Red Handfish Population Boosted As Divers Find New Population Of Rare Species In Tasmania

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There may be some hope for the critically endangered red handfish, as a team of divers recently found a small population of the elusive species in Tasmania, potentially doubling their estimated numbers.

Prior to the new sighting, there was only one known part of the world where red handfish were known to exist, a reef in Frederick Henry Bay near Hobart in southeast Tasmania, where scientists estimated a population of about 20 to 40 individuals, according to The Guardian. But researchers were able to discover a second site not too far from the first one, serving as a habitat to a similar number of handfish.

A team of seven divers from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) reportedly headed to the second site after someone spotted what looked to be a red handfish. As noted by The Guardian, it took two days before the divers were able to confirm the sighting.

“We were diving for approximately three and a half hours and at about the two-hour mark we were all looking at each other thinking, ‘this is not looking promising,'” read a statement from diver Antonia Cooper.

“My dive partner went to tell the other divers that we were going to start heading in and I was half-heartedly flicking algae around when, lo and behold, I found a red handfish.”

After that initial find, the divers reportedly found another seven handfish hiding under seaweed, the Daily Mail wrote. All in all, it is believed that the undisclosed location may house 20 to 40 fish, much the Frederick Henry Bay site does.

According to Australian Geographic, the red handfish gets its name because of how it seems to use its fins as hands, making it appear as if it’s walking on the seafloor. It measures about two to five inches (six to 13.5 centimeters) in length, and usually feeds on worms and small crustaceans. The species was first discovered in the 19th century in the Port Arthur area, and since then, sightings have been extremely rare.

Speaking to The Guardian, IMAS researcher Rick Stuart-Smith said that the new red handfish sighting makes it possible that there are other populations out there that have yet to be discovered. On the other hand, he added that this might not be too likely, as the species spends most of its time waddling around on the seafloor, and can only swim short distances before settling down again.

“Imagine something that’s seven or nine centimeters long trying to walk one kilometer on a rocky ocean bottom … they are sitting ducks, plus it’s just a big effort for them,” said Stuart-Smith, who coordinates a yearly survey of red handfish populations.

As the spotted handfish is currently being bred in captivity as an endangered species, Stuart-Smith mentioned the possibility of captive breeding for the red handfish, hinting at a future “re-discussion” about the species’ fate, and whether it would be a feasible idea to remove egg masses or individual fish for breeding purposes.