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Say Goodbye to a Rather Odd Fish

The smooth handfish has been declared extinct
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 19, 2020 2:40 PM CDT

(Newser) – A fish you've likely never heard of is already gone. The smooth handfish—which stood out with its protruding eyes, mohawk-ish head fin, and ability to walk on its pelvic and pectoral fins—has been declared extinct, LiveScience reports. Experts say it's the first marine fish to die out in modern times. First documented 200 years ago in Australia, the smooth handfish was especially vulnerable because it gave birth to fully formed juveniles on the seafloor, which forced the species to live in specialized areas. "As they lack a larval stage, they are unable to disperse to new locations—and consequently, handfish populations are very localized and vulnerable to threats," a marine ecologist tells Scientific American.

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What killed them off isn't 100% clear, but Phys.org reports that "destructive" scallop fishing off the Australian coast—which continued until 1967—likely caught them "in the crossfire." As blind cave fish are menaced by cement extraction and the scaly-foot snail by deep seabed mining, the smooth handfish was crippled by dredging and bottom-trawling. Other likely factors include pollution and an invasive species called the Pacific seastar. "It might be hard to imagine why a little organism occupying a small niche in a place few humans ever visit might be important," says scientist Katie Matthews. "But it's an enzyme from an extremophile microbe that's being used in tests to diagnose COVID-19 right now." (A group of "sex-crazed" tortoises is credited with saving its species from extinction.)

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