Deep beneath the waves in Zanzibar’s mysterious Twilight Zone lurks a small yet vibrantly colored fish called Wakanda. The newly discovered species, Cirrhilabrus wakanda, has been named in honor of the fictional African country from Marvel’s Black Panther thanks to its deep purple scales that reminded the researchers of costumes and motifs from the recent film.
In addition to its scientific name, the new species’ common name is a nod to the world of Wakanda. The fish has been dubbed the vibranium fairy wrasse – vibranium is a fictional metal in the Marvel Universe that crashlanded in Wakanda as a comet. It’s rare, and according to study author Luiz Rocha, it’s “totally awesome”. The fairy wrasses are the second-largest group of wrasses and the genus to which the new species belongs.
"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 lead author Yi-Kai Tea, an ichthyology PhD student from the University of Sydney.
The team behind the discovery are from the California Academy of Sciences’ Hope for Reefs initiative and the University of Sydney. Hope for Reefs is a global initiative to research and restore the “rainforests of the sea”, a crucial task at a time when many of the world’s reefs are suffering greatly at the hands of the climate crisis.
Found between 60 and 150 meters (200-500 feet) down, C. wakanda has likely avoided detection for so long because it lives deeper than recreational divers are allowed to go. The Hope for Reefs' divers, however, are trained to undertake trips into the depths, allowing them to study reefs far below the surface. Special breathing equipment lets them explore the reefs for a matter of minutes before they must return, ever so slowly, to the surface.
"Preparation for these deep dives is very intense and our dive gear often weighs more than us," explained Rocha, academy curator of fishes and co-leader of Hope for Reefs. "When we reach these reefs and find unknown species as spectacular as this fairy wrasse, it feels like our hard work is paying off."
After collecting specimens of the fish, the team analyzed their body structure and scales under the microscope and realized they differed from other fairy wrasse species in the western Indian Ocean and the Pacific. The discovery is reported in the journal ZooKeys.
"We've known about other related fairy wrasses from the Indian Ocean, but always thought there was a missing species along the continent's eastern edge,” said Tea. “When I saw this amazing purple fish, I knew instantly we were dealing with the missing piece of the puzzle."
Deepwater reefs are buzzing with life, so it’s important to learn more about them so that we can protect these unique ecosystems effectively. The research team recently discovered two other new deep-water fishes – Luzonichthys kiomeamea, a snazzy orange, yellow, and white dwarf anthias found only in the seas of Easter Island, and Liopropoma incandescens, a bright orange and yellow fish found in the waters of Pohnpei in Micronesia.
"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," said Rocha. "Because they are out of sight, these deeper reefs are often left out of marine reserves, so we hope our discoveries inspire their protection."