Two years ago, on a dive site near Alor, Indonesia, I saw a fish I had never seen before. Last month, just over two years from my first sighting, we received word that the fish, collected by our friends, Dr. Gerald Allen and Dr. Mark Erdmann, has received its official name, Cirrhilabrus humanni. This post is about the small role we had in establishing the fish as a newly described species. So, back to the dive two years ago: Descending onto a 30-foot deep rubble area that would be our staging area before continuing around the corner for a drift dive over the reef, our friend Lynne Van Dok gestured toward a population of fairy and flasher wrasses – favorites of Ned’s and mine. It was late afternoon; a time when the males court their harems, turning on neon colors for a brief moment, hence the common name “Flasher Wrasse.” A bright flash of orange sped by, swooping up and down in the characteristic signal jump of a courting male, only this fish was performing at warp speed. That got my attention. Other divers paused to watch but left one by one to drift around the corner. Chasing the fish would be futile, so I positioned myself by one of its harems and waited for it to make another frantic pass. Mentally checking off the species I knew, I eliminated flasher wrasses and moved on to the fairy wrasses but still could not place this fish. Ned was diving on another site with Paul, so if, as I was beginning to suspect, this was an undescribed species, I would have to document it with video – a real challenge as you will see in the video at the end of this post.
Back on the boat, I showed my video to Ned, who did not recognize the fish either. We were returning to Maumere to pick up another group of divers so I had two weeks to pore over all the references we had with us including Hiroyuki Tanaka’s Fairy and Flasher Wrasse Guide and Rudie Kuiter’s Labridae Fishes: Wrasses. By the time we made it back to the area, we were convinced this was an undescribed species. Fortunately, Garry Bevan, our cruise director, knew the dive site well and dropped us right on top of the rubble patch. Ned got the shot and once back in Bali, we emailed it to Dr. Tanaka and our friend, Dr. Gerry Allen who both responded that they believed it was a “new” species. Since Dr. Allen and Dr. Mark Erdmann were planning a Conservation International survey trip to the area, I sent them a sketch of the dive site, the GPS coordinates and a video clip to provide a search image of the fish’s behavior. Ned also sent them photos of a walking shark and clingfish that we couldn’t identify.
Last month, I received an email response from Gerry to my inquiry about the fish. It was on my mind because we recently finished reading The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff (here is a link to his blog and info about his books) and what it means to “discover” a species was much on my mind. Ned and I are field naturalists and we spend a lot of time underwater, recording images of rare or unusual marine life. When we see something we suspect might be undescribed, we contact a scientist. Often, the response is, “Did you collect a specimen?” Collecting permits are usually difficult to obtain and returning to a far-away site nearly always impossible, so we usually settle for a photo and the “sp.” (undescribed) designation.
Noticing an undescribed species is really a very small part of the process of formally describing it. The animal has to be collected – more than one specimen is desirable – a male and female, if possible. The scientist describing the fish must have expert knowledge to place the specimen in its proper place in the evolutionary order and must write and sometimes draw very detailed descriptions. This takes time (translate: money). If funding and access is available for DNA study, that is also carried out. The final description is peer-reviewed and submitted to an appropriate journal for publication. Many journals charge (sometimes a lot of dollars) to publish the final paper. My summary of the process doesn’t do justice to the effort, but the point is that our role in it was small. If you are interested in reading about describing a species from one scientist’s experience, check out Kevin Zelnio’s EvoEcoLab post about his work in describing a new species of shrimp.
Last year, Dr. Allen informed us that they had returned to Alor. Although they were unable to find the walking shark and the clingfish, they collected two specimens of the little fairy wrasse and were in the process of formally describing it. To our delight, he offered us the honor of naming it. We suggested naming it after our partner, renowned underwater photographer Paul Humann. Here, on the Blenny Watcher blog, we are pleased to present Cirrhilabrus humanni. It will make its formal debut this month in their new book, Reef Fishes of the East Indies by Allen and Erdmann, from the University of Hawaii Press.