The discovery of the Sodwana seahorse (Hippocampus nalu), Africa’s first pygmy seahorse

I am beyond excited to share the news that with a fantastic team of colleagues, we described a new species of pygmy seahorse!!! Hippocampus nalu, or the Sodwana pygmy seahorse in normal language, is the 45th seahorse species to be described, and the first pygmy seahorse species found in African coastal waters. It’s gorgeous and cute and very tiny.

To explain the story of how such a discovery happens, we wrote an explainer in The Conversation. Just so you wouldn’t have to do effort of clicking the link, I am also sharing the article below, which was co-written by myself, Louw Claassens, Graham Short, and David Harasti. All pictures provided are by Richard Smith.

Before you read this article, pause for a moment and look at the nail on your little finger. That’s about the size of a new species of seahorse discovered in the waters of Sodwana Bay, South Africa, which falls within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site, in KwaZulu-Natal province.

Hippocampus nalu grows to a maximum size of just 2cm. It is the first pygmy seahorse ever discovered in African waters. Our team has conclusively demonstrated that Hippocampus nalu is physically and genetically distinct from the seven known species of pygmy seahorses. Its nearest relatives are found more than 8,000 km away in the Pacific Ocean.

Hippocampus nalu - South African pygmy seahorse, Sodwana Bay

An adult male Sodwana seahorse (Hippocampus nalu). Credit: Richard Smith

Seahorses are threatened all around the world. Many species are at risk of becoming extinct because of human activities such as bottom trawling, over-fishing, and habitat destruction. As a result, several species are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, to date no pygmy seahorses are considered threatened – because we simply do not know enough about them. By discovering more species, and learning more about these tiny creatures, scientists can offer advice on how best to protect them.

Pygmy seahorses can also provide an important boost for tourism: scuba divers love these small species and are willing to travel far and wide for a chance to see them. If coastal communities and scuba divers alike are taught about the best ways to protect these species and others in the oceans, there can be huge economic and social benefits.

The most astonishing part of this discovery is that it didn’t start in a laboratory, or with keen scientific minds assessing the likelihood of finding a pygmy seahorse in African waters. Instead, it began with a photograph.

Tracking the seahorse

Dr Louw Claassens and Dr Dave Harasti arrived in Sodwana in early 2018 looking for an entirely different animal: a seahorse-like species called a pygmy pipehorse. But then a local dive guide named Savannah Olivier showed them a photograph of a very small seahorse. The scientists recognised it as a pygmy seahorse, which are supposed to live an entire ocean away. South Africa is home to four other seahorse species, but this was the first time a pygmy seahorse had been observed in South Africa, let alone Africa.

Nine months later Louw returned to Sodwana Bay, this time accompanied by Dr Richard Smith, a pygmy seahorse expert. They, with Olivier, found a pair of the tiny pygmy seahorses along a rock face at about 15m depth. The little creatures were grasping on to slivers of algae amid raging surging seas. The reefs of Sodwana Bay are exposed to the swells of the Indian Ocean, very unlike the more sheltered coral reef settings in the tropical Pacific where the other known pygmy seahorses are found.

Later they even found a tiny juvenile measuring just a centimetre in length, which was dwarfed by a diver’s finger.

Juvenile Hippocampus nalu - South African pygmy seahorse, Sodwan

Juvenile Hippocampus nalu – South African pygmy seahorse, Sodwana Bay. Credit: Richard Smith

Finding the seahorses was only the first step in describing the new species. The rest of the team now got to work. Graham Short, a researcher at the Australian Museum and California Academy of Sciences, compared the mystery seahorses with other pygmy seahorse species by looking at their characteristics under a microscope, as well as a powerful CT scanner. Dr Mike Stat, a geneticist from Australia, used genetic methods to test how distinct it was from other species. Through combined team efforts, we confirmed that the Sodwana pygmy seahorse was a new species and could give it an official scientific name.


CT scan of the Sodwana seahorse (Hippocampus nalu). Credit: Graham Short

The name “nalu” has three layers of meaning. In the local isiXhosa and isiZulu languages it means “here it is”, to show that the species had been there all along until its discovery. “Nalu” is also the diver Savannah Olivier’s middle name. Finally, “nalu” means “surging surf, wave” in Hawaiian, which hints at the habitat the species lives in.

