Seadragons are among the most bizarre and charismatic of marine creatures, relying on their impeccable camouflage to perfectly blend into the algae-filled reefs they call home. They were first collected in the 19th century off the southern coast of Australia, and, in the 150 years since then, it had generally been presumed that only two species existed: the Common Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) and the Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques). But, in 2015, researchers made a shocking discovery—lurking in these same waters was a third species which had mysteriously never been seen alive.
This new species was described as the Ruby Seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea), named after the distinctive red coloration of the only fresh specimen that scientists had to work with. This individual had been trawled at 50 meters near the remote Recherche Archipelago of Southern Australia, and museum collections revealed an additional specimen that had been collected nearly a century before from a similar depth around Perth. Working off the hypothesis that this elusive fish occurred only in deeper habitats, scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Western Australian Museum recently set off on an expedition to finally encounter the Ruby Seadragon swimming in the wild.
Researchers at Scripps Oceanography and the Western Australian Museum capture on video the first-ever field sighting of the newly discovered third species of seadragon. As they observed two Ruby Seadragons on video for nearly 30 minutes, the scientists uncovered new details about their anatomy, habitat, and behavior.
Using a small, camera-equipped ROV, the team explored an alien landscape that few have ever observed—a cloudy, sandy bottom filled with sponges and algal fronds. Days passed by with no sight of their reclusive quarry, and, no doubt, hope was quickly fading that P. dewysea would reveal itself. But, on the final day of their trip, the scientists at last happened upon a Ruby Seadragon in its natural habitat, at a depth of 175 feet. The short video clips shared by these researchers are the only images we have of this enigmatic creature, one of nature’s most remarkably specialized marine species. Hopefully, it won’t be long until we’re able to see captive bred specimens of this rare beast swimming about in public aquariums, as it’s bright red colors are surely easier to appreciate up close.