Hippocampus nalu - South African pygmy seahorse, S
A male Sodwana Pygmy Seahorse. Photo supplied by © Richard Smith, OceanRealmImages.com
  • The tiny and beautiful Sodwana pygmy seahorse is one of its kind to be found in Africa and for that matter the Indian Ocean.
  • It now has a scientific name.
  • Smaller than a R1 coin, the rare seahorse was only discovered in 2017. 
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

A rare ‘pygmy seahorse’, which is smaller than a R1 coin and first discovered in South Africa, has now been officially recognised after being included in an international scientific journal this month.

The tiny Sodwana Pygmy Seahorse, named Hippocampus nalu, is the first pygmy seahorse to be found in Africa and for that matter the Indian Ocean, according to its researchers.

The pygmy seahorse was discovered just three years ago, by local diving instructor Savannah Nalu Olivier while she was leading a scuba-diving course in Sodwana Bay, a popular diving destination along the northern coastline of KwaZulu-Natal and bordering Mozambique.

The seahorse was named after her middle name, which also means “here it is” in isiXhosa and Zulu.

Olivier photographed the fish life in a flat sandy-algal reef habitat. When she realised afterwards she had snapped a seahorse, and couldn’t identify it, she reached out to see who could.

Eventually, her images caught the attention of marine biologists Louw Claassens and Richard Smith, both researchers at the IUCN Seahorse, Pipefish & Seadragon Specialist Group, who then revisited the site in 2018 and were able to successfully bring back two specimens for classification - as well as stunning images of a male, female and juvenile in their natural habitat.

“The new species grows to just over 2cm and has a honey-brown colour, overlaid with a white netted pattern and a pinkish tail,” said Claassens. “They are so incredibly tiny and well camouflaged that seven of the eight known species have only been discovered since the turn of this millennium.”

Authored by Graham Short, a seahorse taxonomist at the California Academy of Sciences,the findings were published in the scientific journal ZooKeys, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal covering zoological taxonomy, phylogeny, and biogeography, in May. 


Until now finding a pygmy seahorse in South Africa was the equivalent “to finding a kangaroo in Norway”, said marine biologist Richard Smith, who is an expert on pygmy seahorses.

This is because the Sodwana Pygmy Seahorse was found on a reef exposed to the powerful swells of the Indian Ocean – a completely unexpected habitat for these creatures, which is very unlike the sheltered coral reefs of Southeast Asia where other pygmy seahorses have been found.

“It was (also) like finding a needle in a haystack. This pygmy seahorse was 1.6 centimetres long,” said Smith. 

Claassens, who is the director of the Knysna Basin Project an NGO that researches costal estuaries in Knysna, South Africa, said the classification almost didn’t happen because of these strong waves. The divers nearly lost the seahorses when a large swell almost buried them underneath a storm of sand.

 “The recent discovery of such a notable fish in shallow coastal water highlights how little we still know about the marine life around Africa and about the extended seahorse family,” she said.

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