When you were growing up and your parents told you there were plenty of fish in the sea, they knew what they were talking about. Just ask Prosanta Chakrabarty, a Louisiana State University biologist who recently discovered two unknown species of fish just 7 miles off Louisiana's coast.
In simple terms, the new species are a variation of what's known as pancake batfish, a tiny creature that uses its fins like feet to walk across the bottom of the ocean and sports a long nose that can project a lure to entice other critters to come closer to its mouth. The fish are only a couple of inches long. "Not many fish are cute, but this one is," Chakrabarty says. "It's a fascinating species."
The species have no commercial value right now; aquarium enthusiasts have never shown an interest in the pancake batfish. And it's not exactly an angler fish, since few fishermen could accidentally — or purposely — catch one on hook and line. In fact, the two new species of pancake batfish don't even have a name yet. That comes early next year, when Chakrabarty publishes his findings.
The two new species were discovered when the LSU biologist and a Taiwanese colleague, Hsuan-ching "Hans" Ho, were looking through jars of batfish collected from the Gulf of Mexico. Chakrabarty had been curator of ichthyology at the LSU Museum of Natural Sciences for about a year when he realized that some fish categorized as pancake batfish (pictured) were really something all their own. "We realized that what was thought to be one widespread variable species was in fact three species," Chakrabarty says.
He trawled a small portion of the Gulf of Mexico and collected fresh specimens of the species. Among other things, Chakrabarty says it's further proof that the Gulf shelters many types of fish that have yet to be discovered.
"Most people in Louisiana probably don't know that there are new species of fish right here in our state," he says. "The Gulf of Mexico is chock full of things that need to be studied. It's pretty exciting. I've never lived anywhere with so much opportunity."
John H. Caruso, a deep-sea biologist at Tulane University, has been reviewing Chakrabarty's work. "I've known for a couple of decades that there had to be different pancake batfish, but the probability is high that he's going to name a new genus," says Caruso, who has discovered eight fish species on his own in different parts of the world. He says discoveries of new species in the Gulf are announced fairly often, but it always sheds light on just how much more there is to learn.
At only 30 years old, Chakrabarty has already made a name for himself at LSU due to his knack for discovering new species. Last month, he landed a $520,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund his ongoing efforts to untangle and update the complex genetic heritage of heroine cichlid fishes.
While there are some cichlid fishes near Texas, most of the research will be done in Central America, and the study has the potential for supporting the discovery of additional species. "Getting a grant this large that focuses on taxonomy is very unusual; it's kind of a dying art," Chakrabarty says. "The funds will help me to do a great deal of taxonomic work, as well as hire post-doctoral students and train workers from some of the areas I collect specimens from."
Cichlids are some of the most popular recreational and aquarium fishes in the world. With more than 2,000 species, most carrying unique names like the Jack Dempsey and the Red Devil, cichlids attract an almost cultlike following. They also possess an unusual degree of intelligence.
That, paired with the fact that cichlids maintain the longest period of parental care, keeping watch over offspring until adulthood, makes people feel more attached to these fishes than many other aquatic lifeforms. "Going back and changing names for fish as popular as these is no easy matter," Chakrabarty says. "Renaming some of these is going to cause me a lot of grief. It's like changing a longstanding tradition to some people. To them, it's just better left alone."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.