Living more than 100 meters below the water's surface, this newly discovered fish has evaded scuba divers for years.
Researchers from the Smithsonian’s Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP) recently discovered a new species of scorpionfish off the coast of the Caribbean island Curaçao. Inhabiting depths of 95-160 meters, the fish has never been found by scuba divers that frequent Caribbean reefs, as they can only reach depths up to 50 meters. Dr. Carole C. Baldwin, the lead scientist of DROP, explained, “The 50-300 m tropical ocean zone is poorly studied -- too deep for conventional SCUBA and too shallow to be of much interest to really deep-diving submersibles.”
Fortunately, DROP employs a submersible known as the Curasub that can reach 300 meters below the water's surface, allowing researchers to study fish and invertebrates in the previously unexplored ocean zone. The sub is equipped with two flexible, hydraulic arms that are used to collect fish specimens from the water. The first arm administers an anesthetic to the fish and the second arm captures the anesthetized specimen with a suction hose, leading it to a vented plexiglass cylinder on the outside of the sub. With the aid of the Curasub, Baldwin, along with Dr. Ross Robertson and Diane Pitassy, collected five specimens of the new species off Curaçao and later described the fish in a paper for the journal ZooKeys.
The researchers named the fish Scorpaenodes barrybrowni after Barry Brown, a freelance photographer that works with DROP. In their paper, the researchers praised Brown, explaining that he "has patiently, diligently, and expertly taken photographs of hundreds of fishes and invertebrates captured alive by DROP investigators. He has generously shared his photographs, and they have enhanced numerous scientific and educational publications." The fish also has a common name, Stellate Scorpionfish, referencing the stellate (star-like) yellow spots found on its fins and the radiating pigment markings on its eyes.
The discovery brings the number of known Caribbean scorpionfish species in the genus Scorpaenodes from two to three. While 29 species of scorpionfish in the genus were recognized worldwide, only Scorpaenodes tredecimspinosus and Scorpaenodes caribbaeus were previously believed to live in the western Atlantic Ocean. DNA tests indicate that S. barrybrowni is genetically distinct from S. tredecimspinosus and S. caribbaeus, explaining its unique physical traits. Its fin rays are more elongated than other scorpionfish, and its yellow, red, and orange color pattern is distinct from the color patterns of the other two species. The stellate scorpionfish is now the deepest dwelling member of its genus in the Caribbean.
S. barrybrowni is also the ninth newly discovered fish species to be described by DROP investigators. Over 30 fish and invertebrates have been discovered by DROP researchers in the southern Caribbean, but many have yet to be fully documented. Baldwin knows that more species will be found by DROP soon, especially since the Curasub has only explored an area of about 0.2 square kilometers. "Stay tuned for more new discoveries," she advised. "We have only scratched the surface of our understanding of the biodiversity of tropical deep reefs."