CSIRO breeds spotted handfish to save species from extinction

Fish, which is endemic to Tasmania, was the first Australian marine animal to be listed as critically endangered

Scientists have begun a captive breeding program for the spotted handfish, 11 years after it became the first Australian marine animal to be listed as critically endangered.

Endemic to Tasmania, the spotted handfish or Brachionichthys hirsutus looks like a tadpole in the late stages of development, with a fin atop its head to lure unsuspecting prey and the sour expression of a British bulldog.

Its hand-like front fins are used to walk along the sandy bed of the lower reaches of the River Derwent, hunting for small shrimp, waylaid fish larvae and other food that drifts to the bottom.

As the name suggests it is covered in elegant spots.

The CSIRO has been conducting an annual survey of handfish numbers for two years and this month collected its first specimens – an adult male named Harley, an adult female named Rose and an as yet unnamed juvenile – to begin a captive breeding program.

Harley and Rose hit it off immediately, beginning and consummating a courtship almost immediately.

“She was already what is called gravid with eggs,” the CSIRO’s Tim Fountain told the ABC.

In a few months, the captive population will be expanded to include two ambassador populations of about 10 fish apiece at Seahorse World, in northern Tasmania, and the Melbourne aquarium.

The ambassador populations will serve the dual purpose of allowing researchers to learn their feeding and breeding habits and to endear the public to their cause, Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium head curator Paul Hale said.

Hale said the handfish’s ungainly appearance could go some way to explaining why it remains relatively unknown, despite being one of the most endangered animals in Australia.

“The furries are much easier to get the public backing on but also this is something that you don’t see unless you go diving,” he said.

Hale does not think the public will be put off by the fact that the fish “look like part tadpoles”.

Hobart has already began to adopt the species as its own: a giant papier-mache handfish, dubbed Jessica by its creator, the Balinese artist Ida Bagus Oka, was burned in effigy at the Dark Mofo festival in June.

“I think the public have already fallen in love with this animal,” Hale said.

Handfish of all types abounded around the world 50 million years ago but are now only found in waters south-east of Australia, mainly around Tasmania.

There are three species of handfish endemic to Tasmania, one of which has not been seen by divers in the wild for several years.

The spotted handfish used to be found in waters around the state but is now restricted to the lower reaches of the River Derwent and surrounding bays.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'Mobile nature reserves' could save marine species from extinction

Under the plans, trawlers would avoid stretches of ocean when endangered species are mating, spawning or passing through

Ian Sample in Vancouver

18, Feb, 2012 @8:00 AM

Article image
Sluggy McSlugface? Public invited to name 'flamboyant' nudibranch species
Western Australian museum runs naming competition for new kind of sea-slug discovered by scientists in the Indian Ocean

Calla Wahlquist

12, Aug, 2016 @1:21 AM

Article image
Last chance to study and name Australia’s vanishing species, scientists warn MPs
Australian Academy of Science launches 10-year plan to document hundreds of thousands of unknown species

Adam Morton

26, Apr, 2018 @9:51 PM

Article image
‘Extinction crisis’ of sharks and rays to have devastating effect on other species, study finds
Almost two-thirds of sharks and rays living on world’s coral reefs at risk, with 14 of 134 species reviewed critically endangered

Graham Readfearn

17, Jan, 2023 @4:00 PM

Article image
Krill found to break down microplastics – but it won't save the oceans
Digestion of plastic into much smaller fragments ‘doesn’t necessarily help pollution’, Australian researchers say

Calla Wahlquist

12, Mar, 2018 @5:06 AM

Article image
Similar numbers of male and female turtles hatched at Coral Sea site give hope for survival of species
Sex determination of sea turtles is temperature dependent, with the proportion of female hatchlings increasing when nests are warmer

Donna Lu Science writer

05, Oct, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
CSIRO researchers identify 139 new species, including an ant that ‘babysits’ caterpillars
Other discoveries formally named and described include 131 insects and other invertebrates, four fish, three plants and a frog

Graham Readfearn

08, Aug, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
Northern quolls released into Kakadu in bid to save species from extinction
Nine of the mammals let loose in Northern Territory after being trained to avoid cane toads and feral cats

Helen Davidson in Darwin

22, Apr, 2016 @5:54 AM

Article image
WA coastline facing marine heatwave in early 2021, CSIRO predicts
Exclusive: Ocean temperatures to peak at about 1C above average in April, according to forecast, threatening marine life and coral

Graham Readfearn

23, Dec, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
Critically endangered snapping turtle program breeds hope for survival
Ninety per cent of Bellinger River snapping turtle adult population was wiped out but Australia’s Taronga Zoo is breeding numbers back up

Lisa Cox

11, Mar, 2020 @6:33 AM