The Bestiary

Beast of the Week: The Handfish

Rare ocean creatures use hand-like fins to "walk" over the sea floor.

June 2, 2010

So this fish walks into a bar, right, and the bartender says, “Hey, buddy, what are you having?” and the fish says —

Actually, I don’t know what the fish says. Not a single decent “fish walks into a bar” joke exists on the internet (and therefore, presumably, in the world). There is one terrible one, but I’m too dignified to post it, so you’ll have to go find it yourself.

But it may be time, as a culture, to come up with some better jokes, because scientists recently announced the discovery of nine new species of handfish — pudgy, colorful fish with hand-like fins that they use to “walk” along the floor of the ocean.

Handfish are incredibly rare: of the 14 species now known to exist, six are found only in the shallow waters off Tasmania, and some, like the pink handfish pictured above, have only ever been sighted a handful (sorry) of times.

What’s worse, they’re getting rarer, say Peter Last and Daniel Gledill, the scientists from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation who described the new species. Rising ocean temperatures, pollution, invasive species and development on land all threaten the handfish’s continued survival.

“There is evidence of shallow-water species disappearing quickly, from being common in certain areas a few decades ago, to apparently being locally extinct in some areas,” Last says in the press release. “It’s not just two or three handfish species of concern. Our work has described nine new species, each with its own environmental niches and needs, and several of these appear to have very restricted distributions, and/or occur in very low abundance.”

So this fish walks into a bar, right, and the bartender says, “Hey, buddy, what are you having?” and the fish says, “Something strong, please, all my friends are gone.” Wait. That’s not funny.

Anyway, National Geographic has more photos, and there are some excellent videos of handfish feeding and mating habits on ARKive. Let’s have a round of applause for the handfish, our beast of the week.

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About the Author

Mara Grunbaum studied English and environmental science at NYU. Before returning to New York, she worked for several years as a freelance reporter in Portland, Oregon, where she wrote about local politics, poverty and social justice. As a science reporter, she’s most interested in biology, ecology and most anything having to do with the ocean. You can also read her blog or follow her on Twitter.

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