"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


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 the ani­mal 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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Doodling while listening doesn’t necessarily imply a wandering mind—in fact, it can help with remembering details, a new study suggests. According to the research published Feb. 26 in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, people given a doodling task while listening to a dull phone message had a 29% improved recall compared to non-doodling counterparts. Forty members of the research panel of the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, U.K. were asked to listen to a two and a half minute tape giving several names of people and places, and were told to write down only the names of people going to a party. Twenty of the participants were asked to shade in shapes on a piece of paper at the same time, but paying no attention to neatness. Participants were not asked to doodle naturally so that they would not become self-conscious. None of the participants were told it was a memory test. After the tape had finished, all participants in the study were asked to recall the eight names of the party-goers which they were asked to write down, as well as eight additional place names which were included as incidental information. The doodlers recalled on average 7.5 names of people and places compared to only 5.8 by the non-doodlers, researchers reported. “If someone is doing a boring task, like listening to a dull telephone conversation, they may start to daydream,” said study researcher Jackie Andradeof the University of Plymouth, U.K. “Daydreaming distracts them from the task, resulting in poorer performance. A simple task, like doodling, may be sufficient to stop daydreaming without affecting performance on the main task.” “In psychology, tests of memory or attention will often use a second task to selectively block a particular mental process. If that process is important for the main cognitive task then performance will be impaired. My research shows that beneficial effects of secondary tasks, such as doodling, on concentration may offset the effects of selective blockade,” added Andrade. “This study suggests that in everyday life doodling may be something we do because it helps to keep us on track with a boring task, rather than being an unnecessary distraction that we should try to resist doing.”