That is not a typo! Dragons ARE real, and we learned even more about them in the past year!
Seadragons, along with seahorses, pygmy seahorses, pipefish and pipehorses all belong to the Syngnathidae family of fish, best known for their fused-jaws and male pregnancies. They might not breathe fire, but their ability to change colors, move their eyes independently and suck up prey faster than most machines make them truly fascinating creatures! Scientists and hobbyists alike have spent years trying to learn more about them, and the many threats they face in the ocean make recent advancements and research into aquaculture and conservation particularly important!
So why are these awesome fish not seen on the “trending” or “viral” listings very often? With the news channels focused on the latest tragedy and political debates dominating most social media platforms, some really fascinating news gets missed or buried! Between describing new species and learning what is actually working to help Syngnathids in the wild, quite a lot has been accomplished this year! So, before new year resolutions are echoed around the world, let’s check out the accomplishments of this year in: The Best Articles of 2018!
Dragons are Real? Seadragon Articles and Advancements!
The Ruby Red Seadragon filmed for the first time
Photo credit: Della Vedova
A THIRD SPECIES OF SEADRAGON?
Seadragons are fascinating syngnathids that many people do not even know exist! Not only are seadragons real, but as we dig into deeper depths of the ocean and find new ways to study these magnificent fish, new species are being discovered! In January 2018, a BMC article published the first live views of the new “Ruby Seadragon” in it’s natural habitat! Phyllopteryx dewysea (the ruby seadragon) was described in 2015, by researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Western Australian Museum. But the description was based on preserved specimens collected from museums, “leaving many aspects of its biology unknown”. (Rouse, Stiller, Wilson 2017). Ruby Seadragons live in waters too deep for normal scuba divers to venture, so a “miniROV (remotely operated vehicle with a low-light video camera) was used to film them at depths of 50 meters.
The advancements in equipment and technology are allowing us to learn more than we ever thought possible! Imagine how many new species we will find as we explore even more new areas next year! Read the articles about the Ruby seadragons: FIRST LIVE RECORDS and BMC FOOTAGE!
The Journey of the Seadragons
In February 2018, a few of the better known species of seadragons made a journey from their home in Australia to the New England Aquarium. Weedy seadragons (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) and leafy seadragons (Phycodurus eques) are listed as species of “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but habitat destruction and pollution are a constant threat to their homes in the wild. Public aquariums display these amazing fish not only to raise awareness and inspire people to join organizations like Blue Planet Society that focus on protecting the ocean, but also to study and learn how to breed them in captivity. The more that we learn, the more likely we are to be able to prevent extinction of these exotic fish through aquaculture, in spite of the ocean’s decline.
The article about their journey, written by Emily Bauernfeind, covers the sustainable methods used to collect seadragon offspring, and the carefully coordinated trip the seadragons must make to arrive at an aquarium. Read the entire article here: The Journey of the Seadragons!
Six institutions have had success with the weedy seadragons, but trying to breed the leafy seadragons in captivity is uncharted territory, according to Jenn Nero Moffatt, senior director of animal care, science and conservation at the Birch Aquarium, Scripps. A San Diego Union-Tribune article published yesterday describes Birch’s new million dollar exhibit, that they hope will be the first to succeed with this species. The 5,375 gallon tank will not only keep their current collection of 24 seadragons (including both weedy and leafy seadragons, happy, but also provide the extra space needed for mating rituals.
If Birch can breed them in captivity, they could provide other aquariums and research institutions captive-bred seadragons instead of taking more from the wild, creating a “refugium for the species” (Brennan, 2018). With so many threats to these unique creatures in the ocean, learning more about their care and husbandry needs is extremely important. Birch scientists are working with the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and other scientists on a “Seadragon Species Survival Plan” to coordinate the breeding program. This adorable video showing the Birch success with weedy seadragons gives me hope that we will see leafy babies in 2019! The exhibit is scheduled to open mid summer.
Learn more about seadragon mating rituals, communication with each other and complicated life cycles in the article: NEW EXHIBIT COULD HELP BREED RARE CREATURES IN CAPTIVITY! Do you think we will finally succeed with breeding seadragons in 2019? Let me know in the comments!