More to learn

The discovery of the Sodwana pygmy seahorse is exciting for more than just its scientific value. It provides new insights into the global distribution of these tiny fish and paves the way for further exploration in other locations. Only a handful of research publications focused on the ecology of pygmy seahorses exist, so anything we can learn more about these critters will help the future conservation of this unique group.

Finding a species like Hippocampus nalu also shows how little we know about Africa’s marine biodiversity, and how much more is left to discover. It highlights how important the observations of keen amateurs are to help scientists. If a keen fisherman did not consider a strange looking fish caught off the south coast of South Africa worth sharing with Marjory Courtney-Latimer in 1938, the discovery of the coelacanth, a living fossil, might never have happened.

Similarly, without a diver’s sharp eyes and an expert’s initial questions, the world would still not know that the Sodwana pygmy seahorse exists. As scientists, being open to questions from the general public not only helps inform non-scientists, but can also help us make new discoveries.

Hippocampus nalu - South African pygmy seahorse, Sodwana Bay

 A female Hippocampus nalu. Credit: Richard Smith

New publication: Critter diversity on the sand

It turns out that moving halfway across the world and diving into a new job is more time consuming than I expected, so I haven’t been keeping up with the blog recently. I’m slowly starting to get more organised and in the coming weeks I will try to catch up with summaries of papers that I’ve published recently.

The paper “High diversity, but low abundance of cryptobenthic fishes on soft sediment habitats in Southeast Asia” was published almost a year ago in the journal Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science. It was one of the key papers of my PhD and describes the diversity of critters on sandy habitats in Indonesia and the Philippines.

If you have ever been muck diving it won’t come as a surprise to you that there is some very exciting marine life to be found on sandy bottoms. When you mention places like Lembeh Strait, Anilao, or Dauin to keen divers – especially photographers – they either get lyrical about the amazing pictures they took there, or will tell you about their plans for visiting any of the above places to go see some crazy marine life.

Froggie yawning

Species like this painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus) are popular with muck divers

In fact, the popularity of these sandy critters is so great, that the divers visiting Southeast Asia for muck diving bring in more than $150 million of revenue each year, supporting thousands of sustainable jobs! With so much money and jobs involved, it would be normal to expect researchers and conservationists to be interested in knowing which animals live on tropical sandy slopes. Unfortunately, that assumption would be wrong, surprisingly little is known about soft sediment (=sandy) habitats in the tropics. Even basic knowledge such as which animals live where is often unknown.

Luckily things are changing! Scientific interest in “cryptobenthic species” – the small, camouflaged critters this site is all about – is definitely increasing, with excellent work being doing on coral reefs by colleagues from across the world. We are starting to understand just how important they are for coral reefs and how very diverse cryptobenthic species can be.

What I am interested in though, is what is going on with the critters that live away from reefs. Are the critters living on the sand as diverse as those one coral reefs? Which species are most common? What causes species to live in one area, but not another? To answer these questions I set of with my good friend Luke for a 3 month dive survey trip that took us to Lembeh Strait, the north coast of Bali, and the sandy slopes of Dauin.

Maarten Smile

Surveying soft sediment critters in Dauin. Photo: Luke Gordon

During our survey dives, we not only counted and identified the fish we saw, we also measured a bunch of other factors that could have an effect on the presence of critters. We wanted to know whether depth, benthic cover (growth of algae, coral, sponges etc), or the characteristics of the sediment played a role in which species we found.

So what did we find?

One of the most interesting results is that the diversity (number of species) of cryptobenthic species was very high, higher in fact than the cryptobenthic fish diversity on many coral reefs! In contrast, the abundance (number of individuals) was much, much lower than what is found on coral reefs. To put it in perspective, if a normal coral reef would be an aquarium with 300 cryptobenthic fish of 15 different species crammed inside, soft sediment habitats would be the same aquarium with 30 fish of 16 species.

When looking at environmental factors, one of the most important factors that influenced where species lived, was the characteristics of the sediment. For small critters it makes a big difference whether the sand is powdery fine, or coarse like gravel. There seems to be a middle ground where the size of the sediment seems ideal for many critters. The tricky part is that the characteristics of sediment are in a large part determined by other processes such as currents or wave action. For now it is too early to conclude whether critters are found in these places because of the type of sediment or because of other factors that shape the sediment!

