Richard Attends a Seahorse Biology Conference

Richard Attends a Seahorse Biology Conference

Something that I’ve been looking forward to for almost a year now is the SyngBio conference.  Last week I was at the University of Tampa on the west coast of Florida to attend the meeting, which was the third of its kind.  Researchers, zoo aquarists and other professionals from around the world, who work with syngnathids (Seahorses, pipefishes and their relatives), formed the 100 plus attendees.

Although I attended the full four days of lectures and seminars, I was invited as a keynote speaker at the ‘Scientific Storytelling’ evening event that was held at The Florida Aquarium on Monday 15th May.  Besides floating around on a boat in remote Papua, it was probably one of the most amazing places I have ever done a talk.  My podium was directly in front of a huge aquarium window, with sand tiger sharks, huge turtles and moray eels all going about their business behind me.

It has been a few years since I finished my PhD ‘The Biology and Conservation of Gorgonian-associated Pygmy Seahorses’ but the highlight of the SyngBio conference was finally meeting the researchers that I’d cited so many times during my work.  Honestly, I was a little intimated to meet some of them.  Forget those Kardashian folk, these people are real celebrities!  In reality, I have rarely met such an amazing bunch of people.  The collective drive and passion was truly inspiring.  There are sure to be some interesting projects that will come from the meeting, which I know was the motivation for getting the world’s syngnathid researchers together initially.

Apart from my talk, the other main reason for my visit to SyngBio was to attend the first meeting of the IUCN Seahorse and Pipefish Specialist Group, which was formed last year.  This group is part of the Species Survival Commission and, as the global authorities on these fishes, the group’s main aim is to ensure that their wild populations are healthy and well-managed.  I was very honoured to be invited to join this small group of fifteen or so members last year.  We gathered on the fifth day of the conference and worked on putting together a Species Action Plan for these animals.  The fruits of that will become available over the coming months.

I was very kindly sponsored to attend SyngBio by the HW Hoover FoundationProject Seahorse and a donation from
our own Our Beloved Seas (Wendy and I always donate to a conservation organisation from our trips).

Please stay posted for updates via my Facebook page or here.  If you’re a diver and want to help, you can register any of your seahorse sightings around the world through iSeahorse, more here.

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT4: The Pygmy Seahorses of Raja Ampat)

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT4: The Pygmy Seahorses of Raja Ampat)

For many people, one of the main attractions of the Bird’s Head Seascape is the pygmy seahorse (well I like to think so at least).  Certainly, Raja has amongst the highest density and diversity of these diminutive fishes on the planet.  If you haven’t seen one yet, they almost defy belief. It is easy to list any number of unusual features about them: a horse-like head ending in a puckered mouth, a monkey-like prehensile tail and eyes that move about independently.  From the tip of its pug-like snout to the tip of its stretched out tail, the largest can only just reach across a US quarter.  Even stranger than all of this is their reproduction where extraordinarily devoted fathers become pregnant and strict monogamy is exhibited between life-long partners.

I was recently on a trip exploring Raja Ampat aboard the Arenui, joining a cruise as resident pygmy seahorse expert.  Several years ago, I completed the first research on the biology of pygmy seahorses for my PhD thesis and was excited to spend a trip dedicated to these miniature fishes.  Five of the six described species of pygmies have been named since the turn of this millennium, which explains why there has been so little research on them.  During the trip aboard Arenui, I gave a series of lectures about my findings and the area’s astounding marine life in general.  We were lucky to see three of the area’s four species during the trip and there was great engagement from the guests who enjoyed hearing of the soap opera-like social lives of pygmies.

Pygmy Seahorses of the Bird’s Head Seascape:

Bargibant’s (Hippocampus bargibanti)| Bargibant’s pygmy was the first species to be discovered.  A researcher at the Noumea Museum in New Caledonia accidentally found the first pair when he collected a gorgonian coral for the museum’s collection.  The species was named after him in 1970, but divers weren’t regularly seeing them until the 90’s.  Bargibant’s pygmies only live in association with Muricella gorgonians and are covered in tiny bumps that mimic the coral’s closed polyps.

Denise’s (H. denise)| This is another gorgonian-living, and commonly seen species in Raja Ampat.  They can be distinguished from the closely related Bargibant’s species, by their more slender shape and longer snout.  They are also much more cosmopolitan than Bargibant’s: so far I have found them living on ten different types of gorgonians.  As a result of them inhabiting such a variety of habitats, their colours and surface textures are much more variable than Bargibant’s.  I have seen various hues of yellow, red, pink and even white.  Raja Ampat is also known for an, otherwise rare, red and white variety that inhabits Melithaea gorgonians.


