Researchers capture first glimpse of ruby seadragons in the wild

UC San Diego

Researchers at UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography published the first live recording of the species during an recent expedition in Western Australia.

The researchers predict that the Ruby Seadragon may have lost its appendages owing to evolution. Images appeared in the journal Marine Biodiversity Records.

Though related to the Leafy and Common Seadragon, Ruby Seadragons are so elusive that capturing them on video in the wild has proved impossible, until now.

'It was really quite an wonderful moment when we discovered that the ruby seadragon lacks appendages, ' said Josefin Stiller, Scripps graduate student and coauthor of the paper.

The team filmed the animal by lowering a camera-mounted remote operated vehicle more than 160 feet to a seafloor dominated by deep-sea sponges.

The creature has only been known since early in 2015, when researchers confirmed the animal as a third seadragon species (joining the Common and Leafy varieties).

Ruby seadragons are the third species of seadragon to be discovered, first described in 2015.

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Common (above) and Leafy seadragons have leaf-like appendages for camouflage, a feature lacking in the new Ruby species. If the team was to ever find a ruby seadragon, it had to go very deep.

They were able to observe two ruby seadragons for almost thirty minutes which yielded insights into the morphology, habitat, and behavior of the fish.

Scientists from the University of California San Diego (UC) and the Western Australia (WA) Museum went looking for the creature in waters off western Australia and hit a biological home run: nearly 30 minutes of video (see below) featuring two Ruby seadragons.

Rouse says learning more about this species shows that, "We've still got so much more to do in terms of documenting biodiversity". "It never occurred to me that a seadragon could lack appendages because they are characterized by their handsome camouflage leaves", says marine biologists Josefin Stiller, co-author of a paper published this month in Marine Biodiversity Records. Common and leafy seadragons can not bend their tails. The team also observed that it has a prehensile tail, something not seen in the other seadragons, but common in seahorses and pipefish.

There was just one problem: based on the fish's colour, the scientists suspected it lived deeper under water, beyond the reach of divers and where red light doesn't quite penetrate, making the dragons hard to spot. "There are so many discoveries still awaiting us in southern Australia", said study coauthor Nerida Wilson of the Western Australia Museum.

The scientists also discovered that the fish has a prehensile, or curled tail, similar to that of the seahorse and unlike the other seadragon species.

"Western Australia has such a diverse range of habitats, and each one is deserving of attention", Dr Wilson says.

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