For scientists, no two days at the office are ever the same. One moment they’re studying century-old DNA samples in a laboratory, and the next, they’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean and discovering an entirely new species!
A group of Australian scientists recently had such an experience when they encountered a new type of seadragon in the wild for the first time ever. This up-close glimpse of the elusive sea creature revealed many strange details about the animal that you just have to see it for yourself…
Our planet is largely covered in ocean, and there’s still a vast majority of it that remains unexplored. Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in Australia understood this all too well.
For decades, these scientists were familiar with two types of seadragons: the common seadragon and the leafy seadragon (pictured). Though these critters were fairly difficult to track down in their own right, they had a relative who was even more elusive than they were…
This third type of seadragon, the ruby seadragon, was so tough to find that it was only discovered in 2015—by complete accident—when PhD student Josefin Stiller realized something startling about samples collected back in 1919.
Those samples had been largely misclassified in that they were labeled as a common seadragon. Yet, Josefin soon learned the samples had actually been taken from a ruby seadragon. Of course, that enticed the scientists…
While those samples from 1919 still existed, scientists had still never knowingly observed a living ruby seadragon. Within a couple months of the discovery, the scientists from Scripps teamed up with those from the Western Australian Museum to see if they could find one for themselves.
The scientists figured they would return to the Recherche Archipelago, where others had previously studied. “We had a brainstorm: ‘Why don’t we go to the place it was first trawled in 2007?'” explained Greg Rouse of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “They kept very good records of where the net went in.”
The scientists knew they could find common and leafy seadragons along the southern Australian coastline and within 100 feet below the surface. But they anticipated the ruby seadragon would be located much deeper, so they utilized a remote underwater camera.
Unfortunately, weather quickly became an issue. Rough seas made the water far too murky for the area to be filmed. If they had any hopes of finding the ruby seadragon, they would have to be patient.
Then, on the third day, the scientists got their big break. With clear weather, they deployed their camera into the depths of the ocean. Before long, they were able to capture not one, but two ruby seadragons!
The scientists captured the footage roughly 167 feet below the surface of the ocean. “I can tell you we did not really expect to find them,” Greg mentioned of the team’s discovery. “And unbelievably, really, we found it.”
The footage showed two ruby seadragons swimming through a series of craggy, sponge-filled areas as they searched for something to eat, likely crustaceans. It was like nothing the scientists had ever seen before, and they were completely floored!
Besides the discovery being amazing in its own right, there was still so much the scientists could finally learn from their incredibly rare footage. For instance, they could now study not only the ruby seadragons’ anatomy, but their behaviors, as well.
After the scientists collected the footage, it was time to get back to their home base so they could further study their findings. Upon their initial viewing, they were stunned to see the ruby seadragon using its curly tail to grab different objects.
This ability separated them from common and leafy seadragons, who were unable to grab items using their tails. Clearly, ruby seadragons had evolved differently than their cousins!
The scientists were also interested in the strange fins behind the ruby seadragons’ heads. Not only were they larger, but they had more pronounced muscles. This, they assumed, was to help them swim at deeper depths than their relatives, who were typically found in more shallow waters.
With still so much to learn about the elusive ruby seadragon, more expeditions to study them would be necessary. For that, the scientists called on Australian authorities to help protect the species.
Unfortunately, the scientists couldn’t determine how many ruby seadragons were out there in the wild. “Right now, we have no idea on their population size, [and] we have no idea of their distribution,” Greg said. Because of this, it was crucial to keep them safe.
The scientists were hopeful the authorities would be responsive to their requests. The province of Western Australia—which was responsible for managing the Recherche Archipelago parks and nature preserves—had already banned the collection of common and leafy seadragons.
In the meantime, the scientists knew there was plenty to learn from the video footage they’d collected. They were also aware this likely wasn’t the last shocking discovery they’d make in the ocean…
“Who knows how many other smaller things or less spectacular things are down there waiting to be discovered?” Greg wondered. “When we find something spectacular like this, it’s a sign there’s a lot more to do.”
It’s amazing that scientists finally captured the ruby seadragon on video. It really makes you wonder what else is out there!
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