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Seadragon: Ruby Red with Pink Stripes

ESF Top 10 New Species of 2016

From the Author...

The discovery of the ruby seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea) started with a piece of tissue from what was supposed to be one of the two known species of seadragons, the common seadragon. This specimen was housed at the Western Australian Museum since it was caught during a biodiversity assessment in the remote areas of Western Australia. A small piece of the tail of this specimen was sent to graduate student Josefin Stiller for genetic analysis. Josefin uses such tissue samples to extract DNA to learn about the populations of common and leafy seadragons in Australia in order to effectively protect them. 

This particular piece of tissue held a big surprise — its genetic signature was widely different from the other two seadragon species! In fact, it was as divergent as the two known species are to each other. This was noteworthy but they needed more information. The team set out trying to find out more about the specimen in question. First, they found out that the specimen came from slightly greater water depths than the other two species are usually found in. Second, the Western Australian Museum sent a photo of the specimen shortly after it was caught. The other two seadragon species display fantastic color patterns in life, one being purple with yellow polka dots, the other yellow-greenish with pink stripes. However, the photo of the odd sample showed a coloration the researchers had never seen before: the fish in the photo was bright ruby red! This was the final Aha! moment, confirming the genetic findings. The researchers did detailed anatomical studies and found numerous differences to the known species. 

Now that they knew what the new species looked like, they hunted through Australian museums and found three additional specimens of the new ruby seadragon. One of these specimens had been collected in 1919 in Western Australia and had been sitting in a museum since then, unrecognized as a new species. However, many questions about the biology of this new species remain unanswered. Importantly, ruby seadragons have never been observed alive to date.

— Josefin Stiller

About the Seadragon

Name: Phyllopteryx dewysea

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Location: Australia

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Actinopterygii

Order: Syngnathiformes

Family: Syngnathidae

Size: About 240 mm (nearly 10 inches)

Etymology: Named to honor Mary "Dewy" Lowe for her love of, and commitment to, the study and conservation of seadragons.

Type locality: Australia, Western Australia, Recherche Archipelago east of Middle Island, trawled at 51 m

Holotype: Western Australian Museum, Perth

More information: Josefin Stiller, Nerida G. Wilson, and Greg W. Rouse. 2015. A spectacular new species of seadragon (Syngnathidae). Royal Society Open Science 2: 140458

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