Dr Richard Smith talks about the excitement of searching for, and finding, an amazingly rare fish off the coast of New Zealand.
I’m used to hunting for tiny and amazingly well-camouflaged creatures, having worked for so long with pygmy seahorses. However, after 45 minutes shivering and staring at an algae-covered wall for a five-centimetre animal in heavy surge, even I was starting to go cross-eyed.
My quarry had been discovered for the first time only a couple of years ago, and hadn’t been seen alive for six months. I don’t give up easily, and New Zealand is too far to pop back to.
As others in the group drifted off, I continued to scrutinise each algal frond for eyes or unusual movement. Finally, like a revelation, I caught my first glimpse of the elusive New Zealand pygmy pipehorse.
The Web Of Life
Despite all our technological advances, the tangled web of life is still not something we fully understand. We use clues picked up along the way to piece things together. For instance, as we continue to uncover the fossilised bones of dinosaurs, we have slowly deducted how they give rise to birds.
In my research sphere of seahorses, we are currently in the midst of a whirlwind of discoveries that are helping to fill in the missing evolutionary links between the pipefishes and seahorses, the New Zealand pygmy pipehorse that I was hunting being a possible lynch pin in the saga.
Pipefishes are typified by an elongated shape, straight body, and males brooding the eggs along the belly. Seahorses on the other hand have a very definitive angular shape, prehensile tail and a special pouch to brood their young.
The New Zealand pygmy pipehorse seems to link these two. Neither straight nor angular, but with an elaborate pouch and a prehensile tail, pygmy pipehorses are among the closest living relatives of the seahorse.
A Plethora Of Pygmy Pipehorses
Excitingly, just as this species first appeared, a flurry of other pygmy pipehorses were discovered around the world. It turns out that a new seahorse, Hippocampus tyro from the Seychelles, is in fact a pygmy pipehorse.
They’re so similar that it was hard to distinguish until the New Zealand species was examined. There have also been new species sighted off east Africa and Fiji. In 2004, just across the Tasman Sea from New Zealand, the Sydney pygmy pipehorse was discovered and named.
However, it is so different from its Kiwi counterpart that the Kiwi likely represents a whole new branch of life.
After 45 minutes scouring the swaying wall, my eyes suddenly uncrossed. There it was, the amazing fish I had travelled across the world to see. Grasped onto a swaying piece of algae, the impossibly well-camouflaged fish happily hunted for prey. Over the next few dives I managed to find three of these fish, including a bonded pair.
It was amazing to be one of the privileged few people to have seen this animal alive. I watched in awe as they swam from place to place, just as they have done long before we even knew they were doing it.
Richard Smith, a British underwater photographer and writer, aspires to promote an appreciation for the ocean's inhabitants and raise awareness of marine conservation issues through his images. A marine biologist by training, Richard's pioneering research on the biology and conservation of pygmy seahorses, led to the first PhD on these enigmatic fishes. Over the past decade, Richard's photographs and marine life-focused features have appeared in a wide variety of publications around the world. Richard organises and leads marine life expeditions where the aim is for participants to get more from their diving and photography by learning about the marine environment: www.OceanRealmImages.com
Photographs by Dr Richard Smith / Ocean Realm Images