Seahorse News and Discoveries
“If you build it they will come” said Dr. David Harasti, from NSW Fisheries. Port Stephens on the New South Wales coast was home to one of the largest concentrations of seahorses in the world, until storms from 2010 to 2013 destroyed the habitat. Dr. Harasti decided to use artificial “seahorse hotels” in hopes that seahorses would colonize them. Not only was this idea a huge success, but others are duplicating the efforts in other areas to provide seahorses new habitats.
Read the entire 2018 article here: SEAHORSE HOTELS. As a bonus, check out this amazing illustration of the Port Stephens “Seahorse Hotspot”by Robert Kayganich. The idea that seahorses will adapt and use artificial “homes” is fantastic! But many wondered whether seahorses would remain and thrive in an artificial environment? The next article answers this very question!
The Most Endangered Seahorses Choose Artificial Structure?
The Knysna seahorse (Hippocampus capensis) in South Africa is considered the world’s most endangered species. In the few areas that this seahorse can be found, sedimentation, pollution, predators and excess nutrients are causing algae to take over the seagrass and threatening their habitat. Dr. Louw Claassens, Director of the Knysna Basin Project, decided to use gopros to monitor the seahorses activities, and noticed that many were living in the Reno Mattresses (wire boxes filled with rocks) that line the canals of the Thesen Islands Marina. She set up a controlled experiment to determine whether the seahorses were truly choosing the Reno Mattresses over their natural seagrass habitat nearby. Interestingly, when given the choice of artificial versus natural, the seahorses chose the Reno Mattresses. More research must be done to understand why the seahorses preferred the artificial habitat, but proving that they can adapt to new environments makes a huge impact on future plans for conservation.
Maarten De Brauwer, of Critters Research covered this story in 2017, and you can watch some of the underwater gopro footage in his article “Guest blog: Big brother is watching – Spying on the secret lives of endangered seahorses”. In May, 2018 the article was added to the Environmental Biology of Fishes journal. And in August, Dr. David Harasti covers the topic in even more detail in his Project Seahorse Blog, explaining why the Knysna seahorse is the most endangered species and how important this discovery is to protecting their future.
After discovering that the seahorses preferred the artificial habitat, Louw’s next step was to question how many seahorses currently live on the Reno Mattresses. Counting and tracking the current population will help determine whether the number of seahorses increase or decrease in the future.
In January 2018, Dr. Dave Harasti (the seahorse hotel inventor from the last article) was invited to collaborate on the project and explain the VIFE (visible implant of fluorescent elastomer) method, which he had used to track White’s seahorse and pot-belly seahorses in Australia. VIFE involves injecting seahorses with three little fluorescent marks to identify and monitor the seahorses over time. Louw will report on the findings sometime near august 2019. But, how cool is it that gopros are helping science and fluorescent mark tracking can monitor seahorses? We are making serious progress here!
Seahorses in Greece?
One of the best “2018 seahorse stories” stems from the enthusiasm of a man named Vasilis Mentogiannis. This story began in 2007 when the archaeological diver discovered seahorses near the small village Stratoni, located in Greece. After a storm in 2010, the seahorse habitat was covered and destroyed by the mountain’s sediment run-off from the small creeks. Yet, a few seahorses remained. So Vasilis began many trying to help them in many ways, including creating artificial habitats, joining forces with scientists and other divers to monitor the seahorses, and campaigning to keep boats away from the roped off areas.
When Miguel Correia, a National Seahorse Expert with iseahorse, went to Greece to learn more about the Stratoni seahorses, he logically questioned whether the seahorses were coming from a nearby area filled with luxurious sea grass. He was surprised to find that no seahorses could be found in the seagrass, and were choosing more barren areas instead. The seahorses seem to prefer the deeper waters, hitching onto tube worms in the middle of nowhere. In his field notes, Miguel says that the Stratoni seahorses are perfect for a case study of these Mediterranean seahorse populations.
There is no ending to this fascinating story, because this is merely the beginning! All of these questions prompted Vasilis to push for more research and find new ways to protect these seahorses. After speaking with him today, I learned that the biggest announcement of 2018 is the establishment of the new Hippocampus Marine Institute, which will scientifically document and protect the seahorse colony in Stratoni.
Read more about this story in the 2018 EroNews article, or read Miguel Correia’s article for more details. The follow up in 2019 will be covered RIGHT HERE, as I will be interviewing Vasilis this week for one of the first 2019 SWS articles! If you have any questions, comment below!
