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Odd, bouncing fish with lollipop face dubbed new species

March 3, 2009
Courtesy University of Washington
and World Science staff

Psychedel­i­ca seems the per­fect name for a fish that is a wild swirl of tan and peach zeb­ra stripes and acts in ways con­tra­ry to its breth­ren. So says the Uni­ver­s­ity of Wash­ing­ton’s Ted Pietsch, who is the first to de­scribe the new spe­cies in the sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture and thus the one to pick the name.

With its flat­tened face, sci­en­tists say the fish's eyes ap­pear to be di­rect­ed for­ward. These may pro­vide it with bin­oc­u­lar vi­sion, a spe­cial at­trib­ute well de­vel­oped in hu­mans that pro­vides the abil­i­ty to ac­cu­rate­ly judge dis­tance. On­ly very few fish­es have eyes whose field of vi­sion over­laps in front, pro­vid­ing such vi­sion. (©David Hall / sea­pho­tos.com)


Psychedel­ica is per­haps even more apt giv­en the cocka­mamie way the fish swim, some with so lit­tle ap­par­ent con­trol they look drunk.

Mem­bers of His­tio­phryne psych­edel­ica don’t so much swim as hop. Each time they strike the seafloor they use their fins to push off and they ex­pel wa­ter from ti­ny gill open­ings on their sides to jet­ti­son them­selves for­ward. With tails curled tightly to one side – which lim­its their abil­ity to steer – they look like in­flat­ed rub­ber balls bounc­ing hith­er and thith­er.

While oth­er frog­fish and si­m­i­lar spe­cies are known to jet­ti­son them­selves up off the bot­tom be­fore they beg­in swim­ming, none have been seen hop­ping, ac­cord­ing to Pietsch. It’s just one of the be­hav­iors of H. psy­ch­edel­ica un­seen in any oth­er fish, added the re­search­er, lead au­thor of a pa­per on the new spe­cies in Co­peia, the jour­nal of the Amer­i­can So­ci­e­ty of Ichthy­ol­o­gists and Her­petol­o­gists. 

It was lit­tle more than a year ago that the fish with rare, for­ward-facing eyes like hu­mans and a se­cre­tive na­ture drew world­wide at­ten­tion af­ter hav­ing been ob­served in the busy har­bor of Am­bon Is­land, In­do­ne­sia. An adult fish was ob­served in Jan­u­ary 2008 by To­by Fa­dirs­yair, a guide, and Buck and Fi­trie Ran­dolph, co-own­ers of Ma­lu­ku Di­vers, based in Am­bon. They and other co-own­ers An­dy and Ker­ry Short­en event­ual­ly found Pietsch to help them iden­ti­fy the fish. Since the first sight­ing di­vers have ob­served a num­ber of adults and ju­ve­niles, now that they know what to look for.

Adults of H. psy­ch­edel­ica are fist-sized with ge­lat­i­nous bod­ies cov­ered with thick folds of skin that pro­tect them from sharp-edged cor­als as they haunt ti­ny nooks and cran­nies of the har­bor reef. Fins on ei­ther side of their bod­ies have, as with oth­er frog­fish, evolved to be leg-like, and mem­bers of H. psy­ch­edel­ica ac­tu­ally pre­fer crawl­ing to swim­ming. See a Quick­Time vi­deo of them crawl­ing here.

The leg-like pec­to­ral fins used for walk­ing are com­mon­ly found in an­gler­fish which pre­fer crawl­ing to swim­ming. More than a doz­en in­di­vid­u­al fish have been seen in Am­bon Har­bor, In­do­ne­sia, since di­vers with Ma­lu­ku Di­vers first spot­ted one of the fish in Jan­u­ary 2008. The fish have been found in 15 to 25 feet of wa­ter near a com­mer­cial jet­ty in the busy har­bor. (Cred­it: ©David Hall / sea­pho­tos.com)


The spe­cies has a flat­tened face with eyes di­rect­ed for­ward. It’s some­thing Pietsch, with 40 years of ex­pe­ri­ence stu­dy­ing and clas­si­fy­ing fish­es, has nev­er seen be­fore in frog­fish. It causes him to spec­u­late that the spe­cies may have bin­oc­u­lar vi­sion, that is, vi­sion that over­laps in front, like it does in hu­mans. Most fish, with eyes on ei­ther side of their head, don’t have this; they see dif­fer­ent things with each eye.

DNA work in­di­cat­ed H. psy­ch­edel­ica joins two oth­er spe­cies in a ge­nus called His­tio­phryne, though the oth­er two look very drab in com­par­i­son. The ge­nus is but one of about a doz­en in the frogfish or An­ten­nari­idae family, ac­cord­ing to Pietsch. The frog­fish are, in turn, part of the larg­er or­der of Lo­phi­iformes, or an­gler­fish. 

Unlike oth­er an­gler­fish, mem­bers of H. psy­ch­edel­ica have no lures grow­ing out of their fore­heads to at­tract prey. The oth­er an­gler­fish sit out in the open on the seafloor or cor­al reefs, of­ten adapt­ing their col­or­ing so their bod­ies are cam­ou­flaged, but the lures are meant to be no­ticed so the fish wave, wig­gle and some­times blink the lures on and off.

In­stead of that show­i­ness, mem­bers of H. psy­ch­edel­ica are shy and se­cre­tive, probably one rea­son they weren’t pre­vi­ously spot­ted, Pietsch said. When a mem­ber of H. psy­ch­edel­ica is un­cov­ered by di­vers it usu­ally seeks a new place to hide with­in 10 or 15 min­utes.

And while oth­er an­gler­fish change their col­or­ing de­pend­ing on the en­vi­ron­ment, the new spe­cies ap­pears to main­tain its wild strip­ing no mat­ter the sur­round­ings.

The col­or­ing led co-au­thor Da­vid Hall, a wild­life pho­tographer and own­er of seapho­tos.com, to spec­u­late that the fish is mim­ick­ing cor­als. In­deed, Hall pro­duced pho­tos for the new sci­en­tif­ic pa­per show­ing cor­als the an­i­mals may be mim­ick­ing.

The oth­er co-au­thor, Ra­chel Ar­nold, a mas­ter’s stu­dent at the uni-ver-sity, did the DNA work. Ar­nold, who dove in Am­bon Har­bor last year, said the strip­ing of each fish is dis­tinc­tive, “like a fin­ger­print of pat­tern­ing on their body so from what­ev­er an­gle you look, you can tell in­di­vid­u­als apart.”

The sci­en­tists found, how­ev­er, that the viv­id col­ors fad­ed in a mat­ter of days once a spec­i­men was pre­served in eth­a­nol. The flesh of the pre­served spec­i­men looks white, but with a mi­cro­scope one can still see the strip­ing, Pietsch discov­ered.

This got him think­ing about two spec­i­mens sent to him in 1992 that he’d kept. The Dal­las Aquar­i­um had sent him two frog­fish, found in a ship­ment of live fish­es from Ba­li that they said had un­usu­al pig­ment pat­terns. The staff had nick­named them “pais­ley frog­fish.” But the pho­tograph Pietsch was sent was of poor qual­ity and the pre­served spec­i­mens Pietsch re­ceived were white, so he did­n’t give them much thought.

Pietsch re­trieved the old spec­i­mens from the col­lec­tion, put them un­der a mi­cro­scope and found the strip­ing dis­tinc­tive to H. psy­ch­edel­ica. He’d had two spec­i­men of a new spe­cies of fish for 17 years, but did­n’t know it.



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