Discovering Coleman's Pygmy Seahorse- Hippocampus colemani
March 20, 2009 @ 01:00 AM (EST)
With a rugged swell breaking over the reef on a rising tide and the breeze on the increase the Pro Dive boat tugged at its moorings, swinging backwards and forwards in uncomfortable, swirling jerks. The other divers had been out of the water over 20 minutes, Jeff the skipper had been bouncing around for over two hours and I knew everybody would be slightly (if not more) annoyed at me for keeping them all waiting….. once again.
Lord Howe Island lagoon provides the habitat and a picturesque scene for one of the world's rarest pygmy sea horses. The latest understanding by Rudie Kuiter from his updated book, is that Coleman’s Pygmy Sea Horse Hippocampus colemani is endemic to Lord Howe Island.
How could I go back now? I was at Erscott’s Hole only four metres deep, and I was faced with the most exciting discovery I had ever made in 45 years underwater.
Right in front of the camera (somewhere) was a tiny gold-spotted pygmy seahorse with bright red appendages and white, red-rimmed blotches, the like of which no one in the entire world had ever seen before. Freezing my ‘butt’ off after 109 minutes bottom time didn't seem to register. How could this be? I'd logged 70 dives at this dive site, how did I miss it?
Thought to be a male, this beautiful original specimen of Coleman’s Pygmy Sea Horse Hippocampus colemani was taken on a Nikon F4 with a 105 mm Micro- Nikkor lens in a Nexus housing. I must admit that with all the hundreds of new species I have discovered over my 45 years of exploring underwater, this little guy is the most significant fish. The best Christmas present ever...
Over 25 years, thousands of divers had made thousands of dives right at this spot and many might say (after they swam around the small reef once or twice) that it was boring, not enough to see? Seagrass, sand, coral and lots of brilliant fishes (a real underwater paradise to me). However, the only reason the dive boat was anchored inside the Lord Howe Island lagoon in the first place was that it was too rough to go outside the lagoon, so my pleadings had been humoured.
The habitat for Coleman’s Pygmy Sea Horse Hippocampus colemani is in 3 metres of water amongst sea grass meadows directly in line of where the high tide swells break over the reef and swirl into the lagoon. The sea grass meadows are pockmarked by erosion pits caused by giant stingrays, feeding.
It just seemed to take forever to get some shots. I was floundering around trying to focus through the 105 mm Micro -Nikor macro lens (maximum close up) on a 20 mm Pygmy Sea Horse with its tail wrapped around a piece of sea grass that was being swept this way and that by the strong surge of the swell coming over the reef. It was all “snap shooting” at the best.
Pulling the trigger on the last frame, I switched over to my ‘spare air’ (bale-out, equipment practice, of course) scooped the seahorse up in a tube and swam back to the boat.
Hands reached down into the water to lift my cameras on board even before my fin was on the first rung of the diving ladder.... I thought, “I’ve blown it this time, they will never bring me here again, after this." I looked up, Jeff , the skipper, was not grinning...
Back on board the boat with gear stowed, I thanked everybody for their patience, apologised for their sea sickness on my account, and told them they would be the first people to see a brand new species of Pygmy Sea Horse, only the second species to be discovered in the entire World!
Of course, trying to focus eyes on an algae-covered 20mm seahorse swimming around in a plastic tube on a rocking boat impressed the daylights out of everybody; Jeff's comment was, "Why didn't you find something we could see?"
The discovery was passed around a few times, then I snorkelled back down and released the little Pygmy where I found it. When I got back on the boat everybody was grinning. I never found out whether Jeff had suggested that I was committed to my cause, or that I should be committed, because of it?
Whatever, we had a new Pygmy Sea Horse, and my enthusiastic ravings, were just par for the course.
It doesn't look new, how could you know?
Fair question from the average diver and the answer is difficult for most people to comprehend. However, when your entire life revolves around diving and the discovery of new species (that's what underwater explorers do) it's my job to be able to recognise most of the visually known underwater flora and fauna across the entire Indo-Pacific.
Keeping up with new publications and scientific papers of known species takes a lot of time and effort, but it's not impossible. In regard to the pygmy seahorses I had ( at the time) just finished reading Rudie Kuiter's brilliant worldwide reference book "Seahorses, Pipefishes and their Relatives" for which I supplied quite a few pictures and worked with Rudie on expeditions over 25 years. So I had access to all of the published knowledge of these fascinating creatures, a number of which Rudie had pioneered the breeding and aquarium husbandry of many years previously.
I knew there were only a few Pygmy Sea Horses photographed and most of these were all undescribed as nobody had bothered to actually collect one and forward it on to a fish taxonomist, so only the images were available. This one fitted none of the visual criteria of any images I had ever seen. All of those discovered were found in Papua New Guinea and associated with gorgonian sea fans. They were found below 20 metres, to beyond 60 metres and I knew the photographers who found them personally.
(All of us had chased up Bargibant’s Pygmy Sea Horse Hippocampus bargibanti at one time or another, as well as the other sea fan dwelling species, that eventually was to be described as Denise’s Pygmy Sea Horse Hippocampus denise)
Because I had found this one in an entirely different habitat for known Pygmy Sea Horses and because its colours were unique, there was an excellent chance that it was new (as it later proved to be).
THE SEARCH WAS ON
Amazingly enough, Friday ( December 2001) on the last dive of the trip, I managed to persuade the divers, and Jeff, that the Pygmy Sea Horse was of more importance than nudibranchs, so we were all out in the lagoon looking for the elusive pygmy. After 69 minutes searching seagrass meadows I knew all the places where they didn't live. I returned to the exact place I found the first one and I found another one; a female.
