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.