Here be dragons!

A new species of aquatic dragon has been discovered off the coast of Terra Australis.

Seadragons are delicate, armoured fish living exclusively off southern Australia. As the name suggests, they resemble their mythical fire-breathing forbears. Until recently, only two species were known. But scientists studying specimens of the orange-tinted leafy seadragon and the yellow-and-purple common (or weedy) seadragon have discovered a third: the spectacular ruby seadragon,

ruby-seadragonIt seems that two ruby seadragons were previously archived in the Australian National Fish Collection, one of which had washed up on a Perth beach in 1919 and another in 1956. They lay unidentified until a live sighting of this rare beast.

There are three kinds of seadragons, the ruby, leafy and weedy seadragons. The latter two have distinctive leaf-like appendages attached to enlarged bony spines on their bodies. The ruby seadragon has the spines as well but lacks the leaves, making it look quite different.

As the only specimens of ruby seadragon were dead on discovery, scientists supposed they were one of the other types of seadragon and that their leafy appendages had simply fallen off after they had died. It wasn’t until 2007 that researchers got their hands on a new sample, a male carrying a brood of eggs. DNA sequencing finally confirmed in 2015 that it was in fact a distinct species.

The 2007 specimen had been caught in a trawl net at a depth of around 50 meters, but diving at such depths is challenging so the researchers sent down a remotely operated vehicle equipped with a camera. They got lucky. Extensive video footage of the small animals floating above the seabed was taken, although they were unable to capture one of the animals.

Five facts about ruby seadragons:

  • Only four ruby seadragons have ever been found and the first one was 24 cm long.
  • They are related to the seahorse family, which is a very unusual family because the males become pregnant with the eggs until the babies are ready to be born. The specimen that led to their discovery was a pregnant male, with dozens of babies in his pouch.
  • The other two species of seadragons live in shallow waters, but these guys have been found in depths of over 50 metres.
  • Their dark red colour is thought to help them remain camouflaged at such deep depths.
  • Ruby seadragons are found off the coast of Western Australia and they are the first new species of seadragon to be discovered in over 150 years.

There are just two known historical uses of the term “Here be dragons” in its Latin form hic sunt dracones. One is on the Lenox Globe (c. 1510) housed in the Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library, on which it appears off the east coast of Asia and may refer to the Komodo dragons on Indonesian islands. The other is on a globe engraved on an ostrich egg, dated to 1504, and from which a copper cast for the Lenox Globe was probably made.

Five hundred years later, Google Earth might like to consider changing its map of the coast of Australia:

australia

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