A rare third species of seadragon captured for the first time © Scripps Oceanography/UC San Diego
A rare seadragon has been spotted in the wild for the first time, after researchers ‘discovered’ the species in a museum only recently.
"Until then, no one suspected a third species of seadragon existed," says Greg Rouse, who first described the dragon from a preserved specimen collected nearly a hundred years ago.
The ruby seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea) is one of just three known species of seadragon. It differs from the other two, weedy and leafy seadragons, in its colour and lack of ‘leaves’ – appendages that grow off the dragons for camouflage.
"It was really quite an amazing moment," says graduate student Josefin Stiller, recalling the first sighting in the wild. "It never occurred to me that a seadragon could lack appendages because they are characterized by their beautiful camouflage leaves."
The researchers spotted two dragons using a remote controlled mini-sub near Western Australia's Recherche Archipelago. Unlike other seadragon species the rubies prefer deeper water, away from seagrass and kelp, which the team suggests may explain their lack of ‘leaves’.
Seadragons are closely related to seahorses and pipefish, and all belong the family Syngnathidae meaning ‘fused together jaws’, referring to their tubular mouthparts. Unlike other seadragons, the new video footage reveals rubies use their tails to anchor themselves in fast-flowing water, just like seahorses.
"There are so many discoveries still awaiting us in southern Australia," said Nerida Wilson, who also worked on the study, which is published in the journal Marine Biodiversity Records. In hopes of safeguarding the new species from overfishing, the research team recommends that the ruby seadragon be protected as soon as possible.