By Kately Nikiforuk
Tucked away in coral kingdoms, with their otherworldly beauty and elusive nature, pygmy seahorses might seem more fairytale than fish. But IUCN Seahorse, Pipefish and Seadragon Specialist Group member Dr. Richard Smith is here to bridge the gap between fact and fable - he swims with them, he studies them, he photographs them. Recently, he even helped name one!
“I had seen a picture of a pygmy seahorse from Japan, in a book, years ago, and it always inspired my interest,” Dr. Smith says.
To him, the pygmy between the pages seemed entirely different from any formally described seahorse species, but not much could be done at the time. Then, in 2013, he heard about an Indo-Pacific fish conference in Okinawa that just happened to be conveniently close to where the picture was taken. “So I thought, okay, I’m going to that… and then I’m going to sneak off and look at this pygmy seahorse!”
The pygmy seahorse he “snuck off to look at” in 2013 became Hippocampus japapigu - but not until 2018. With a striking honeycomb pattern draped across their skin, they are undeniably unique in appearance, but it was no simple task declaring them a new species. It wasn’t until SyngBio 2017, a conference for people who study seahorses and other syngnathids, when he was finally able to get the gears in motion after talking to notable seahorse taxonomist Graham Short.
H. japapigu, also known as the Japan pig pygmy seahorse and the Japanese pygmy seahorse, is now one of seven known pygmy seahorse species. Considering that six of those seven species weren’t discovered until the 21st century, it almost certainly won’t be the last pygmy seahorse to join the ranks.
Seahorses in general are not well understood, and pygmy seahorses are especially mysterious. That’s not too surprising, considering that Satomi’s pygmy seahorse is less than 1.4 cm in length, and once a juvenile Denise’s pygmy seahorse lands on a coral, they will spend days changing their skin’s colour and texture to perfectly match their host. With their small size and uncanny camouflage, pygmy seahorses are tricky to track down, but Dr. Smith is a pro. In fact, he is one of the only people in the world to have studied them in the wild, the first to get a PhD by researching pygmy seahorses, and serves as iSeahorse’s global pygmy seahorse expert.
While Dr. Smith is clearly a big pygmy seahorse fan, his fascination stems from a broader love of the natural world. “I was always a wildlife nut,” he says. “Then, when I learned to dive when I was sixteen, it sort of became an ocean obsession.” His diving hobby led to a diving career, as well as hundreds of hours in the company of pygmy seahorses. He has spent a lot of time with Denise’s pygmy seahorses in particular, having witnessed everything from a male giving birth, to three males fighting over a female - a tussle that led to one strangling the other’s neck with his prehensile tail (he survived the ordeal, though, don’t worry!).
Nowadays, Dr. Smith is a professional dive expedition leader, scanning the seas for all sorts of sunken treasure such as nudibranchs, whimsical crustaceans, and, recently, a hot pink, toothpick-sized seahorse relative called Lynn’s pipefish. By capturing them on camera, people can see incredible critters they wouldn’t know existed.
It’s rather fitting that the journey to declare H. japapigu a new species started with Dr. Smith being inspired by a picture in a book. This week, his own highly anticipated book, “The World Beneath: The Life and Times of Unknown Sea Creatures and Coral Reefs” hit the virtual shelves on Amazon! It’s jam-packed with fish facts and glossy, full-colour portraits of obscure marine invertebrates he’s encountered during his underwater adventures. “Three and a half thousand dives later, I’ve been very lucky and have seen some of the most pristine places in the ocean that are left.”
He’s also seen many not-so-pristine places, like bleached reefs. The health of coral reefs is vital to pygmy seahorse survival, especially since some species spend their entire lives clinging to a single coral. Gorgonian corals, the only corals that Bargibant’s pygmy seahorses live on, are not sensitive to bleaching, but could fall prey to disease in warming waters. And well-meaning divers are actually a big issue, with the capacity to destroy a century-old coral with a misplaced flipper.
Despite all the threats currently facing it, Dr. Smith remains optimistic about our ocean’s future. “People are just so passionate about the ocean. And they’re so excited to hear about all the creatures I see,” he says. “It’s just getting people on board about the issues they’re facing too.” Hopefully, the stunning photography in his new book, The World Beneath, will inspire a wave of readers to protect the world beneath the waves.
Short, G., Smith, R., Motomura, H., Harasti, D. & Hamilton, H. (2018). Hippocampus japapigu, a new species of pygmy seahorse from Japan, with a redescription of H. pontohi (Teleostei, Syngnathidae). ZooKeys, (779), 27.
Ocean Realm Images website