For the first time in modern history, a marine fish species has been declared extinct. The smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis), a shallow-water bottom-dweller with spiky fins and a barb-like protrusion on its forehead, has not been seen since 1802, when French biologist François Péron helped scoop one up near the coast of Tasmania to bring back to Paris’s Natural History Museum.
Despite extensive searches over many years, no smooth handfish were ever seen again. In May, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a global consortium of scientists that sets the conservation statuses of species, formally listed it as extinct.
Thirteen other species of handfish—so named because they perch on the seafloor on fins that look like little hands and act like feet—are probably still around, though seven of the species haven’t been seen since 2000 or earlier. All but one species is considered endangered, critically endangered, or “data deficient,” meaning there’s not enough information available to decide their status.
The disappearance of the smooth handfish highlights how sensitive this family of fishes are to environmental disruptions such as climate change, habitat destruction, and pollution, because the smooth handfish was almost certainly common when scientists documented it for the first—and last—time, more than 200 years ago. Scientists say this milestone serves as a warning for what may come for other handfish species and other vulnerable, localized species in places like Tasmania.
“They’re a canary in the coal mine,” says Neville Barrett, an ichthyologist at Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.
Brightly colored homebodies
“If you’ve never seen a handfish before, imagine dipping a toad in some brightly colored paint, telling it a sad story, and forcing it to wear gloves two sizes too big,” reads the description of the fish by the Handfish Conversation Project, led by a group of researchers from the Australian government and academic institutions devoted to the animals’ conservation.
The author of the above description remains unknown, but it stuck, says Jemina…