A Strange and Tiny Seahorse Has Been Discovered in South Africa

The scientific name for this pygmy seahorse is Hippocampus nalu, which means 'here it is' in the local Xhosa and Zulu languages. Richard Smith/OceanRealmImages.com

A tiny species of seahorse never seen in African waters before has been discovered in South Africa's Sodwana Bay.

In fact, the pygmy seahorses found among the coral are the first ever known in the Indian Ocean, according to research published this month in the journal ZooKeys. Its nearest relative haunts the waters of Southeast Asia, about 5,000 miles away.

"This discovery shows how rewarding it can be when researchers and the general public work together," study co-author Maarten De Brauwer from the University of Leeds notes in a press release. "Finding Africa's first pygmy seahorse is a reminder that there could be other undiscovered species out there and the fact we know very little about the seahorse family.

"Being a part of the team that discovered this amazing creature is definitely a career highlight."

Seahorses have long been known for their weirdness — from males handling pregnancy duties to the mesmerizing underwater waltz they perform with potential mates. But pygmy seahorses manage to add their own special brand of weirdness. They have a particular knack for disappearing altogether, thanks to their honey-brown coloring and a reddish tail, which gives them a natural camouflage. In fact, over the last 20 years, scientists have only identified seven of eight known species.

So how did anyone manage to spot a thumb-nailed sized master of camouflage in the bustling waters of Sodwana Bay? Researchers note in the press release they were tipped off last year by a local diver, who came across the tiny critter near a coral reef.

When the team investigated, sure enough they spotted the elusive creature frolicking among the corals.

"It's like finding a kangaroo in Norway," marine biologist Richard Smith, who co-authored the study, tells National Geographic.

But in recent years, seahorses have been making a welcome habit of turning up in unlikely places. In 2017, they turned up in the River Thames — a waterway once thought too polluted to host anything beyond old tires and plastic bags. And it's a far cry from the shallow, tropical waters seahorses are known to inhabit.

South Africa's coastal waters, thousands of miles from other seahorse populations, may not be as unlikely a home for the pygmy seahorse. It's scientific name is Hippocampus nalu, which means "here it is" in the local Xhosa and Zulu. That would suggest the creatures aren't so much newcomers, but rather long-time residents who have just been waiting to be found.

And if that's the case, what other wonder may lurk in those teeming waters?

"What an exciting journey — from a chat on a beach to finding the first South African pygmy seahorse!" study co-author Louw Claassens notes. "The coastal waters of South Africa have a lot to offer and hopefully this little pygmy is just the start of more amazing seahorse and pipefish discoveries.

"This should be a call to action for all divers — new discoveries might just be around the next reef."