Tiny seahorse species discovered in Sodwana Bay

The newly discovered seahorse species, Hippocampus nalu, found in Sodwana Bay.
SMALL WONDER: The newly discovered seahorse species, Hippocampus nalu, found in Sodwana Bay.
Image: DR RICHARD SMITH

A species of tiny seahorse, roughly the size of a human finger nail, has been discovered in the waters of Sodwana Bay in KwaZulu-Natal.

The find is detailed in a study published in the scientific journal ZooKeys. It is the first record of a pygmy seahorse in African waters.

First seen by South African diver, Savannah Olivier in 2017, it took almost four years, multiple permits and the expertise of several marine scientists, including Rhodes University PhD graduate Dr Louw Claassens, to study and name the new sea creature, given the official name Hippocampus nalu.

Claassens, who heads up the Knysna Basin Project which researches and conserves coastal ecosystems, said the discovery was made while searching for an entirely different species.

“It was totally by fluke.

“We were looking for a pygmy pipehorse in 2018, but because of the weather and other factors we just couldnt find this little animal and then a diver [Olivier] showed us a picture of this teeny tiny seahorse and thats what started it all,” said Claassens.

She said pygmy seahorses were usually associated with gorgonian or soft coral and were typically found in the Pacific Ocean near Indonesia, making the Hippocampus nalu — living more than 8,000km away — a very interesting discovery.

“Its a pretty cool and exciting find.

“Theres no other record of pygmy seahorses in the Indian Ocean or in Africa.

“They have a completely different taxonomy to larger seahorses and function differently as well.”

The newly discovered seahorse species, Hippocampus nalu, found in Sodwana Bay.
The newly discovered seahorse species, Hippocampus nalu, found in Sodwana Bay.
Image: DR RICHARD SMITH

Only growing to a maximum size of 2cm, Hippocampus nalu, like most seahorses, is a difficult creature to track down but Claassens believes the minute animal had possibly been in SA waters all along.

“I do believe its always been here, but just never been noticed or found.

“They can be less than 1cm big so its incredibly difficult to spot.

“In general, seahorses are hard to study because theyre very cryptic animals and difficult to find,” said Claassens, who has spent much of her studies and career researching the Knysna seahorse and its habitat.

“I think thats why there arent many people in the field and why they arent very well studied.

“We even have a part of our population that still think seahorses are a myth.”

She said there were only five other known species of seahorse found along the SA coastline, with the Knysna Seahorse being the most well known.

The discovery of the Hippocampus nalu was significant for SA, both from a scientific and tourism perspective.

The newly discovered seahorse species, Hippocampus nalu, found in Sodwana Bay.
The newly discovered seahorse species, Hippocampus nalu, found in Sodwana Bay.
Image: DR RICHARD SMITH

“Scientifically it has opened a door as to where more pygmys [pygmy seahorses] might be.

“They are much more widely distributed than we think.

“It also opens up a door on how much there is to still be discovered in our oceans.”

Claassens said the discovery could also give a much-needed boost to the scuba diving tourism industry.

“For our SA divers its really good news. Theres a huge overseas market for diving to find pygmys.

“So tourism wise, obviously with conservation in mind, it could be really great,” Claassens said.

MadeleineC@dispatch.co.za


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