Marine biologist Sara Lourie, a member of the University of British Columbia-based Project Seahorse marine conservation team, has identified the world's smallest known species of seahorse.
Adults of the new species, a pygmy seahorse known as Hippocampus denise, are typically just 16 mm long – smaller than most fingernails. In the past they have been mistaken for the offspring of another of the 32 known species of seahorses.
As the scientist chiefly responsible for the find, Lourie had the honour of naming the new species. She chose to recognize underwater photographer Denise Tackett, whose 1997 images first hinted at the need for a new classification. "Denise" is derived from Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and means "wild or frenzied," which seems appropriate, according to Lourie. "Compared with other small seahorses, they've active little creatures," she says.
Because it lives among the deeper corals and is a master of camouflage, the diminutive new fish may be safe from the over-exploitation threatening other seahorse species. But with only a handful of sightings on record, it's hard to know what risks they face, warns Lourie. Heavy-duty trawling gear that can flatten reefs is one potential threat. Underwater tourism is another. "Divers and photographers could possibly love these animals to death," she says.
Lourie is doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal. She worked with Dr. John Randall of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, to describe the new species. Their research, appearing in the current issue of the journal Zoological Studies, is the result of extensive co-operation with divers, photographers and naturalists from around the world.
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Backgrounder -- The New Pygmy Seahorse
Species name: Hippocampus denise
Habitat: Tropical waters of the western Pacific Ocean, between 13 and 90 metres beneath the surface; often found attached to coral seafans, primitive animals resembling short, flat bushes.
Size: Adults average 16 mm in length, with some individuals only 13 mm long. By comparison, the next smallest seahorse, H. bargibanti, averages 24 mm. The smallest known bony fish is the goby Trimmatom nanus, also found in tropical waters and typically just 10 mm in length.
Sara Lourie is completing her doctorate on seahorse genetics and biogeography at McGill University in Montreal and is a member of the Project Seahorse team. Along with Project founders Dr. Amanda Vincent and Dr. Heather Hall, she is the lead author of Seahorses: An identification guide to the world's species and their conservation.
Dr. John E. Randall is the world's preeminent authority on tropical marine fishes. He has written eight guidebooks and 480 scientific papers in collaboration with 160 individuals. He divides his time between the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii and the Bishop Museum, both in Honolulu, where he is senior ichthyologist.
Project Seahorse is an international and interdisciplinary marine conservation team. Its biologists and social workers conduct biological and social research, empower communities, establish marine protected areas, manage subsistence fisheries, advance environmental education, promote integrated policy, and redress habitat loss.
The team has 40 professional members (plus village staff) in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Philippines, Portugal, U.K., and U.S.A. Project Seahorse has also managed projects in South Africa and Vietnam, and collaborates with colleagues in many more countries. It is based in Vancouver, Canada, at the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre. Its partners include the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, U.S.A.; the Zoological Society of London, U.K.; the TRAFFIC network; and the University of Tasmania, Australia.
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