The spectacular Red Wide-bodied Pipefish, Stigmatopora harastii, is an amazing fish that has been living on our doorsteps for years without anyone realizing their true identity.
These resourceful fish live in habitats that are often subject to strong surge where they are often observed swaying in unison with red algae. Finding them at depths between 12-25 metres is incredibly hard as their red colouration and body oriented in parallel to the single red algal fronds, make them extremely well-camouflaged.
First observed in 2002 in Jervis Bay, Stigmatopora harastii have also been found at Bass Point Shell Harbour, Minmi Trench in Botany Bay and more recently at The Steps at Kurnell where co-author Andrew Trevor-Jones spent 3 months searching his regular dive sites to determine if the red pipefish also occurred there. With the aid of a dive torch at 18m, Andrew was able to confirm the presence of the species swaying with the algae.
The Red Wide-bodied Pipefish, Stigmatopora harastii was described by Australian Museum Research Associate, Graham Short and Australian Museum Scientist Andrew Trevor-Jones. The scientific name of the Red Wide-bodied Pipefish, Stigmatopora harastii, is named in honour of David Harasti, a Senior Research Scientist with NSW DPI Fisheries, who spotted this species in 2002.
David, along with other scuba divers, reported a red pipefish associating with pale red finger sponges at 18 metres depth in Jervis Bay that year. It was subsequently reported occurring at Bass Point, Shellharbour, NSW in red algae at 18 metres depth in 2017. David and Graham soon realised it represented a new species of Stigmatopora based on the unique colour, habitat and depth in which it was found. Like all members of Stigmatopora, the new species has a long snout and thread-like prehensile tail; however, it exhibits red body colouration versus green or brown colouration seen in other species of the genus.
So how did they identify this new species? Graham and Andrew used a combination of DNA analysis, morphological characteristics, and colour patterns. Stigmatopora harastii and the Widebody Pipefish, Stigmatopora nigra appear superficially similar, however genetic analysis suggests they arose from a common ancestor 12.2 million years ago.
Morphologically, S. harastii and S. nigra differ in a very subtle character; the latter exhibits a thin bony head ridge that extends from the head into the first trunk ring, however they differ dramatically in colour patterns which makes it easy to tell them apart underwater. Stigmatopora harastii exhibits red body background colouration, unlike green or brown in S. nigra. Additionally, S. harastii exhibits a large cluster of red dots on its ventral surface versus dark black bands in S. nigra.
Stigmatopora harastii represents the fifth species of genus Stigmatopora occurring in temperate Australia and New Zealand. The others are Stigmatopora nigra (Aust endemic), Stigmatopora argus (Aust and NZ) , Stigmatopora narinosa (South Australian endemic) and Stigmatopora macropterygia (New Zealand endemic). The recent discovery of a new species of charismatic fish in coastal waters near a major metropolitan city underscores how little we still know about the biodiversity of fishes in the family Synganthidae in southern Australia. It would not be surprising to find additional undescribed species of Stigmatopora in other unique habitats throughout southern Australia and even in New Zealand in future fish surveys.
Short, G. & Trevor-Jones, A. 2020. Stigmatopora harastii, a new species of pipefish in facultative associations with finger sponges and red algae from New South Wales, Australia (Teleostei, Syngnathidae) ZooKeys.10.3897/zookeys.994.57160
Browne RK, Smith K (2007) A new pipefish Stigmatopora narinosa (Syngnathidae) from South Australia. Memoirs of Museum Victoria 64: 1–6. https://doi.org/10.24199/j.mmv.2007.64.1
Dawson CE (1982) Review of the Indo-Pacific pipefish genus Stigmatopora (Syngnathidae). Records of the Australian Museum 34(13): 575–605. https://doi.org/10.3853/j.0067-1975.34.1982.243