Meet a newly discovered aquatic species, the ruby seadragon

It might sound like a mythical creature, but researchers have proven that the ruby seadragon is very real indeed.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

Although all we have at the moment of the ruby seadragon is this 3D model, researchers are hopeful they'll find one in the ocean's depths soon. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

Seadragons are fantastically adorned creatures. With bodies similar to seahorses, they have wild appendages that look like ocean vegetation and, indeed, serve to camouflage the colorful creatures amid the kelp and seawood formations they live in off the coast of south and east Australia.

Until very recently, it was believed there were only two kinds of seadragons: leafy and weedy (also known as common). Thanks to work done by Scripps graduate student Josefin Stiller and marine biologists Nerida Wilson of the Western Australia Museum (WAM) and Greg Rouse of Scripps Oceanography, it's possible to add another type to the roster -- the ruby seadragon, (Phyllopteryx dewysea, in science-speak).

The leafy seadragon, a relative of the newly discovered ruby seadragon. Greg Rouse and Nerida Wilson

The team made the discovery while analyzing tissue samples provided by WAM as part of an effort to better understand and protect the creatures in the wild. Noting something different in a seadragon found in 2007, they requested the full specimen, plus photos of the corpse taken when it was first hauled out of the water. They immediately knew they had something different because the animal was colored a deep red, which was "vastly different from the orange tint in leafy seadragons and the yellow and purple hues of common seadragons," according to a report about the discovery just published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Because the seadragon was an old preserved specimen, the research team set to re-creating a virtual model of it (seen in the image above and video below) by using 5,000 X-ray slices from a CT scan. Not only does the model show what the creature looks like, it also helped the researchers confirm that they did indeed have a new species. "We could...see several features of the skeleton that were distinct from the other two species, corroborating the genetic evidence," Stiller said in the report.

While not as flamboyant as its relatives, the common (or "weedy") seadragon is still quite spectacular. Greg Rouse and Nerida Wilson

Added Rouse, "We're now in a golden age of taxonomy and these powerful DNA tools are making it possible for more new species than ever to be discovered. That such large charismatic marine species are still being found is evidence that there is still much to be done. This latest finding provides further proof of the value of scientific collections and museum holdings."

Although all we have at the moment is the genetic evidence and a computer model of the ruby seadragon, the researchers are now hoping to put together an expedition to find them alive in the wild. They believe that they'll likely be found in deeper waters than their cousins, because their dark red color would serve as good camoflauge at light-restricted depths.

For now, though, the search on land has been fruitful. In addition to the 2007 specimen, Wilson examined the WAM collections and found a ruby seadragon from a Perth beach discovered about 100 years ago. Stiller found two more that were archived in the Australian National Fish Collection.

"It has been 150 years since the last seadragon was described and all this time we thought that there were only two species," Wilson said. "Suddenly, there is a third species! If we can overlook such a charismatic new species for so long, we definitely have many more exciting discoveries awaiting us in the oceans."