SAN DIEGO, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- There's another color of seadragon out there: deep ruby red. Scientists had previously believed there were only two seadragon species, and thus just two color variations -- the orange hues of the leafy seadragon (Phycodurus eques) and the purple-accented yellows of the weedy seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus).
Recently, while analyzing tissue samples taken from seadragon specimens collected in southern Australia in 2007, scientists noticed something askew. Researchers with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, identified a genetic anomaly.
When they looked at the seadragon whose DNA sequence didn't quite match up with the rest, they saw the fish's genetic uniqueness was matched by its distinctive red pigmentation.
"We're now in a golden age of taxonomy and these powerful DNA tools are making it possible for more new species than ever to be discovered," Greg Rouse, curator of the Scripps Benthic Invertebrate Collection, explained in a press release.
Seadragons look like longer, larger versions of seahorses. But the fish and their intricate protruding fins are delicate and rare, found only among the coral of southern Australia.
"That such large charismatic marine species are still being found is evidence that there is still much to be done," Rouse added. "This latest finding provides further proof of the value of scientific collections and museum holdings."
Advanced imaging allowed scientists to study the anatomy of the red seadragon and confirm their genetic findings.
"A CT (computer tomography) scan gave us 5,000 X-ray slices that we were able to assemble into a rotating 3-D model of the new seadragon," Scripps graduate student Josefin Stiller said. "We could then see several features of the skeleton that were distinct from the other two species, corroborating the genetic evidence."
Scientists have since located three other specimens of the newly identified ruby seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea) in museum collections.
"It has been 150 years since the last seadragon was described and all this time we thought that there were only two species," said biologists Nerida Wilson, a scientist at the Western Australia Museum who aided the research of Rouse and Stiller. "Suddenly, there is a third species! If we can overlook such a charismatic new species for so long, we definitely have many more exciting discoveries awaiting us in the oceans."
The new species is detailed in the online journal Royal Society Open Science.