Photographed on the second expedition this ( female) Coleman’s Pygmy Sea Horse is almost covered in a growth of filamentous algae growing on its skin, making it even more difficult to find. Photographed with a Nikonos 111 with 28mm lens 1:1 close up tube and twin strobes.
What a relief! Ever since finding the first pygmy I'd had no sleep, wondering as to whether it existed, if I could find another one, where it originally came from etc.etc. At least it hadn't been my imagination and there was more than one there. I took a whole lot of shots on my 1:1 Nikonos III, 28 mm lens and framer , and finned back to the boat.
As none of the other divers found any, it was obvious the Pygmies were few and far between, or really hard to find. However, it was an excellent way to wrap up the Nudibranch trip and our "nudibrancher" divers still had a good time and found a lot of ‘branchs’, even if Neville did get a little distracted by finding the Pygmy Sea Horse.
During our diving adventure to Lord Howe Island, we had managed to get some good dives in, despite a bit of rough weather.
Steve and Tas trying not to look ‘bored out of their brains’ while on one of our fruitless 100 minute dives searching for Pygmy Sea Horses.
The Co – incidence of Discovery
Its funny sometimes how discovery works?
If it hadn't been too rough to dive outside the lagoon, we would not have been diving inside.
If my dive buddy Tas hadn't called me over to show me his nudibranch, and if I hadn't followed him back across the reef to his beautiful little black spot Jorunna sp. None of this would have happened.
If I hadn't parted the seagrass, so I could get the framer in and photograph the nudibranch, the Pygmy Sea Horse ( next to the nudibranch) would not have turned sideways, and it may have stayed hidden for another 30 years. Sometimes, life is determined by other influences...
Back in the unreal world
Because of the big swells and the movement underwater and the shyness of the pygmy's nature, I was very unsure as to how my pictures would come out. I was waiting at the film processors minutes after they came out of the dryer and couldn't wait to get them on the light table. My first look allayed any doubts, I had two rolls of pics, well exposed images and most were in focus. I was absolutely ‘stoked’.
Back home I sorted out a few good shots, wrapped them up in an Express parcel and sent them off to Rudie Kuiter. Then I rang him and told him what I had found.
His taxonomic revision paper on all the known "Australian Seahorses of the genus Hippocampus" had been published that same day and now I may have just come up with a new one.
Rudie’s comment was..."Perfect timing, Neville. You're making more work for me." Of course, all that changed when he saw the pictures. His next question was, "What about a specimen?"
Organising a Scientific Collection
I'd had permission to collect any new invertebrates at over the years of putting together my Photographic Marine Index of Lord Howe Island, but all my 80 or so new records of fish were by photographic means, or visual observations, not by collecting.
Rudie organised a permit for collection of 2 specimens ( male and female) through Mr Geoff Kelly, the Lord Howe Island Marine Park manager and Mr Patrick Tully of New South Wales fisheries and I organised a new expedition to go back in a months time.
Everybody was so helpful, it was amazing. Most of the people I depended on to get this done properly had never even heard of a pygmy sea horse, let alone seen one.
It was the longest four weeks of my life waiting to get back there, as I had no idea whether the wild, stormy New South Wales winter swells would wash away their habitat, or that they would still be there at all?
However, I did go back and find the two specimens required to have them described as a new species. The fact that it took six hours to find one didn't make it any easier. Only in the last minutes of the last dive were they located.
I sent Rudie the specimens (which are now lodged at the Australian Museum) and he spent many days keying them out, taking their pictures, getting x-rays done and writing up the scientific paper which was published a year later in records of the Australian Museum’s Scientific Journal.
Another (male) Coleman’s Pygmy Sea Horse with a different colour pattern found on the second expedition. Pygmy seahorses are different to other seahorses. Their single gill opening is at the back of the head. The reason for this is not known and in years to come it may be that they will be separated from Hippocampus and have a new genus described for them alone
The pics were published in colour. Only 22mm in size, Coleman’s Pygmy Sea Horse Hippocampus colemani was only the second pygmy sea horse to be described in the world, and it still remains, one of the rarest!
I have explained the process of events to enable an understanding of how a new species comes about. The fact that it all happened in the time frame of 2 years is extremely rare. This speedy process was only made possible by the hard work and enthusiasm of all those involved. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everybody.
Sometimes it takes many years before a new species is recognised, described and published. (My first (1972) fish collections took 22 years at the Australian Museum just to get them identified, even with, five new species.)
Some months later on one of our expeditions to Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea a similar Pygmy Sea Horse was discovered ( living in the coralline algae Caulerpa sp. as I had predicted) This pair are very similar to Coleman’s Pygmy Sea Horse and identified as Hippocampus cf. colemani , but their true status is yet be determined.
Rudie Kuiter, professional colleague and good friend.
Cheryl Williams of Somerset Holiday Accommodation.
Jeff Deacon, retired skipper of Pro Dive Lord Howe Island
Dr Martin Gomon, Curator of Fishes Victorian Museum.
Mr Geoff Kelly, past manager Lord Howe Island Marine Park.
Mr Patrick Tully, senior fisheries manager Aquaculture Administration.
Tasman Douglass, Pro Dive Lord Howe Island
Mar 22, 2009 8:11 PM
Mike Bartick wrote:
Brilliant, what an extraordinary turn of events and account of discovery. Well done..
Apr 25, 2009 2:32 PM
Gaynor L. Rosier wrote:
It must be a fantastic feeling to discover a new species after so much patience! I know, I spend a lot of time looking in Posidonia oceanica seagrass for Mediterranean seahorses and pipefish.
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Residing in Solana Beach, CA, Marty Snyderman is the Marine Life Editor for Dive Training Magazine and the long time author of the magazine, What\'s That, Behind The Lens, and Always Learning columns. He is also an Emmy...