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Last Updated: Monday, 12 May, 2003, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Tiny seahorse identified

The smallest seahorse known to science has been identified by marine biologists.

H. denise, Project Seahorse/Denise Tackett
It carries the name of underwater photographer Denise Tackett

The creature, to be known as Hippocampus denise, is typically just 16 millimetres long - smaller than most fingernails. Some were found to be just 13 mm long.

Researchers say the animal was mistakenly thought to be a juvenile of another of the 32 known species of seahorses.

H. denise lives in the tropical waters of the western Pacific Ocean, between 13 and 90 metres beneath the surface.

It is often found attached to coral seafans, primitive animals resembling short, flat bushes.

Sara Lourie, from McGill University, Montreal, Canada, was part of the team which identified the new seahorse on a dive among corals of the Flores Sea, off the coast of Indonesia.

'Love to death'

"Compared with other small seahorses, they're active little creatures," she says.

Because it lives among the deeper corals and is a master of camouflage, the diminutive new fish is probably safe from the over-exploitation threatening other seahorse species.

H. denise, Project Seahorse/J Adam
Some were as small as 13 mm

But with only a handful of sightings on record, it's hard to know what risks they face, warns Lourie. Heavy-duty trawling gear that can flatten reefs is one potential threat, underwater tourism is another.

"Divers and photographers could possibly love these animals to death," she says.

Before now, the smallest known seahorse was H. bargibanti, which is about 24 mm long. The smallest known bony fish is the goby Trimmatom nanus, also found in tropical waters and typically just 10 mm in length.

Details of the discovery appear in the current issue of the journal Zoological Studies. The research was supported by Project Seahorse, a marine conservation group.

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