The review of the handfishes brings the family to 14 known species – six found only in Tasmania and one known from only one specimen possibly collected in Tasmania by early European explorers, yet not recorded since. It also deepens concerns about declining populations of some handfishes.
“Handfishes are small, often strikingly patterned or colourful, sedentary fish that tend to ‘walk’ on the seabed on hand-like fins, rather than swim. Fifty million-years ago, they ‘walked’ the world’s oceans, but now they exist only off eastern and southern Australia,“
Mr Gledhill says.
The new species are described in a review of the handfish family by Hobart-based fish taxonomists from the CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship, Daniel Gledhill and Peter Last.
Dr Last says handfishes are extremely vulnerable to environmental change – introduced species, pollution, siltation, fishing, sea-temperature rise and coastal development – due to their scarcity, patchy distribution, life history strategy, low breeding rates and poor dispersal ability.
Mr Gledhill says the handfishes have proven difficult to classify due to their rarity and a lack of specimens.
“There is evidence of shallow-water species disappearing quickly, from being common in certain areas a few decades ago, to apparently being locally extinct in some areas” said Dr Peter Last, CSIRO.
“It’s not just two or three handfish species of concern. Our work has described nine new species, each with its own environmental niches and needs, and several of these appear to have very restricted distributions, and/or occur in very low abundance.“
“They are of great importance to understanding the origins of Australian marine life, the role of Australia as a refuge during previous periods of change, and the effects on living species of habitat alteration and rapid climate change.“
One of the newly named species, the Pink Handfish, is known from only four specimens and was last recorded off the Tasman Peninsula in 1999. The Pink Handfish will feature in a photographic exhibition of Australia’s marine biodiversity that opens today (21 May) at Questacon in Canberra.
The Spotted Handfish is listed as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the Red Handfish and Ziebell’s Handfish are listed as vulnerable.