A new species of pygmy seahorse was recently discovered in Japan. One of the most positive thing that occurred together with the discovery of these creatures is that they are not endangered or threatened by far.
Local divers first spotted the Hippocampus japapigu, or the “Japan pig”, which fishermen call due to its parallel appearance to a tiny pig.
This marine animal gently floats on seaweed or algae and its tremendously perfect camouflage make it extremely difficult to find.
“To the locals, it resembles a tiny baby pig,” says Graham Short, an ichthyologist and lead author of the study published in ZooKeys, as obtained from National Geographic.
The adult pygmy seahorse only grows to the size of a grain of rice – and their colors are exquisitely beautiful, but you might find it hard to detect them once they completely blend on rocks smothered with algae and on seaweeds.
Though they had been known to divers for quite some time in the shallow waters off Hachijo-Jima Island, of the Izu Islands in Japan, Short and his colleagues realized that they were actually quite unique to the six other known species of pygmy seahorse.
“They’re easy to overlook, as their color makes them look like little bits of floating seaweed. Their coloration is “very special,” says Kevin Conway, associate professor and curator of fishes at Texas A&M University. “It's like a seahorse wearing a paisley pattern.”
The new species differs in several features from its relative sea equines, for example possessing an odd ridge on its upper back made of triangular struts of bone. The purpose of the ridge is unclear, though it could have evolved as a way to attract a mate, a process known as sexual selection.
They took CT scans of the seahorses and they realized there were other differences.
Like other pygmy seahorses, they have a wing-like structure on their back known as gill slits, again to what purpose it’s unknown, however unlike the others, instead of two pairs, H. japapigu has just one.
“It’s like having a nose on the back of your neck,” Short says.
And they are small enough “to fit two or three on the nail of my pinkie,” he adds.
They had been thought to be a variant of the Pontohi’s seahorse, but once they were able to study them in detail the researchers realized the color and detailed pattern of the creatures meant they were something entirely new.
They also live in quite an unusual habitat for seahorses. The shallow waters where they lie could get so cold and fluctuate in temperature depending on the season. These kinds of conditions are not really suitable for other seahorses. The fact they were found at only 10-11 meters (33-36 feet), when most pygmy seahorses live in deeper waters is puzzling for scientists as well.
Their diet consists of plankton, such as copepods and other small crustaceans. As for their behavior, “they seem to be quite active and playful,” Short notes.
Too small to find
These tiny creatures depend on their camouflage abilities to stay hidden and evade detection from both predators and humans. Some species of seahorse can grow up to 35 centimeters (14 inches), but the Japan pig measures around 16 millimeters. There are those who seek to use them in “traditional” Chinese medicine or for the highly lucrative aquarium trade. “But this might never become an issue for pygmy seahorses, because they are just too hard to find,” Short said.
The benefits of becoming so small is that these seahorses have also escaped excessive attention by humans and remain undetected for some time - until now.
Populations of larger seahorses are being depleted in so many areas of the world by people who seek them for recreational purposes and on the expense of the destruction of their habitat due to pollution and extensive fishing.
These marine creatures are among the most charismatic inhabitants of coral reefs. Recent discoveries have increased the number of true pygmy seahorses to at least seven known species.
A multiple combination of threats to individual animals, their hosts, and their ecosystem may put pygmy seahorses at risk, but there is a general lack of knowledge of their biology and ecology due to the difficulty of finding, tracking and studying them. This has been the primary subject of most ecologists who wanted to continue observing these animals for further wildlife preservation and marine conservation.
According to Bioflux, pygmy seahorses exhibit complex homochromy - that is, the body color, shape and types of skin ornamentation of the various species closely mimics that of their habitat.
This “protective”, or “deceptive” resemblance, makes them nearly invisible among the corals’ branches, and undoubtedly is the primary reason that they remained unknown for the most of us.