Researchers with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO, have identified nine bizarre new species of fish lurking in the shallow, coastal waters of Australia which use their pectoral fins like hands, according to National Geographic.
The strange fish are all part of a rare family (Brachionichthyidae) of anglerfishes known as handfish. As their name suggests, each of the species appears to have hands rather than fins, which they use to crawl along the sea floor.
"Handfishes are small, often strikingly patterned or colourful, sedentary fish that tend to 'walk' on the seabed on hand-like fins, rather than swim," said Daniel Gledhill, a taxonomist with CSIRO. "50 million years ago, they 'walked' the world's oceans, but now they exist only off eastern and southern Australia."
In fact, some ancient handfish fossils have been found as far away from Australia as the Mediterranean Sea. But today specimens are so rare that they are difficult to classify. That's one reason it took until now for scientists to identify the nine new species as distinct. For instance, one of the new species, the pink handfish, is known by only four specimens and has not been spotted since 1999.
Part of the reason handfish are so rare today is their sensitivity to environmental change. Introduced species, pollution, siltation, fishing, sea temperature rise and coastal development all threaten the survival of these living fossils. The problem is apparent throughout Australia, which was once a bastion for rare, unusual and ancient species due to its unique biogeographical history.
"More than half of Australia’s territory is ocean, and some 95 percent of this world is yet to be explored," said Nic Bax of CSIRO. The concern is that, as with the handfishes, by the time many of the unknown species within Australia's oceans are finally catalogued, they may already be endangered or have gone extinct.