Happy as a Handfish (and a short hiatus)
Life's looking up for the fish who stroll
Hello and welcome to the twentieth(!) issue of Mouse and Minnow, the newsletter where Steve and I celebrate a different animal each week.
Except for next week. And possibly the week after.
I'm currently participating in National Novel Writing Month, an annual challenge that sees people from around the world try to write a brand new 50,000 word novel during the thirty days of November. But I've fallen behind, so we're putting a little pause on new issues until December, or at least until I cross the finish line. While you wait, you can always check out any issues you may have missed by exploring the archive by date or by animal.
Now, on to this week’s animal…
Getting a Handle on Handfish
The Spotted Handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus) is a charming little 12 cm fish who can fit in the palm of your hand, but that isn't where they get their name. Instead it comes from the unique look of their fins, which are also used for an unusual style of locomotion. Though handfish do swim in short bursts when trying to escape a threat, they spend most of their time sitting on the sandy bottom of the Derwent River estuary and surrounding areas in Tasmania, Australia, the only place in the world where they still live. When it is time to move around, they raise themselves up on two pairs of well-adapted fins and go for a little stroll. They look for all the world like a tadpole who just couldn't be bothered to finish the job.
Handfish are a type of anglerfish who use a lure to draw prey closer, but unlike their more famous bioluminescent relatives of the deep sea, Spotted Handfish hang out in much shallower water, preferring depths of 5-10 metres. Though many fish have a very different larval stage (like the previously written about bluefin tuna), Spotted Handfish hatch as miniature versions of adults, which means they too only walk a short distance away from their parents' turf to start their own lives.
Saving Spotted Handfish
Considering their small size, shallow depth, restricted range, and the fact that they prefer not to move very far or very fast, it's not really surprising that Spotted Handfish are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Although types of handfish have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, development around their home isn’t something the Spotted Handfish have had time to adapt to. Invasive Northern Pacific Sea Stars aren't helping matters any by devouring stalked "sea squirts", a type of invertebrate filter feeder that rises up out of the sediment like a little post. Spotted Handfish lay their eggs fastened around the base of the sea squirts so the eggs won't drift away and so they handfish can guard them until they hatch.
Several groups in Australia, particularly CSIRO (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), have been working to increase Spotted Handfish numbers with promising results. Little ceramic replicas of sea squirt stalks have been embedded in the sand where Spotted Handfish still live, and adults have been seen successfully laying eggs there (check the links section below for more on this).
But they also decided to start a captive population of Spotted Handfish, both to create a safety net for the species and to release captive-bred fish to increase wild populations. Sometimes animals refuse to breed in captivity so researchers were delighted when the very first Spotted Handfish they caught for the project mated as soon as they were put together in the tank. It turned out the female was already gravid (carrying eggs) and just waiting for a male. Researchers dubbed those two fish Harley and Rose…
A Handfish Love Song
Harley was a walkin'
Walkin' on his fins
Lookin' for shelter
Lookin' for lunch
Lookin' for his kin.
Rose she was just restin'
Restin' in the sand
A fish full of eggs
Restin' her legs
A fish who still needed a man.
Oh there's so far to go and the goin' is slow
For the fish who would go tippy-toe.
Harley saw a shadow
A shadow from above
He tried to dart
He tried to dash
He tried to dodge that glove
But Harley had been captured
Captured by a beast
No hope for lunch
No hope for love
No hope of being released.
Rose was also taken
Taken where she lie
Scooped in a cup
Scooped quickly up
Scooped in the blink of an eye.
Oh the world's getting rough and survival is tough
For the fish who can't change fast enough.
Rose was placed inside a tank
A tank where Harley waited.
They, put simply, mated.
Rose and Harley guarded
Guarded all their young
No taking risks
No taking breaks
No idea what they had begun.
Oh if things go as planned the next years could be grand
For the fish who are given a hand.
Those handfish they were happy
Happy as a song
They had met
And they had bred
Their young would carry on.
~ Marilyn Anne Campbell
For general info, see the article and embedded videos on the Australian Museum’s Animal Fact Sheet and the Spotted Handfish profile on Fishes of Australia.
Although it’s from 1999, the CSIRO YouTube video “Fish that walk” is a great summary of the problems faced by the Spotted Handfish which also features great footage of them walking.
The above video mentions using plastic stalks to try to replace the sea squirts; more recently CSIRO scientists have started working with a local artist to create ceramic poles instead.
You can also read a variety of posts about handfish on CSIROscope, the CSIRO blog
Check out the 2020 picture book from CSIRO Publishing, “Hold On! Saving the Spotted Handfish” by Gina Newton with illustrations by Rachel Tribout
The Spotted Handfish isn’t the only handfish left, and they aren’t the only ones in trouble. The Handfish Conservation Project is working to protect Spotted Handfish, Red Handfish, and Ziebell’s Handfish. Yes they take donations, and for a $1000 AUS you can even name one of the last remaining Red Handfish.
Read about Harley and Rose and the breeding program in the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) article “CSIRO breeding Hobart’s iconic handfish in captivity to ensure it doesn’t go extinct.”
And if you like, you can actually watch Rose and Harley, uh, in action:
Any High-fives for Handfish?
Any thoughts on Spotted Handfish? Leave a comment or reply to this email to send a note to Marilyn and Steve directly.
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Mouse and Minnow is co-created by partners Steve Alguire (illustration) and Marilyn Anne Campbell (writing). Learn more about the newsletter and use the subscribe button below to receive original art and writing about wonderful creatures right in your inbox.
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