The Pygmy from Sydney

Pygmy pipefish, Bare Island, Botany Bay, Sydney, Australia
So, you’re living in a big city, what are the chances of you discovering a new species? If you know where to look…well, you’d be surprised. No need to organise that trip to a remote valley in the New Guinea highlands. This story is about a new species found in a city of 5 million people in 1997. To remain undiscovered for so long it had a few things going for it.
 
1. It is small. Pygmy is an understatement.
2. It is really well camouflaged. It blends into its environment superbly.
3. It lives underwater.
4. And as I said before it is really small….
 
Its scientific name is Idiotropiscis lumnitzeri, also known as Sydney’s pygmy pipefish. Lumnitzeri comes from the person who discovered it, Akos Lumnitzer, who came across it in October 1997 while scuba diving. The largest specimen measured so far was 55mm – apart from measuring it was also checked for steroid use as 55mm is big for a pygmy pipefish. Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay (another bay in Sydney) are hotspots for seahorses and pipefish, with 19 species found in Sydney. There is a theory that seahorses evolved from pipefish in Australia and from there spread to the rest of the world. The pygmy pipefish has so far only been found in Sydney and Jervis Bay to the south, so if you want to see it in the wild you’ll need to come for a visit, have great eyesight and get wet.
Where do you see them? Personally I’ve seen them in a few locations. There are a number that live around Bare Island in Botany Bay. They also can be found on the other side of the bay at Kurnell. The ones I’ve seen have been found in locations that have many similarities. Typically, they are on a rock that’s isolated, a little bit away from a wall, that’s surrounded by sand. The rock itself needs to be covered with the algae that provides the camouflage. And when you find one, keep looking as they’re usually found in pairs.
So what is the difference between the pygmy pipefish and seahorses? First lets go through the similarities. They both have prehensile tails that they use to anchor themselves. Both have an exoskeleton, fused jaws that they use like a straw to draw in their food, and in both it is the male that collects the eggs from the female in a pouch and raises the young. The main difference is how they swim. Seahorses swim upright, the pygmy pipefish swims horizontally.
Below are a few photos from a dive I did on the western side of Bare Island. It took some time to find the pipefish, and I didn’t find its partner, although on a previous dive I saw both. It was about 12 metres deep, beautifully camouflaged on a rock a little bit out in the sand. The first photo gives an idea of just how well camouflaged these fish are…
Pygmy pipefish, Bare Island, Botany Bay, Sydney, Australia
Pygmy pipefish, Bare Island, Botany Bay, Sydney, Australia

Struggling to see it? I’ve added a few pointers below….

Still struggling to see it? I've added a few pointers below....
Still struggling to see it? I’ve added a few pointers below….

What’s intriguing about how well the pipefish blends in is that the pipefish’s skin provides an environment for algae to grow directly on it, allowing it to effectively disappear… truly marvellous.

 

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