Pontoh’s (H. pontohi)| In 2008, the two species of free-living white and brown pygmies were given the names, Hippocampus pontohi and H. severnsi respectively.  However, it appears that scientists may have jumped the gun.  Genetic evidence has since shown that they actually represent two colour forms of a single species.  The name ‘Severn’s’ is being dropped and Pontoh’s will be retained into the future.  Like many seahorses, this new evidence shows just how much variability there can be within a single species of seahorse.  Camouflage is so important to pygmies that they generally match their surroundings very closely.  White ones are most often seen around Halimeda algae, and brown ones around hydroids.

Satomi’s (H. satomiae)| This is the least common of the Bird’s Head’s pygmies, and in fact is currently only known from Indonesia.  It is also the smallest pygmy, not even reaching across a dime.  Very little is know about this species, but it seems to become active around dusk and is generally found slightly deeper than the other free-living species.  When I have seen them, they’ve often been attached to soft corals and hydroids beneath a large over hang.  There are beige and dark brown colour forms, and all are very active swimmers.

Photographing Pygmy Seahorses:

Sometimes it can a bit of a double-edged sword leading a trip that encourages people to interact with and photograph pygmies. I am always very keen to encourage non-invasive interactions where we can enjoy and capture images of them, without causing stress or harm.  The take-home messages I hope to promote are there should be absolutely no touching of the pygmy or their gorgonian, and to limit the number of strobe-lit images.  In fact, this subject was part of my PhD research and the findings are available as a code of conduct document that helps us to avoid certain behaviours that cause direct stress to the fish.

Recording your observations:

Relatively recently Project Seahorse, the world’s largest seahorse conservation organisation, began a citizen science initiative called iSeahorse.  This is designed primarily for who are able to record their seahorse sightings.  This includes pygmy seahorses, and the big ones too.  Next time you are diving and spot a seahorse, please record and log your observation.  You can check out the website to learn about the kind of information that is valuable to them.  I used iSeahorse to register my find of a Bargibant’s pygmy near Tokyo, which extended their known geographic range by hundreds of miles northwards.

Raja Ampat is one of the few pleases where you can see four of the six species of pygmy seahorse.  It’s hardly surprising, given the extraordinarily high biodiversity of the area and it’s fantastic level of protection.  Just remember, whilst enjoying pygmy seahorses please ensure not to disturb them.

Links to Previous Blogs:

PART ONE | In Appreciation of Damsels

PART TWO | Craving Cryptic Crustaceans

PART THREE |Sinister Hitchhikers

PART FIVE | Raja Rarities

By Dr Richard Smith | Originally written for Science & Conservation Blog

Scientific Publication on Pygmy Seahorse Habitat Specialisation and Population Structure

Scientific Publication on Pygmy Seahorse Habitat Specialisation and Population Structure

My scientific publication on the habitat specialisation and population structure of gorgonian-associated pygmy seahorses has just been published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series (Link to the MEPS page):


Smith RE, Grutter AS & Tibbetts IR (2012).  Extreme habitat specialisation and population structure of two gorgonian-associated pygmy seahorses.  Marine Ecology Progress Series 444: 195-206


The study was conducted on the two species of pygmy seahorse, Bargibant’s (Hippocampus bargibanti) and Denise’s species (H. denise), which require a living gorgonian coral for their survival.  The main findings of my study are below in the paper’s abstract but I’ve also written some of the study’s important findings below.

– Bargibant’s (Hippocampus bargibanti) and Denise’s pygmy seahorses (H. denise) have some of the lowest densities of any unexploited seahorse populations studied thus far.
– Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse is an extreme habitat specialist, being found exclusively in association with a single genus of gorgonian coral, Muricella spp.
– Denise’s pygmy is a relative generalist as it is found in association with at least eight genera of gorgonian corals.
– It is possible to distinguish between male and female pygmy seahorses by examining the area at the base of the abdomen where males have a small slit-like opening to the brood pouch (figure b) and females have a raised, circular urinogential pore (figure a) (see image).


Sex discrimination in pygmy seahorses



I will be joining the boutique liveaboard Arenui in February 2016 (5-16th February) for a special pygmy seahorse cruise that will take in the best of Raja Ampat, Indonesia.  This is one of my favourite areas to dive and certainly one of the very best places in the world to see pygmy seahorses.  I have seen five of the seven described species here; Bargibant’s, Denise’s, Pontohi’s, Satomi’s and Severn’s.  I will be giving marine life talks, which will include my work on pygmies for my PhD research.  For more information about this trip, please download the flyer attachment below or CONTACT ME HERE.


