Since the ruby seadragon was discovered in 2015, it has eluded scientists' best efforts to catch it on camera. A bright red critter native to the waters off of Western Australia, divers have combed the area for more than a year hoping to find live specimens to supplement their research. And after months of hard work, a group of researchers finally spotted one.
Considering the ruby seadragon’s brilliant color, it’s somewhat surprising that it could evade being spotted for so long. Ruby seadragon specimens were originally thought to be leafy seadragons whose appendages had fallen off while being dredged out of the sea. It was only after genetic analysis of those dead specimens that researchers discovered the creatures belonged to a new species, making it the third-known type of seadragon and the first identified in about 150 years, Michael Greshko reports for National Geographic.
What made the ruby seadragon so difficult to spot is that it behaves very differently from its cousins. While common and leafy seadragons tend to live in shallow kelp beds, the ruby seadragon’s coloration suggested that scientists would have to dive a bit deeper to catch a glimpse, Eva Botkin-Kowacki reports for the Christian Science Monitor.
"We figured the red color was associated with living deep, because red light is the first light that gets taken out when light is going through water," Greg Rouse, who led the search, tells Botkin-Kowacki. "If you're a red fish, you're effectively black, so you're camouflaged. So many fish are red, in fact, that live in deeper water."
Last April, Rouse and his colleagues started combing Western Australia’s Recherche Archipelago for the elusive seadragon. Using remotely operated submersibles, the researchers trawled the ocean floor, Nicholas St. Fleur reports for The New York Times. However, it wasn’t until the very last day of the expedition, at about 175 feet depth, that the group hit pay dirt.
“It really was a needle in a haystack, and we saw not one but two,” Rouse tells St. Fleur.
Rouse and his team only had about 30 minutes to watch the remarkable animals, Botkin-Kowacki reports, but during that time they gathered a significant amount of new information. As scientists had guessed, the creatures relied on their red coloration to hide from predators, Greshko reports. This differs from their cousins, who have leafy-looking appendages to hide out in kelp forests.
What’s particularly remarkable, however, is that the video appears to demonstrate that these newly-spotted critter have prehensile tails they can use to grip with—something their shallow-swimming cousins can’t do.
Lots of unanswered questions still remain, including the ruby seadragon’s population size, their feeding habits, their range and their evolutionary history. But now that researchers have caught them on video and know where to look, the brilliantly-colored seadragon may not remain mysterious for long.