New Giant Seahorses Discovered; Under-explored Islands Home to Mythological Colossal Seahorses
Marine biologist Dr. Laura Saury, a member of the University of British Columbia-based Seahorse Project marine conservation team, has identified the world’s largest known species of seahorse. Topping out at around 7 feet in length, the Colossal Seahorses are straight out of greek mythology.
“They’re absolutely stunning,” said Dr. Laura Saury “And they’ve been under our nose the entire time.” Adults of the new seahorse species known as Hippocampus vernumiocus, grow over 2 meters in length. “We’ve heard about them for years, but assumed it was just myths and exaggerations. Some seahorses grow to over 30 centemeters, and flutemouths [a distant, snake like relative to the seahorse] get up to 2 meters, so it was easy for us to dismiss as a mixture of confusion and fairy tale.”
The Colossal Seahorse stands on the shoulders of giants before it thought to be the creation of human imagination. Both the Giant and Colossal Squid were believe to be animals of legend, until bodies drifted ashore, proving their existance. Now the giant seahorses of greek mythology can be added to the growing list of unexpected discoveries. “It really is a testament to the diversity of life found in the ocean” explained Saury. “We were amazed to find a tiny species of seahorse just over 1cm in length in 2008, and now we have another amazing discovery; a seahorse taller than a man.”
It’s thought these reclusive giants stayed hidden for so long due to their native range. Found only around the poorly explored Andaman Islands off the southern tip of India, many of the native people inhabiting the islands are hostile to outsiders. Indeed, it’s likely that the relatively isolated islands is key to their survival, says Saury. “We would have probably fished them all long ago had there been wider knowledge of their existence.” Saury offers up the suggestion that there may have been giant species spread out globally at one time, but were likely hunted to extinction. Fossil records of ocean dwelling animals are extremely difficult to find, leaving little clues to what seahorse ancestors might have been like. A small number seahorse fossils have surfaced in recent years in places in dried up ancient seabeds. In 2009, the oldest seahorse fossil was found in Slovenia. But most fossils of aquatic animals end up lost, destroyed before they can be preserved, leaving us so we may never know how far their range once was.
Saury said credible rumors first surfaced after a spring surfing trip in April of 1998 was chartered to explore the island by adventure loving photographer John Callahan and his crew. Several photographs taken from aboard their ship showed what looked like the shape of a large seahorse in shallow water, and several eye witnesses corroborated the story. Still, it wasn’t until the 2004 tsunami when evidence of their existence spurred an exploratory research trip when one washed ashore. A 55cm seahorse was found by a rescue crew visiting an island to provide first aid and relief to the natives that did not evacuate. At first, Saury thought it was an adult female of a new species. But they now know it was an immature speciman.
The exact island of the colony of Colossal Seahorses is being kept a closely guarded secret, with cooperation from the Indian government. The expedition to find the seahorses was kept classified as it operated from May of 2006 to December 2009. The species was described in 2010, but it’s existance kept from the public to prevent poaching. Now, with assurances from the Indian government, Seahorse Project feels confident the location can be monitored and kept safe from both over-eager tourists, and would be poachers.
As the scientist chiefly responsible for the find, Saury had the honour of naming the new species. She chose Hippocampus vernumiocus to recognize the surfers who’s adventure into those relatively unexplored islands led to the seahorses’ discovery. “Vernum” which means spring and “iocus” which means, to have fun or to joke. Saury and her team of scientists are working to document them in their native habitat, and are collaborating with the BBC to bring their discovery and life history as the first episode of series 2 of Wonders of Life, hosted by Brian Cox. If all goes as planned, the BBC intends to air the special on April 1, 2014.