Synchiropus is an immaculate genus famed for the unorthodox juxtaposition between cute and freaky. With frog like faces, huge bulging eyes and pursed lips, coupled with their undulating fin movements, they make for a highly peculiar animal. In the aquarium context, few species illicit icon status quite like S. splendidus, otherwise known simply as the mandarin fish.
Synchiropus colloquially houses two groups of fishes, differentiated by the layman based on morphology and coloration. The “Mandarins”, which include S. splendidus, S. picturatus and S. occidentalis, are known for their colourful, visually psychedelic markings which consists of whorls, circles and other sinuous shapes in highly contrasting colours of green, blue and orange. “Scooters” on the other hand are more sombre in coloration, usually in various shades of red and brown. These are also patterned in more cryptic designs, usually festooned with flowery or patchy markings that break up their shape and outline.
Having lived in the shadow of their more ornately colored brothers, the scooter dragonets have made a scarlet comeback in the recent years with the discovery of two stunning species from the Indo-Pacific. Although a handful are fairly reddish in their coloration (S. moyeri, S. stellatus, S. morrisoni, S. bartelsi), none are quite as remarkable as the following two.
Synchiropus sp “Ruby Red”
Since its emergence in 2013, this little dragonet has made a meteoric impact on the aquarium industry with brilliant finesse. Once a rare commodity with few individuals trickling in, this fish is now a staple regional offering, and joins the entourage of regular fare from the Philippines. This species is still currently undescribed and not scientifically recognized, but it is known widely by its trade name, the “Ruby Red” dragonet.
Like all Synchiropus, the “Ruby Red” dragonet is sexually dimorphic, which means that they can be sexed based on differences in morphology. Both genders possess double dorsal fins, and in the males, the first is highly developed, retractable and brilliantly ornate with a labyrinth of anastomosed squiggles. Much like a spinnaker, the males flick and erect their sail-like dorsals during displays of courtship. The size and intricacy of the fin develops as the male matures, with larger more terminal males equipped with a correspondingly larger and more decorated fin.
Females on the other hand have poorly developed first dorsal fins, and are often small, unmarked and inconspicuous. This trait is synonymous with all members in the genus and is a very reliable characteristic that can be used for sexing.
In this exuberant species, the ground coloration is a rambunctious ruby throughout, fading to a chromic yellow ventral region. The entire length of the body is irregularly punctated with a constellation of white spots and streaks in a weakly linear fashion, increasing slightly in concentration near the facial region. A noteworthy characteristic for this “species” is the presence of a large black ocelli situated at the pectoral fin base. The pectorals are essentially yellow with a copious black margin near the outer edge, and irregular spotting on the inside. The caudal fin is hyaline ruby, and the second dorsal and anal fins are adorned with a series of black, yellow and yellow stripes.
The first dorsal fins differ in the sexes, and in the males, are large, showy and decorated with a complex series of irregularly sinuous stripes, often times riddled with random bifurcations and reanastomosis toward the edges. In the females, this fin is vestigial and unmarked sans a glaucous margin on the outer edge.
This “species”, as with all Callionymids, is fond of silty sand banks festooned with dead coral rubble. They are slow moving and are often seen resting with their outstretched pelvic fins. When disturbed, they are capable of escaping in short bursts, but otherwise hover about in a nonchalant, unhurried manner. The “Ruby Red” dragonet is currently known only from the Philippines, and with its characteristic markings and intense coloration, it cannot be mistaken for any other species. Once rare and highly prized, this fish is now a common staple, and its value dramatically reduced due to over supply.
S. tudorjonesi is the newest member of the genus officially indoctrinated in 2012. Its specific epithet “tudorjonesi” was named in honour of Paul Tudor Jones, chairman of the United States National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. This species resembles S. morrisoni most closely, and is, as with the rest, red in its ground coloration. S. tudorjonesi is less mottled than the preceding species, and can be differentiated based on color, morphology and habitat preference.
S. tudorjonesi is bright red, laced with a fine ramifying network of white, giving it a mottled appearance. An additional set of white spots are haphazardly present on both the dorsal and ventral sides of the body, further amplifying its flowery appearance. The pectoral fin base is black, and this extends horizontally to form an equatorial belt of diffused, irregularly spaced black spots. The pectoral, pelvic and caudal fins are translucent, but the latter is decorated with a series of alternating brown, white and bluish bars punctated with white. The second dorsal and anal fins are reddish with a series of brownish spots arranged in an oblique fashion.
In the males, the first dorsal fin is large, retractable and sail like, and is considerably more spotted than in the preceding “Ruby Red” dragonet. As the males mature, the fin enlarges and the yellow-edged spots may anastomose to form an irregular conjoined network. In this species however, the first dorsal fin pattern is never striated quite as regularly as in Synchiropus sp “Ruby Red”, and is never as tall and exaggerated as with S. morrisoni.
The females have a remarkably unassuming first dorsal fin in comparison, and is dusky grey-black with a suffused white margin that is not clearly demarcated.
S. tudorjonesi is found in the same microhabitat of low lying coral and sponge outcrops with interspersed rubble substrate. Unlike the other members of the morrisoni complex which prefer shallow rubble habitats, this species is fond of deep waters at depths ranging between 160-230 ft (50-70m). S. tudorjonesi also prefers offshore reefs with clear, oceanic conditions, compared to many Synchiropus which prefer silty, inland reefs. For these reasons, this species is very infrequently observed in the trade, and when they do, they usually occur as accidental contaminants amongst the regular haul of assorted Synchiropus spp.
This species was first known from Cenderawasih Bay, but has since been documented in Tulamben, Bali, and other parts of Indonesia. It has also been found northwards to the Philippines. It is deepwater throughout its range.
Move aside Mandarins. The Scooters are making a crimson comeback. With these “new” found beauties giving the Scooter dragonets a much needed makeover, gone are the days where the former reigned superiority. Although touchy and difficult to feed, these saccharinely sweet scarlet scooters are definitely worth the extra effort. Amirite?