A spotted handfish, relative to the smooth handfish. Credit: John Turnbull/Flickr
Being blessed with superpowers wasn’t enough to save Australia’s smooth handfish from extinction. It’s official; despite being created with the incredible ability to walk on the seafloor, the handfish has met a tragic end.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has confirmed that this unusual fish has become the first modern marine fish on record to completely vanish. Yes, yet another species wiped from the face of the earth forever. Now the race is on to save other handfish that might be next on the extinction list.
In addition to a slew of other threats the species had to contend with – including runoff and heavy metal pollution, dredging for scallops, destruction of oyster reefs, and introduction of non-native species – the cocktail of destruction proved too potent.
With the extinction of the smooth handfish, just 13 other handfish species are left – three of which are considered critically endangered. The trio include the spotted handfish, the red handfish, and the Ziebell’s handfish.
The spotted handfish is the most common of all the handfish species. Found only in the Derwent Estuary in Tasmania, there are thought to be fewer than 3,000 individuals remaining in the wild (although these numbers may possibly be less). Second on the list is the red handfish, thought to have a total population of roughly 100 adults. Lastly is the Ziebell’s handfish, found on rocky reefs across the Tasman Peninsula. This handfish has had no confirmed sightings since 2007.
Handfish are rare and hard to find, forcing scientists to pursue the only other avenue available – studying fragments of their DNA in the ocean. Researchers have also attempted considered breeding programs, but to date have been somewhat mute on the success of getting these iconic bottom-dwellers to complete a full life cycle in captivity.
“The disappearance of the smooth handfish is a massive red flag for what may come for other handfish species, along with vulnerable, localized species in places like Tasmania. With climate change also thrown into the mix along with all the other human-linked causes, many species, including handfish, are shrinking at a daunting rate,” said David Barritt of Network for Animals (NFA).
Handfish are unique in that they give birth to fully formed juveniles directly on the seabed instead of having a midwater stage for their larvae. This makes them more vulnerable to being fished or having their breeding habitats disturbed. Handfish also have a habit of staying in specific areas, rather than migrating to safer spots.
Jemina Stuart-Smith, a research fellow at Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and manager of the Handfish Conservation Project said that despite humankind not knowing exactly what influence the extinction of the handfish will have, it’s bound to have an effect.
“I think people should worry about the extinction of any species, especially ones that humans are likely to have caused. We don’t know enough about handfish to know what their ecological role is and if extinction will impact the ecosystems that they are a part of. The smooth handfish became extinct before we had a chance to study them,” concluded Stuart-Smith.