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Graham Short Interview

On Wine Wednesday with the Whisperer!

Image of Graham Short and Dr. Healy Hamilton
Graham Short, Holiday (surname unknown) and Healy Hamilton in the fish office, 16 Feb 2018.https://australianmuseum.net.au/image/graham-short-holiday-johnson-and-healy-hamilton-2018

Special guest Graham Short, a Syngnathid Ichthyologist from the California Academy of Sciences, came on Wine Wednesday with the Whisperer a few weeks ago to set the record straight!  Apparently, there are a few problems with the Taxonomy of certain syngnathids, and a couple of surprising new species have been discovered!  Check it out in the video below, or keep reading to learn more!

Graham’s story began in 2003, when he started living on his boat in Australia.  His first encounter with a weedy sea dragon was enough to convince him that the species was too cool not to research!  In collaboration with Dr. Healy Hamilton, the Chief Scientist and Vice President for Conservation Science at NatureServe, Graham decided to study the entire family of syngnathids.  These studies included many universal field collection trips that led to collection and study of 95% of the genera.  Equally as exciting, a new genus sp. of pygmy pipehorse, was discovered.

New pygmy pipehorse genus sp.

New genus sp. image
New genus sp. pygmy pipehorse – photo credit Inspired to Dive

A pipehorse looks almost like a mixture of seahorse and pipefish, and can easily be mistaken for either.  They greatly resemble a seahorse, except the angle of the head is not as severe as that of a seahorse.  A seahorse’s head is typically angled at 90 degree, whereas a pipehorse is angled at 25 degrees.  The last syngnathid to be discovered in New Zealand was 1911, so this discovery was extremely exciting!  Not only is the pipehorse a new species, but it was a new genus!  It looks a great deal like a species of temperate pygmy pipehorses from southern Australia, and has a coronet like a seahorse.  However, a closer look tells a different story.  Graham presented the initial findings at the 3rd SyngBio in 2017, and the article describing this new pipehorse will be available soon!

Pygmy Seahorse:  Hippocampus Japapigu

The presentation about the new pygmy pipehorse at SyngBio led Graham to Dr Rich Smith, who had seen the hippocampus Japapigu at Hachijo-jima island.  H. japapigu is a new species of pygmy seahorse that was known to divers, but had never been described in academia.  A new collaboration was formed to prove that this was indeed a new species.  Many articles have covered the story, but it was very cool to hear about the seahorse in a more intimate fashion.

Hippocampus Japapigu image
Hippocampus Japapigu.  Photo Credit:  ZooKeys

The really interesting part about h. japapigu are the “wing like” spines that are stretched out laterally.  Other pygmys have one set or two sets of these spines, but this new pygmy has a double set, and a weird ridge like structure on it’s back (the fine red line in the pictures).  According to Graham, this will be important for the future as it’s a key morphological feature that distinguished this species from other seahorses.

H. Japapigu spines.  Photo credit zookeys

These pygmy seahorses will probably never be suited for aquarium life, because they require such small foods.  However, as the public aquariums and scientists learn more, aquaculture might show them in a public setting.  Based on the CITES regulations and size restrictions, pygmy seahorses are protected and not permitted for importation.  

Describing a new species

Describing a new species takes a lot of work.  Tail and trunk counts of a specimen under a microscope are helpful because the presence, absence and position of spines are unique to each seahorse – just like a human’s fingerprint.  But the sequencing of the Mitochondrial c1 gene is what really confirms that a species is actually unique. 

Using DNA that is extracted from a fin clip, or little bit from the side or spine, PCR (Polymerace Chain Reaction) is used to amplify a segment of the mitochondrial C1 gene (basically it makes a bunch of copies of a gene that can be run through a gel to be visualized as a band).  The band is cut out, sequenced and then compared to other seahorse species.  A Phylogenic tree is produced to show where the seahorse falls in with other seahorses and classifies the evolutionary relationships.  In more simple terms, the tree helps the analyst determine if the species is more closely related to one species of hippocampus or another and shows the seahorse’s ancestry.

Phylogeny of Seahorses image
Phylogeny of Seahorses – Image from RESEARCHGATE.NET

Once the DNA proves that a seahorse is of a new species, Graham must write an extremely detailed account of the differences and submit it to an academic journal.  Using these methods, Graham has been able to classify 3-4 new species from south east asia, pygmy pipehorse, pipefish from New Caldonia, Sydney Australia, and many others.  There’s so many new syngnathid species that we are just now finding!