Dr Richard Smith Special Pygmy Seahorse CruiseDr Richard Smith Special Pygmy Seahorse CruiseSetting sail aboard the Arenui from Sorong in West Papua, Indonesia, over the following twelve days (11 nights), we will explore the dive sites of the mega-diverse Raja Ampat.  Northern Raja Ampat has some unique dive sites, where Richard has observed several previously undocumented pygmy seahorse behaviours. The south too has a special red and white colour form of Denise’s pygmy that is typical to this area. Each day brings new adventures and new animals in Raja Ampat. As well as pygmy seahorses, we will encounter many of the endemic fishes of the area, and will of course visit manta cleaning stations.  Critters aside, Raja Ampat has some of the most pristine reefs on the planet for us to enjoy!


Diver – $6,640.00 (USD) per person (please see flyer for inclusions and exclusions)

Payment Policy and Deposit – A 30% non-refundable deposit reserves a place, with the remaining fee payable in full 90 days prior to departure.


Bookings – for bookings and/or with any questions, please contact Richard.

Attachment: Southern Raja and Kofiau Trip January 2016.pdf

The Japanese Pygmy Seahorse – Hippocampus sp.

The Japanese Pygmy Seahorse – Hippocampus sp.

The Japanese pygmy seahorse, Hippocampus sp, (known locally as 日本のピグミータツノオトシゴ or Japapigu) is an, as yet, undescribed species of true pygmy seahorse found, as the name suggests, in Japan.  They appear to be closely related to Coleman’s, Pontoh’s and Severn’s species, and like these other species, are not found living in close association with a specific host such as a gorgonian or soft coral.

The species is characterised, and distinguished from the other free-living pygmies, by a reticulate pattern of white lattice over the body, which often has a black spot within it.  The body colouration is brown, beige, to pink and whitish.

They inhabit subtropical and temperate reefs from southern to the central west of Japan.  The Izu islands of Miyake and Hachijo are good locations to find these elusive seahorses, as well as Kushimoto and Sagami Bay.  I saw many in the 8-15 metre range in protected areas, where they were living amongst the algal turf and small hydroids.

Given that they are yet to receive a scientific name, it is unsurprising that very little is known about their biology or conservation.  This is true of all the free-living pygmy seahorses, which are yet to receive a research focus.  My work on the gorgonian-associated pygmy seahorses is the only research on these species’ biology yet to be carried out.

You can see some of my Japanese pygmy seahorses by following this link.



Japan Diving Trip Report

Japan Diving Trip Report

I have recently returned from an exceedingly fruitful trip to Japan, where I attended the 9th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference in Okinawa and dived both Izu Peninsula and Hachijo-jima.

Having initially spent a week in Okinawa, attending the conference I spent a week exploring Izu Peninsula organised by Kiki Diving Club, which are based in Nakano, Tokyo.  I visited a few different areas, the first being Arari Dive Centre on the west coast of Izu.  This was a great spot for muck diving.  I saw many Japanese pygmy pipehorses, tube blennies and nine different frogfish!

After Arari we headed to Osezaki, also on the west coast, and dived with Hamayuu Dive Centre for a couple of days.  I particularly liked the outside of the bay, where deepwater currents make for interesting diving beyond the 30m mark.  Here we saw small schools of Cherry (Sacura margaritacea) and striped anthias (Pseudanthias fasciatus), both found only in deep water.  Inside Osezaki bay is a proper muck dive, and very protected from currents and big seas.  It is also a very popular site for learner divers and there can apparently be 100’s of divers at the weekend, which I avoided like the plague!

Finally, Shingo (owner of Kiki Diving Club) and I visited Izu Oceanic Park on the east coast of the Izu peninsula.  This is also a popular site and the critters’ locations are well known to the management.  They passed on the info and we succeeded in finding a few frogfish and some Japanese endemics.  Unfortunately the swell picked up making entry/exit a bit of a nightmare, especially with a massive camera, so we just did two dives.

After Izu I headed, with a friend, to Hachijo-jima, an island nearly 300 kilometres south of Tokyo.  The diving was outstanding and thanks to Tanaka-san and Ogino-san of Concolor Diving I saw everything I had on my wish list.  The very top of the list was the undescribed Japanese pygmy seahorse, of which I ended up seeing thirteen!

We experienced some unseasonably cold water, at around 19˚C, which made some of the dives a little chilly!  By the end of the week though the water was back to normal and I’m informed a few days after it was back to the expected 28˚C, after the Kuroshio current shifted back to its rightful place.

All in all, my first experience of Japanese diving was exceptional, and I’m keen to get back there and explore a little more of what the country has to offer.

If you would like to see my images from this trip, follow these links to: Izu or Hachijo