Seahorses in the Hudson River?
The River Project has discovered nearly 60 species since they began their ecology survey to track trends in the lower section of the Hudson River 30 years ago. Nina Hitchings, who oversees the wetlab on Pier 40, told New York Today, “a lot of people look at the river and talk about it looking dirty.” But she goes on to explain why this is actually a good thing! “There is a lot of algae and phytoplankton and zooplankton in the water column, making this a super productive ecosystem and making this a nursery for fish.” The project’s biggest surprise was lined seahorses, “migrating hundreds of miles to use the estuary as a nursery and mating grounds in the summer”.
Read the entire article here: SEAHORSES IN THE HUDSON RIVER. This article sheds even more light on the fact that seahorses do migrate and will follow the food! Knowledge like this can help identify ways to provide protected areas for seahroses in the future that contain the plankton filled areas seahorses will thrive in
Can Seahorses handle the heat?
The previous few articles show seahorses adapting to new environments, recovering in environments artificially rebuilt, and that they will migrate to “follow the food”. But do they migrate for other reasons? And, how are they affected by temperature changes in the water? A study of Hippocampus mohnikei in Laizhou Bay, China was published in 2017 showing that at least this species migrates to deeper water during the winter, and comes back to the shore to breed once the water gets warmer in summer months. (Qin et al. 2017). In 2018, a new study expanded this research to determine how well another migratory species (hippocampus erectus) could adapt to higher temperatures, and whether reproduction was affected.
Previous studies show that many seahorse species migrate (travel to a different location) for breeding, food availability, seasonal temperature changes and human activity on the shore-line reasons. The goal of the study was to determine how temperature changes during migration affect seahorses in the wild. The information provides data that is helpful in conservation and in aquaculture, showing that reproduction is not affected by higher temperatures, but the rate of breathing, energy expenditure and stress can be fatal.
Read the details of the study here: TEMPERATURE AFFECTS ON MIGRATORY SEAHORSES
Pointing out the Problem with Plastics
Who could forget the picture of a seahorse hitched to a qtip that DID go viral? But, did you actually read the article attached to the image? Simon Reddy’s article “Plastic Pollution Affects Sea Life Throughout the Ocean” was published on the PEW research center website in September, 2018. In addition to the very troubling and telling images, the article details how greatly plastics are hurting the ocean and it’s inhabitants. Not only does ingesting plastics make fish sick, but larger fish get sick from eating the smaller fish that ingested those plastics, or can get caught up in connected pieces of plastic. Studies showed that even coral are at risk, having an 89 percent higher chance of contracting disease after coming into contact with plastic.
Although most people did see this image float through the viral waves, I wanted to include it in hopes that more would read the article and take the threat of plastics in the ocean seriously! Read the article here: PLASTICS KILLING THE OCEAN.
A Peek at Pygmy Seahorses
How do Pygmy’s develop color?
Pygmy seahorses were a hot topic in 2018! One interesting question that has puzzled scientists is whether the pygmy seahorses could change the color of their tubercles (calcium-rich bumps that help pygmy seahorses blend in with gorgonians), or if they had to find a gorgonian with the same colors? In July 2018, Earth Touch News Network covered the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) experiment that answered this question! Pygmy seahorses are extremely difficult to care for in captivity, and CAS spent 3 years growing sea fans and ensuring a proper environment for the smallest seahorses before collecting a breeding pair from Indonesia. The offspring were placed in tanks with different colored coral, and resulted in the seahorses turning the color of the coral in their tanks.
It is well known that larger species of seahorses blend in with their surroundings and that camouflage is a characteristic all syngnathids use as a protection method. But showing that pygmy seahorses can change their color just as easily means that their relationship with gorgonians are not dependent upon a specific species. And, the question has finally been answered! Read the complete article here: PYGMY SEAHORSE CAMOUFLAGE
New Pygmy Seahorse Described
One of the biggest stories this year was the description and recognition of a the new pygmy seahorse species Hippocampus Japapigu. “With this description, Japan can now lay claim to having five of the seven described pygmy seahorse species residing in its waters” (Pedersen, 2018). In a Reef to Rainforest article, Matthew Pedersen points out how many seahorses are known, but just need to be described. But, that is not as easy as it sounds!