The amount of growth on the bottom played a role as well, particularly when algae or sponges were present, which makes sense as it offers variation in the habitat and potential hiding places for some species. Depth differences played a minor role in some regions (Daiun, Bali), but did not make a real difference in Lembeh. The limited effect of depth could partially be due to the fact that we did not survey deeper than 16m (university diving regulations are quite restrictive). It would be a great follow-up study to compare with deeper depths, as I am sure they will give very different results.

What does it all mean?

This study was (as far as I know) the first one ever to investigate the cryptobenthic fish in soft sediment habitats. The unexpectedly high diversity and very low abundance means there is a lot more  species out there than what was assumed, but that we have to look much harder to find them. I mostly see our results as a starting point to guide further research. We have only uncovered a fraction of what is out there and are not even close to really understanding how tropical soft sediment systems function. While this provides an exciting opportunity for scientists like me to new research, it also means that we do not yet know how environmental threats such climate change or overfishing will impact  species living on soft sediment. We do not know yet if the species that muck dive tourism depends on need protection, or how to best protect them if they do.

Whiteface whaspfish

We might not know yet what the future holds for sand-specialists like this whiteface waspfish (Richardsonichthys leaucogaster), but I am hoping to find out!

New research project: diversity in Wallacea

A few weeks ago I wrote about starting an exciting new project at the University of Leeds. At the time I didn’t go into details, but now that I’m a few months in and I am starting to understand what is going, so it’s time to enlighten you as well.

Leaf scorpionfish

Coral reef critter research coming up!

For the next two years I’m part of a team that will study marine biodiversity on coral reefs in central Indonesia. The overarching goal of of the project is to improve the management and conservation of coral reefs by discovering how impacts such as pollution or overfishing change the way coral reefs function. After all, the best way to start solving a problem is by properly understanding it.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than the lofty big goal as the title of the project indicates: “Gradients of marine biodiversity and linkages with eDNA across the Wallacea Region”. There are two components to the project: traditional visual surveys and environmental DNA (“eDNA”) surveys. We will use both methods to create ecological networks and see how they differ when they are threatened by different impacts.

At this point you might be asking a few (logical) questions:

  • Where is the Wallacea region and why do you go there?
  • What is eDNA?
  • What is an ecological network?
  • Why should I care? I came to this site to read about critters!

The Wallacea region is the central part of Indonesia, from Lombok eastward almost all the way to Papua, and up all the way to Halmahera (check out the map below). It was named after Alfred Russel Wallace, the scientist who, together with Darwin, developed the theory of evolution. The region represents an interesting boundary area where fauna and flora from the Asian and Australian continents meet. So it is home to some amazing wildlife, but also to a large human population that depends on natural resources to survive. The marine diversity in the region has not been studied very well (except for a few local exceptions), so finding out how healthy the marine ecosystems are is quite important.

Central Indo

The Wallacea Region

Environmental DNA (eDNA for short), is a relatively new method to detect species. I have written about it extensively here if you want a long explanation and background. The method detects tiny fragments of DNA in the water column that are shed through poop, mucus, etc. By filtering and analysing a scoop of water, we can tell what animals (and plants, microbes, etc) live in the water nearby. It’s pretty powerful and very exciting, but still needs a lot of additional testing to know just how precise it is compared to other survey methods.

I will then build ecological network models with all the data we collect. The easiest way to imagine what those are, is to see them as a different kind of food web. Where food webs focus on who eats who, we are more interested in who lives close to who, and who interacts with who. In the ideal situation I will include all the information on fish, corals, algae, invertebrates (crabs, sea stars, etc.) in one big model which will show how they rely on each other. More importantly, it will also show what happens with the networks if sites are overfished or polluted and how that differs from untouched sites.


Example of an interaction network on land, figure by Bohal et al. 2013. Source here.

So yes, my job for the next few years is less critter-focused than before, but it doesn’t mean I will be ignoring them! Besides the obvious fact that there’s a lot of cool critters to be found on the coral reefs I’ll be visiting, I am still involved in a few very cool projects on the side. It’s too early to go into details, but more seahorse and seadragon work is coming up, and even some exciting pygmy seahorse news as well! I’ll regularly be posting updates on the Wallacea project, as well as more critter features, so stay tuned 🙂