A new purple-clad fish species has been discovered in Africa living more than 60 metres beneath the ocean’s surface. Deep-diving scientists from the California Academy of Sciences’ Hope for Reefs initiative spotted dazzling fairy wrasses – previously unknown to science – in the dimly lit, deep coral reefs of eastern Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania.
With taxonomy specialist Yi-Kai Tea at the University of Sydney, the team confirmed a new species.
The multi-coloured wrasses sport deep-purple scales so strongly pigmented that they retain their colour, typically lost during preservation, when stored in ethanol for research. The scientists have named this “twilight zone” (or mesophotic) reef-dweller Cirrhilabrus wakanda (common name “Vibranium fairy wrasse”) in honour of the mythical nation of Wakanda from the Marvel comics and movie Black Panther.
The new fish is described today in the peer-reviewed journal ZooKeys.
“When we thought about the secretive and isolated nature of these unexplored African reefs, we knew we had to name this new species after Wakanda,” said Yi-Kai Tea, lead author and ichthyology PhD student from the Molecular Ecology, Evolution and Phylogenetics laboratory in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney.
“The various species in this group have distributions that fit around the Indian and Pacific oceans like a jigsaw puzzle. We’ve suspected another member of this species group existed along the east African coast but no one had been able to confirm this due to its preference for deep reefs,” Mr Tea said.
“When I first saw a photo of this amazing purple fish, I knew instantly we had found the missing piece of this exciting puzzle.”
The California Academy scientists said Cirrhilabrus wakanda’s remote home in mesophotic coral reefs – below recreational diving limits – probably contributed to its long-hidden status in the shadows of the Indian Ocean. Hope for Reefs’ scientific divers are highly trained for the dangerous process of researching in these deep, little-known mesophotic reefs, located 60 to 150 metres beneath the surface.
“Preparation for these deep dives is very intense and our dive gear often weighs more than us,” said Dr Luiz Rocha, California Academy of Sciences Curator of Fishes and co-leader of the Hope for Reefs initiative. “When we reach these reefs and find unknown species as spectacular as this fairy wrasse, it feels like our hard work is paying off.”
Using a microscope, the team examined the specimens’ quantitative characteristics, such as scales, fin rays and spines. DNA and morphological analyses revealed the fairy wrasse to be distinct from the other seven species occurring in the western Indian Ocean, as well as other relatives in the Pacific, including those found in Australian tropical waters.
The new species’ common name is inspired by the fictional metal vibranium; a rare and, according to Dr Rocha, “totally awesome” substance found in the Black Panther nation of Wakanda. The Vibranium fairy wrasse’s purple chain-link scale pattern reminded the scientists of Black Panther’s super-strong suit and the fabric motifs worn by Wakandans in the hit film.
Mr Tea said that naming species after popular culture references is a way to bridge the divide between science and the general public.
“While research is important, it is equally important to convey it to people with more general interests. This becomes particularly important because taxonomy is often seen as ‘dry’ and boring science, but it actually has huge implications for biodiversity and conservation,” he said. “Inspiring the next generation of taxonomists by making science exciting and interesting – that’s the main goal.”
In a recent paper, the California Academy scientists found that twilight zone reefs are unique ecosystems bursting with life and are just as vulnerable to human threats as their shallow counterparts. Their findings upended the long-standing assumption that species might avoid human-related stressors on those deeper reefs. The Hope for Reefs team will continue to visit and study twilight zone sites around the world to better understand these often-overlooked ecosystems.
“It’s a time of global crisis for coral reefs and exploring little-known habitats, and the life they support is now more important than ever,” Dr Rocha said. “Because they are out of sight, these deeper reefs are often left out of marine reserves, so we hope our discoveries inspire their protection.”
Declaration: There was no funding supporting Mr Yi-Kai Tea for this paper beyond his postgraduate scholarship at the University of Sydney. Dr Luiz Rocha and the California Academy of Sciences fieldwork team were supported by the Hope for Reefs initiative, which receives donations. More information on those donors is available at this link.