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San Diego Scientists Bring Back First Footage Of Colorful Seadragon

The ruby seadragon is seen in this image from a 2016 expedition off the coast...

Credit: Scripps Oceanography/UC San Diego

Above: The ruby seadragon is seen in this image from a 2016 expedition off the coast of Western Australia.

After discovering a new species of seadragon by analyzing specimens held in museums, a team of San Diego scientists has spotted the colorful creature in the wild and brought back the first glimpses of it captured on film.

After discovering a new species of seadragon by analyzing specimens held in museums, a team of San Diego scientists has spotted the colorful creature in the wild and brought back the first glimpses of it captured on film.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor Greg Rouse says he and his colleagues finally found the ruby seadragon on the last day of their expedition off the coast of Western Australia last year. Expecting the search to be a bust, Rouse was excited to see the species he and his team discovered in its natural habitat.

"You don't get many experiences like this in a scientific career, where you just see something so amazing," said Rouse. "We were all thrilled. It was really a great day in my life.”

Seadragons, larger cousins to the seahorse, tend to have leafy appendages that help them blend in with kelp and sea grass.

So when the Scripps researchers didn't find these appendages on museum specimens of the ruby seadragon, they wondered if the fish truly lacked these appendages or if they may have fallen off after the animal died.

But when they spotted the ruby seadragon in the wild, they found it was in fact different from other seadragons. It lacked the leafy camouflage, instead relying on its rich hue to evade predators in the deep, dark waters it inhabits.

"They would be very dark, very black-looking," said Rouse.

In fact, the ruby seadragon dwells deep enough that Rouse and his colleagues chose to use a remotely operated underwater vehicle outfitted with a camera to find the fish instead of scuba diving to gather footage themselves.

Rouse says encountering the ruby seadragon in the wild revealed a surprising feature. The researchers saw its tail curled tightly, suggesting the fish may be able to grasp on to features of the ocean floor and stabilize itself when tides get rough.

"That was something we wouldn't really have thought of," said Rouse. "But when we saw the fish in the video, there they were, curling that tail up."

The footage was published Thursday in a study featured in Marine Biodiversity Records. Scripps graduate student Josefin Stiller and Nerida Wilson of the Western Australian Museum co-authored the study with Rouse.

Before the Scripps team identified this new species, one ruby seadragon specimen was held in a museum for nearly a century.

Rouse says learning more about this species shows that, "We've still got so much more to do in terms of documenting biodiversity. And if we hadn't had access to samples from a museum, we never would've found this fish."

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