A fish with hands it likes to stroll around on recently scooped first place in the Cold Water category of Ocean Art 2022. Snapped by photographer Nicolas Remy, the spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus) actually doesn’t have proper hands but modified pectoral fins that it uses to walk along the seafloor.
Spotted handfish are critically endangered, with only 3,000 believed to be left in the wild. It figures, then, that it took Remy a marathon nine-hour dive before he found one in Hobart, Tasmania’s Derwent River. Remy targeted the spot specifically in search of a spotted handfish as it was a known hangout for the species, but with just two meters (6.56 feet) of visibility, it was never going to be an easy task.
Drifting through the silty darkness eventually paid off, and thanks to some nifty lighting kit, Remy was able to capture this stunning shot of the famous “fish with hands”. It’s a fitting species to call Tasmania home, sitting nicely alongside echidnas and platypuses as some of the world’s weirdest wildlife.
Spotted handfish are a type of anglerfish that are only found in a stretch along the coast of south-eastern Australia and Tasmania. They eat crustaceans, worms, and shells and use their neighbors like stalked ascidians and sponges as a mast on which to hang their eggs.
The unique nesting solution unfortunately hasn’t proven to be an effective one in the face of an invasion of northern pacific seastars (Asterias amurensis) that predate on stalked ascidians and the handfish eggs they’re covered in. This is thought to be a major contributor to their critically endangered status, as categorized by the IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species.
History tells us that this could be very bad news for the spotted handfish, as its smooth handfish cousin (Sympterichthys unipennis) became the first marine fish species to be considered a “modern extinction”. A fitting tribute to the species was made by The Handfish Conservation Project which gave an artful description of their appearance:
“If you've never seen a handfish before, imagine dipping a toad in some brightly colored paint, telling it a sad story and forcing it to wear gloves two sizes too big.”
Handfish sightings are therefore exciting news for conservationists, and observations like Remy’s capture how completely bizarre these animals are, as well as what a shame it would be to lose them.
Fortunately, an ambassador population of spotted handfish has recently been bred in captivity for the first time, so fingers crossed we can turn these grumpy clowns’ frowns upside down with a brighter, more abundant future for the species.