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Scientists capture first footage of incredibly rare Ruby Seadragon in the wild

Sunday, January 15, 2017 12:05
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A brilliant breakthrough has been made after scientists were able to record the ruby seadragon in its natural habitat for the first time.

The brightly colored fish, which is closely related to the seahorse, is native to the seas off the coast of Western Australia, where the video was captured in the Recherche Archipelago.

The footage also marks the first occasion that the fish, announced as a new species just two years ago, has been seen alive. The original discovery came about due to DNA testing on specimens in a museum.

It is only the third fish of its kind, with two other species of seadragon already recognized – the common and leafy seadragons. They are also seen in waters off the coasts of western and southern Australia.

Greg Rouse, a biologist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, discovered the species alongside Nerida Wilson, a researcher at the Western Australian Museum, and graduate student Josefin Stiller.

“There is hidden biodiversity in the sea,” said Rouse, adding: “A big, charismatic fish like the ruby seadragon represents that.”

Unlike the ruby seadragon, its relatives are quite easy to spot, commonly found amongst the coral reefs and seagrasses in the shallow waters less than 100 feet deep along the southern coastline.

By comparison, the specimen from the museum was found almost 170 feet down, implying that it lives in distinctly deeper waters than its cousins.

Rouse and his team decided to travel to the Recherche Archipelago in April 2016, following two specimins washed up there, to hopefully sight a living example.

The team was limited to one day of investigations due to adverse weather but it only took them until their fourth attempt, diving with a remote-controlled mini-submarine, to capture the footage they had hoped for.

In remarkable scenes, they were able to film two ruby seadragons as they waded through sub-aquatic shrubberies and ate as they went.

A dazzling camouflage

Heather Masonjones, a marine biologist specializing in seahorses and seadragons at the University of Tampa, recognizes the incredible luck the team had in spotting the two ten-inch long fish.

“You might find a few together if you can locate a patch, but otherwise [researchers] can sample for days… and not sample a single animal of a particular species,” she commented. “I know a number of syngnathid specialists [who saw] fewer than 50 animals during their Ph.D. work in the wild.”

Aside from the fact the footage is a world first, it also gives scientists a unique understanding of the ruby seadragon.

The video shows that the fish uses its dazzling red exterior as an effective means of camouflaging itself from predators in deeper, darker seas. This is in contrast to the common and leafy varieties which tend to disguise themselves with the leafy outgrowths they are covered in.

In another twist the footage also highlights that it can use a curled tail to grasp objects, a feature unique to ruby seadragons and not to its common or leafy counterparts which leaves the team with a bit of a head-scratcher.

“It’s a little bit tricky if the other seadragons had lost the prehensile tail, or the ruby seadragon independently evolved it,” said Rouse.

The hope of Rouse and the other researchers now is that the necessary powers in Australia will attempt to protect these unique and mysterious creatures.

“Right now, we have no idea on their population size, [and] we have no idea of their distribution,” Rouse said.

But the team can take comfort in knowing that both the common and leafy seadragons are protected by the province of Western Australia, meaning that their collection is illegal.

Rouse and his team published their footage, with a corresponding article, in Marine Biodiversity Records.


Image credit: Scripps Oceanography/UC San Diego

The post Scientists capture first footage of incredibly rare Ruby Seadragon in the wild appeared first on Redorbit.
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