Taxonomy

Another huge project Graham is working on includes the current taxonomy of seahorses.  There are currently 41 recognized seahorse species, but a few are not really seahorses.  The cool thing about science is that one field of research can build upon or change another.  When research into seahorses first started, marine biologists had almost nothing to base their information on.  They literally had to watch the fish for a very long time, studying behaviors and make guesses about what those behavors mean.  They also had to start classifying each species, but didn’t have enough information to really do so sometimes.  Findings are subjective and based on the knowledge of the person writing description.  So, if he or she didn’t know about pygmy pipehorses, they might call one a seahorse.  It took the full suite of characters and evolution of science to enable experts to differentiate between these syngnathids.

With all of today’s advanced technology, DNA can be sequenced and we have a database of seahorse genes to use to compare and classify properly.  Graham is currently looking at each species labeled, and correcting and taxonomy errors that might have occurred.  A great example are two species found in Australia.   The species found in Eastern Australia was thought to be different than the species in southern queensland, because of the queensland species having a taller coronet.  However, genetically, they are the same species.  Graham is working on merging the 2 species into one species – Hippocampus whitei.

Hippocampus Whitei image by Dave Harasti
Hippocampus Whitei photo credit:  Dave Harasti Site

Considering all of the revisions and new species being described, finding up-to-date information can be difficult.  Graham suggests looking at sites run by David Harasti, Senior Research Scientist stationed at the Port Stephens Fisheries Institute, such as www.daveharasti.com.  I am also working on the species listing using some of Graham’s revisions for the species listing here on seahorsewhisperer.com.  

Hippocampus japapigu is the hot topic these day, but not the only species Graham is working on describing.  We will have to anxiously await his articles to learn about the others he is working on describing.  I have a strong feeling we will hear a lot more about new species of pipehorses, pipefish and seahorses and taxonomic revisions from this very cool ichthyologist!  Thank you Graham Short, for all of the fascinating information and for continuing on your quest to tell the story of all syngnathids!

Resources:

BBC. (2009, November 3).  Life-Weedy Seadragons dance into the night – BBC One.  Youtube video retrieved from:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MKkr_1Kqcw

Bray, D.J. 2017, Idiotropiscis lumnitzeri in Fishes of Australia, accessed 21 Sep 2018, http://fishesofaustralia.net.au/home/species/1738

Conlon, Noel.  (1992).  Sydney’s Pygmy Pipehorse.  Retrieved from:  https://australianmuseum.net.au/image/sydneys-pygmy-pipehorse

Driscoll, Carol.  (2004).  Seahorse Anatomy. Seahorse.org.  Retrieved from:  http://www.seahorse.org/library/articles/anatomy.shtml

Hay, Amanda. (2018, February 16). Graham Short, Holiday Johnson and Healy Hamilton – 2018.  Australian Museum.  Retrieved from https://australianmuseum.net.au/image/graham-short-holiday-johnson-and-healy-hamilton-2018

Harasti, David.  The Underwater Photo Gallery.  Seahorses of the World. Retrieved from:   http://www.daveharasti.com/Seahorses/index.html

Jones, Adam & Moore, Glenn & Kvarnemo, Charlotta & Walker, DeEtte & Avise, John. (2003). Sympatric speciation as a consequence of male pregnancy in seahorses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 100. 6598-603. 10.1073/pnas.1131969100.

Perkins, Alison. (2017, May 25). Inspired to Dive. Retrieved from: 
http://www.inspiredtodive.com/photo-blog/introducing-idiotropiscis-aotearoa  

Sharksaver. (2007, Jan 29). Diving for pipefish and seahorses with California Academy of Sciences research team.  Youtube video retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VInhkUfYTEI#t=0

Short, Graham.  (2015, May 16). Expedition to find rare pipefish in Queensland, Australia. LinkedIN.  Retrieved from:  https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/expedition-find-rare-pipefish-queensland-australia-graham-short/

Short G, Smith R, Motomura H, Harasti D, Hamilton H (2018) Hippocampus japapigu, a new species of pygmy seahorse from Japan, with a redescription of H. pontohi (Teleostei, Syngnathidae). ZooKeys 779: 27-49. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.779.24799

Websites of interest:  
http://fishesofaustralia.net.au/search?q=seahorse

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