Mythical Ruby Seadragon Seen in the Wild for the First Time

©. Josefin Stiller, Nerida Wilson, Greg Rouse/ESF

Known only from old museum specimens, scientists have now found the magnificently bizarre ruby seadragon swimming in the sea.

I never understand why we are so obsessed with life on other planets when we have the mysterious universe of the sea right here on our own spinning orb. The creatures that dwell in the deep are so outrageously strange compared to us, and most of them remain unknown.

Case in point: Seadragons. The truly wonderfully odd creatures are relatives of the seahorse and up until recently have come in the form of two species – leafy and weedy, both from Australia. Admired for their flamboyant camouflaging appendages that mimic leaves and weeds, combined with a graceful yet somewhat helpless-seeming swimming style, they are as enchanting as they are peculiar. A leafy seadragon below, see what I mean?

Sea dragons

© Jason Mintzner

In 2015 scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Western Australian Museum were looking through old museum specimens labeled as common seadragons and discovered what appeared to be a new species. Called a ruby seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea) for its vivid red hue, little was known about it save for the four preserved specimens. But even just as a specimen, pictured at the top, it was so remarkable that we included it in our round-up of 2015's new creatures.

On a mission to find a ruby seadragon in the wild, earlier this year the researchers took to the seas on a wild seadragon chase. After a few days of searching with a mini-remotely operated vehicle in depths of over 164 feet, the researchers struck gold – the first-ever observations of the fish, near Western Australia’s Recherche Archipelago. With 30 minutes of video of two of the fish, they came away with a lot of new insights – and surprise at how the ruby seadragon differs from its kin. Notably, it lacks the leafy frippery and has a tail that can curl. (And while it doesn't look especially ruby-ish in their images, they assure us that it does indeed possess a deep red hue.)

Ruby sea dragon

© Scripps/YouTube

“It was really quite an amazing moment,” says Scripps graduate student Josefin Stiller and coauthor of the new study describing the species. “It never occurred to me that a seadragon could lack appendages because they are characterized by their beautiful camouflage leaves.”

Meanwhile, the ruby seadragon’s prehensile tail is more like that of its seahorse and pipefish relatives – the other seadragons are unable to curl their tail. (What a bummer, to have a tail that doesn’t curl!)

The researchers believe that the new species is unique to other seadragons because it lives in deeper water. The prehensile tail would allow the creature to hold on to objects in the high-surge waters. As well, their deeper habitat lacks kelp and seagrass, making the leafy appendages a moot point. Meanwhile, the bright red hue, they note, serves as camouflage in the deeper dimly lit waters where it lives.

“There are so many discoveries still awaiting us in southern Australia,” says Nerida Wilson of the Western Australian Museum and coauthor of the study. “Western Australia has such a diverse range of habitats, and each one is deserving of attention.”

See? Who needs Mars when we have Western Australia?

The new research was published in Marine Biodiversity Records. And below, footage from the expedition.