Sunday 9 March 2014

Pygmy Pipehorse

Image: Steve Childs
Look! It's a DRAGON!

Yet it looks like nothing more than a piece of knotted string or a random piece of algae-covered muck. It's about an inch long, so at least we know how long this particular piece of string is, but how long is a random piece of algae-covered muck?

Sometimes, it's about an inch long.

Quelle surprise!

That's why it took until 2006 before someone said "hey! That's no algae-covered muck! That's a fish pretending!" And thus was born Kyonemichthys rumengani, a name which means "Rumengan's swollen thread fish". I wasn't far off with knotted string!

Video: EunJae Im

Most people know it as the Lembeh Pygmy Pipedragon or Lembeh Sea Dragon. So if you ever need to slay a dragon to win a princess's hand in marriage or to enter the upper echelons of a chivalric order, here's your chance! You just have to find it first. Also note that the dragon may curse you, resulting in a permanent -5 penalty to Charisma for hurting something so adorable.

It looks like a cross between a Seahorse and a Pipefish, and that's exactly what it is. A species of Pygmy Pipehorse. The Pygmy bit is added to differentiate it from the Pipefish of the genus Solegnathus, which are called Pipehorses because they look like a pipe that's been bent out of shape, but not quite as horrifically mangled as a Seahorse.

There are 6 other known species of Pygmy Pipehorse in the world, spread across 3 other genera.

Image: Nick Hobgood
Acentronura tentaculata
Acentronura contains two species which reach about 5 to 8 cm (2 or 3 inches) long and are quite widespread in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. One of them was described by scientists in 1850, the first Pygmy Pipehorse ever discovered. This is probably why it's known as the Bastard Seahorse. Like how the bastard sword is not quite a short sword and not quite a longsword, you know? As opposed to a reflection on its personality.

They should have waited 150 years. They could've been the Bastard Sea Dragon.

Image: Jonathan Lavan
Amphelikturus dendritica
The genus Amphelikturus contains just one species. It looks a lot like Acentronura, with a long, slim body that resembles a Pipefish. It even reaches a similar size. Only it comes from the other side of the world, in the Caribbean.

Image: Sylke Rohrlach
Sydney's Pygmy Pipehorse (Idiotropiscis lumnitzeri)
The third genus is Idiotropiscis, three species found only in Australia who each get about 2 inches long. I find these the most peculiar of the lot since they've gone much further down the Seahorse path. They have the large head, the bendy neck and the big belly of a Seahorse, but they lack the upright posture.

They can't bend their neck anywhere near as much as a Seahorse so they end up looking like a Seahorse that got straightened out a bit. Which shouldn't be a bad thing, but all these guys are so rigid and awkward I can't help but feel a little unnerved looking at them. How can they possibly survive in the mean, gnashing sea?

I'm tremendously moved. Yes. Moved.

Video: Bill Kuiper
Sydney's Pygmy Pipehorse

In their day to day life, Pygmy Pipehorses live slow and stationary. Like other members of the order Syngnathiformes their body is encased in bony rings so they can't twist their body and swish their tail to swim like, you know, a fish. Instead, like all Seahorses and many Pipefish, they wrap their prehensile tail around a bit of seaweed and stay put.

Many of them are cryptically coloured and adorned with various tufts and tendrils for camouflage. Some even have algae and bryozoans growing all over them! It's like they're not even pretending to be algae-covered muck any more. That's why we must all teach our children not to pretend to be muck. There's only so much pretending you can do before you become your pretense.

Image: prilfish
Acentronura tentaculata, pregnant and male
Speaking of children, it shouldn't be too surprising to learn that it's the males who look after the eggs. He has a brood pouch to carry them around, just like Seahorses!

With this "in between" status it's no wonder that people are unsure where to place Pygmy Pipehorses on the Tree of Life. Some say they should be in a subfamily with Seahorses, others a subfamily with Pipefish, still others reckon on a whole new subfamily of their very own.


Only one fossil Pygmy Pipehorse has been found so far and it dates back a mere 12 million years, a time when Seahorses were already around. The oldest Pipefish fossils meanwhile are a good 50 million years old.

Clearly, the palaeontologists and phylogeneticists have their work cut out. These Sea Dragons are hard masters!


Lear's Fool said...

The Lembeh Sea Dragon may be the most impressive mimic EVER!

Not only has it violated the laws of time and space by evolving to mimic bits of string long before we'd invented them, but it even invented a new form of mimicry.

Linguistic Mimicry!

Predator: 'Hey! You! Are you food?'
Lembeh Sea Dragon: 'Nope! I'm a frayed knot!'

You've got to love a fish that puns!

TexWisGirl said...

cute and ugly at the same time! :)

Joseph JG said...

@Lear's Fool: A frayed knot! Hahahah!

@TexWisGirl: I think everything related to Seahorses is like that!

Lear's Fool said...

I experienced a rare combination of pride and shame when I typed that. :)

Crunchy said...

Every sea dragon I've ever met could fairly be called a "bastard." They're kind of jerks.

That little pipehorse ought to get those lumps looked at. You know, just to be safe.

Joseph JG said...

@Lear's Fool: Puns are wonderful source for that particular combination!

@Crunchy: Those lumps are really strange! I suppose they're so ridiculously slender they have to bunch up a load of organs.