The new species grows to just over 2cm and has a honey-brown colour, overlaid with a white netted pattern and a reddish tail.”
Researcher Dr Martin De Brauwer said: “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.
The scientific name of the Sodwana pygmy seahorse, Hippocampus Nalu, means “here it is” in Xhosa and Zulu, to highlight that the species was there all along until its discovery.