Graham Short, an ichthyologist at the California Academy of Sciences and one of the authors of the new seahorse description, described the complex route an ichthyologist must take to describe a new species in a “Wine Wednesday with the Whisperer” interview! Learning about trunk rings and truncate spikes might sound boring, but the interview was actually a lot of fun! Who knew that describing a new species was so involved? But, Hippocampus Japapigu is now officially official, and on the record thanks to the hard work of scientists and ichthyologists like Graham!
How many Pygmy Seahorse Species are there really?
In an October Tide Bite article, Graham discusses the “tiny seahorses” and how much we are still learning about them. His recent description of the new seahorse Hippocampus Japapigu, shows how DNA sequencing, gene research and study of morphological characters are helping us describe seahorses more accurately.
There are seven currently recognized species of Pygmy Seahorses: H. bargibanti, H. denise, H. colemani, H. japapigu, H. pontohi, H. satomiae, and H. waleananus. These tiny tots differ from regular seahorses in more ways than just their small size! A couple of the obvious differences include the gill opening being located on the back of the head of the Pygmy seahorses, instead of on either side of their head like the larger species of seahorses. The male pygmy’s brood pouch is located within the male’s trunk versus on the tail like larger species. The article covers information about which species live in obligate relationships with gorgonian coral, and details the nocturnal habbits of the smallest pygmy, hippocampus satomiae.
You can read the full article here: GRAHAM SHORT TIDE BITE
How many seahorse species are there really?
Even google will not provide you with a true answer to the question of how many seahorse species exist. The number keeps changing because we keep learning more! The most recently published revision was published in 2016, recognizing 41 species based on morphological characteristics (fin-rays, snout length, facial and body spines, tail rings and etc), genetic (comparison of mitochondrial DNA) and geographic (where the seahorses are found) information.
However, a 2018 study in Korea showed how hybridization can complicate species listings further. When seahorses from two different species breed, is the hybrid seahorse a new species? I would place bets that we will see many more new seahorse descriptions in 2019.
Pipefish can block pregnancy?
The “Lady in Red” effect in pipefish?
Photo credit to Chris De Burgh – simply red – the lady in red on Youtube. Click HERE to see the video!
“In an old Gene Wilder movie, an attractive woman dressed in red devastated a man’s current relationship. We have found a similar ‘Woman in Red’ effect in pipefish, a group of fish where pregnancy occurs in males. We tested for the existence of pregnancy blocks in pregnant male black-striped pipefish (Syngnathus abaster)”. (Cunha, Berglund, Mendes, and Monteiro, 2018). Biologists were baffled by studies showing that exposing female mice to unfamiliar males would cause them to “block pregnancy”, and wondered if this occured in the role-reversed syngnathid world of males carrying the offspring? Apparently, the idea of a bigger and better new mate entices even pipefish! ”
The study published in the Royal SocietyJournal showed that “after exposure to extremely attractive females, males produced smaller offspring in more heterogeneous broods and showed a higher rate of spontaneous offspring abortion. Although we did not observe a full pregnancy block, our results show that males are able to reduce investment in current broods when faced with prospects of a more successful future reproduction with a potentially better mate. This ‘Woman in Red’ life-history trade-off between present and future reproduction has similarities to the Bruce effect, and our study represents, to our knowledge, the first documentation of such a phenomenon outside mammals.”
Read the entire article here: THE WOMAN IN RED EFFECT
Did we make progress in 2018? Heck yes! As a person who complained about the lack of seahorse information a few years ago, I am awed and inspired by the progress made this year. Now that we have glimpsed some of the amazing information that was written about in 2018, I wish you all a Happy New Year!
