UW biologists: New fish species is psychedelica
University of Washington scientists have identified a bizarre reef fish that can splay out its face, look straight ahead and clamber across the bottom on fins a bit like legs. It's also covered with wild-colored stripes, which is why they named the new species psychedelica.
Seattle Times science reporter
Read more about the discovery of Histiophryne psychedelica: www.bioone.org/doi/pdf/10.1643/CI-08-129
UW scientists ID new fish
There are 320 known species of anglerfish, and Ted Pietsch can describe each one down to the number of spines on its dorsal fin.
So, when the picture from Indonesia flopped into his e-mail, his pulse started pounding.
"I pretty much freaked out," the University of Washington fish biologist said.
With its flattened face, undulating stripes and turquoise-rimmed eyes that peer straight ahead, this fish looked like something out of a fever dream — and like nothing Pietsch had ever seen before.
Now, after a year of lab work, DNA analysis and a race halfway around the globe, he and his colleagues have confirmed the find as a new species. And they have given the 4-inch fish a name that fits its style: psychedelica.
"This is such an amazingly different fish that people immediately get excited when they see it," Pietsch said.
The first to lay eyes on the new species were commercial divers on the small island of Ambon, at the eastern edge of the Indonesian archipelago. The owners of Maluku Divers discreetly circulated photos early last year to see if anyone could identify the unfamiliar fish.
The photos made their way to Jack Randall, a famed ichthyologist at Honolulu's Bishop Museum.
"It was so distinct," Randall recalled. He figured it might belong to a family called frogfish, but he wasn't sure.
"I said, 'This is one for Ted Pietsch.' "
Although he set out to study snakes, Pietsch got hooked on fish during his first month as a graduate student when he netted a new, deep-water species of anglerfish.
The creatures are named for the fleshy lures they dangle in front of their mouths to entice prey. Frogfish are shallow-water anglerfish that often inhabit coral reefs.
No one knows more about anglerfish than Pietsch.
When he looked at videos from the Indonesian divers, he realized that not only did the new fish look odd — it acted oddly.
Instead of squatting on the bottom like most frogfish, it wedged itself into tiny crevices in the coral. All frogfish have jointed pectoral fins, which enable them to crawl over the seafloor.
The new species used its fins almost like hands to grasp at coral branches and propel itself forward. And it would sometimes gulp in water, then spit it out in a form of jet propulsion.
"It has this crazy, bouncing locomotion," Pietsch said.
He knew he had to act fast.
"When word gets out about something exciting like this, everybody wants to be the first to publish," he said. "The race was on."
Very shy fish
Luckily, one of Pietsch's graduate students, Rachel Arnold, was in Australia, chasing another type of frogfish. Pietsch e-mailed her to drop everything and head to Ambon Island.
It took three days to reach the remote harbor, and she headed straight for the water.
She saw two of the strange fish on her first dive, including a female carrying a mass of eggs clutched in her tail.
"They're very shy," Arnold said.
They also lack the dangling lure of most anglerfish. She and Pietsch later concluded that the new species probably flares its head out when threatened, but also can fold itself back into a more normal, fishlike appearance.
Arnold captured one of the softball-sized creatures with her hands.
She euthanized the sacrificial specimen and wrapped it in alcohol-soaked cheesecloth. On the long trip to Seattle, Arnold kept the fish in a cardboard box in her carry-on luggage.
But when Pietsch saw the specimen, his heart sank. The alcohol had leached out all the wild peach, tan and blue colors. At first, he thought it was the wrong fish.
Microscopic examination revealed the outlines of the striped patterns, and a bell started ringing in Pietsch's memory.
Among the 7.2 million specimens in the UW's fish collection were two pallid fish from Bali that Pietsch had received in 1992. People who saw the fish alive raved about their colors. But Pietsch saw nothing remarkable in the bleached-out specimens and had categorized them as a common variety.
In hand for 17 years
Now, he took a second look and realized he had not one but three specimens of what now is formally known as Histiophryne psychedelica.
"So I actually had this new species for 17 years," he said.
Arnold's DNA analysis and Pietsch's detailed descriptions of the fishes' anatomy nailed down the discovery. Their work is being published next month in the journal Copeia.
One of the more intriguing possibilities the find raises is that psychedelica's ability to direct both of its eyes forward may give it binocular vision, like humans. With eyes on the sides of their heads, other fish see two distinct views that don't overlap.
But further study of the fish may prove impossible. As mysteriously as they appeared off Ambon Island, the handful of psychedelicas seen last year now appear to have vanished.
It's possible the fish normally live in deeper water, Pietsch said.
"We don't know why we never saw it before, and we don't know where it's gone."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or email@example.com
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