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Smooth Handfish goes extinct

  • Jeremy Gay
  • Jul 5, 2020

A species of handfish called Sympterichthys unipennis has been declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The species was described after a single specimen was collected on an expedition to Australia in 1802. No other specimens have been seen or collected since that date so the IUCN have recently declared the species extinct.

“This benthic species is known only from the holotype specimen collected about 200 years ago (1802) in shallow waters of southeastern Tasmania during the first scientific exploration of southern Australia,” says the IUCN in their assessment

It was amongst the first Australian fish species collected and was almost certainly a common species at the time of discovery.” 

“Extensive surveys targeting handfish species have been conducted throughout this area in the shallow habitats that this species occupied, but no individuals have been found. Other shallow handfish species with highly restricted ranges in southeastern Tasmania have severely declined…due to multiple threats, including historical bottom fishing activity, pollution and destruction of spawning habitat.”

“In particular, this species was probably impacted, through both direct mortality as bycatch and destruction of habitat, by the large historical scallop fishery that was active in the region through the 20th century until the fishery collapsed in 1967.”

“In addition, the restricted dispersal abilities of this species, similar to other shallow-occurring handfishes, would have predisposed it to rapid population declines and fragmentation. Therefore, it is listed as Extinct. Date last seen: 1802

The Smooth and other handfishes are members of the Brachionichthyidae family, and are a type of Anglerfish, using a lure called an illicium to catch prey. Their common name is a fitting one as their pectoral fins are highly developed into “hands” which they use to walk, not swim across the bottom. 

There are 13 species of handfish but only four have been seen in the last twenty years. Conservation efforts are being made to try to captive-breed the remaining available species, with four considered endangered and another three critically endangered. Ziebell’s handfish hasn’t been spotted anywhere since 2007, calling for Tasmanians to report any sightings they have made in the last five years.

Despite the solitary, diminutive museum specimen the extinction is significant as its the first extinction of a marine bony fish in modern times.


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