An Australian woman’s startling discovery while running on a sandy Tasmanian shore has rippled through the country’s scientific community and spawned new hope for a rare species of fish that was believed to have been locally extinct.
During a beach run in the southeastern Tasmanian town of Primrose Sands earlier this month, Kerri Yale spotted what she thought was a toadfish. However, when she looked closer and saw limbs sprouting from the 10-centimetre long specimen, she suspected she had stumbled upon a much more uncommon find.
Spotted: a handfish! 👀
Last weekend, a runner found a critically endangered spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus) in Tasmania. Unfortunately the fish was dead, but it’s exciting evidence of life of a population we’d thought was locally extinct since 2005. pic.twitter.com/UzYHVZeTcO
— CSIRO (@CSIRO) September 10, 2023
It turns out the runner had come across a spotted handfish, or Brachionichthys hirsutus, according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency.
Although this encounter with marine life—which was sadly light on the “life” part, as the beached creature was already dead when Yale spotted it—didn’t end well for that particular spotted handfish, it does offer encouraging news for the health of the species as a whole.
“Up until last weekend’s find, we thought this spotted handfish population at Primrose Sands was locally extinct, and that it had been since before 2005,” research technician Carlie Devin said of the runner’s find. “We did look a few years ago too, but we didn’t find a single fish. This gives us cause to go looking again.”
According to CSIRO, the formerly thriving spotted handfish population in eastern Tasmania has plummeted over the past 30 years. “They are rare and elusive. Prior to the 1990s, spotted handfish were easily found. However, the population has separated and there are now only nine isolated populations,” Devin said. “Another two sites, Primrose Sands and Simpsons Point, did have populations, but we can no longer find fish in these locations.” She added the agency has estimated there are about 2,000 spotted handfish remaining in the wild.
The spotted handfish is one of seven handfish species endemic to Tasmania. In Australia there are 14 species of handfish in total. In 1996, the spotted handfish was added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
CSIRO says the discovery Yale made on her run not only gives scientists cause to step up their search for the spotted handfish in the Primrose Sands area, but also provides a shot in the arm for the agency’s continuing conservation efforts.