Bauernfeind, Emily. “The journey of the Seadragons”. The New England Aquarium. Feb 8, 2018. https://www.neaq.org/blog/the-journey-of-the-seadragonsA
Brennan, Deborah Sullivan. New seadragon exhibit could help breed rare creatures in captivity. The San Diego Union Tribune. November, 2018. Sourced on 12/18 https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/environment/sd-no-seadragon-birch-20181113-story.html
Claassens, L., Booth, A.J. & Hodgson, A.N. Environ Biol Fish (2018) 101: 723. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10641-018-0732-4
Correia, Miguel. “The Strange Case of Stratoni Seahorses”. Project Seahorse. February 28, 2018. http://www.projectseahorse.org/blog/2018/2/28/the-strange-case-of-stratoni-seahorses
Cunha M, Berglund A, Mendes S, and Monteiro N. The ‘Woman in Red’ effect: pipefish males curb pregnancies at the sight of an attractive female285 Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.1335
De Brauwer, Martin. “Guest blog: Big Brother is watching – Spying on the secret lives of endangered seahorses”. Critters Research. September, 21 2017. https://crittersresearch.com/2017/09/21/guest-blog-big-brother-is-watching-spying-on-the-secret-lives-of-endangered-seahorses/
Dianne J. Bray & Vanessa J. Thompson, Hippocampus colemani in Fishes of Australia, accessed 28 Dec 2018, http://fishesofaustralia.net.au/home/species/4038
Earth Touch News Network. Watch: The unbelievable camouflage of the pygmy seahorse. Earth Touch News. July 24, 2018. https://www.earthtouchnews.com/oceans/oceans/watch-the-unbelievable-camouflage-of-the-pygmy-seahorse/
Han, SY., Rho, S., Noh, G.E. et al. Fish Aquatic Sci (2018) 21: 11. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41240-018-0088-x
Harasti, David. Project Seahorse Blog. August 29, 2018. http://www.projectseahorse.org/blog/2018/8/29/south-africa-home-to-the-worlds-most-endangered-seahorse
https://mbr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s41200-016-0102-x#Decs. The following article contains the video footage and more information about the species: https://blogs.biomedcentral.com/on-biology/2017/01/13/dragons-ruby-seadragon-seen-wild-first-time/
Levine, Alexandra S. “New York Today: The Hudson River Isn’t Dirty. It’s Alive”. New York Today. June 5, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/05/nyregion/new-york-today-hudson-river-fish.html
Mentogiannis, Vassilis. Hippocampus Marine Institute. https://www.hippocampus-institute.org/en/
Pedersen, Matthew. Hippocampus Japapigu, the newest Pygmy Seahorse. Reef to Rainforest Media. https://www.reef2rainforest.com/2018/08/09/hippocampus-japapigu-the-newest-pygmy-seahorse/. Accessed Dec 28, 2018.
Qin, Geng & Zhang, Yanhong & Ho, Adeljean & Zhang, Yuan & Lin, Qiang & Qin, G & Zhang, Y & L F C Ho, A. (2017). Seasonal distribution of seahorses employing a social reproductive strategy and supporting for a closed fishing season. ICES Journal of Marine Science. 10.1093/icesjms/fsx042.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316601041_Seasonal_distribution_of_seahorses_employing_a_social_reproductive_strategy_and_supporting_for_a_closed_fishing_season [accessed Dec 30 2018].
Qin, G., Johnson, C., Zhang, Y., Zhang, H., Yin, J., Miller, G., Turingan, R. G., Guisbert, E. and Lin, Q. (2018). Temperature-induced physiological stress and reproductive characteristics of the migratory seahorse Hippocampus erectus during a thermal stress simulation. Biol. Open 7: bio032888.
Qin, G. First Person. The Company of Biologists. Biology Open (2018); doi:10.1242/bio.032888. Referenced 12/18 http://bio.biologists.org/content/biolopen/suppl/2018/06/22/bio.032888.DC2/BIO032888supp.pdf
Reddy, Simon. “Plastic Pollution Affects Sea Life Throughout the Ocean”. PEW Research Center. September 24, 2018. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/09/24/plastic-pollution-affects-sea-life-throughout-the-ocean
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.
Stiller, Josefin & Wilson, Nerida & Donnellan, Stephen & Rouse, Greg. (2016). The leafy seadragon, Phycodurus eques, a flagship species with low but structured genetic variability. The Journal of heredity. 108. 10.1093/jhered/esw075.
Rouse, Greg W, Stiller, Josefin, Wilson, Nerida G. First live records of the ruby seadragon. Rouse et al. Marine Biodiversity Records (2017) 10:2 DOI 10.1186/s41200-016-0102-x
Woods, Chris & Martin-Smith, Keith. (2004). Visible Implant fluorescent Elastomer tagging of the big-bellied seahorse, Hippocampus abdominalis.. Fisheries Research. 66. 363-371. 10.1016/S0165-7836(03)00183-8.