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Rare Handfish Seen For First Time In 25 Years Off Coast Of Tasmania

The last specimen was seen in 1996.

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Eleanor Higgs

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Eleanor Higgs

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Eleanor is a content creator and social media assistant with an undergraduate degree in zoology and a master’s degree in wildlife documentary production.

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A white handfish is ringed in a red circle on the bottom of the sea floor.

These elusive creatures walk on their fins along the sea floor.

Image Courtesy of CSIRO

Some species are so widespread and common that you could be fortunate enough to spot a magpie or even an ant nearly every day. On the flipside, some species are much harder to find, and those in the deep sea can be so rare, they only make an appearance once every few years. Now, scientists on a research vessel near Tasmania have observed a handfish, the first specimen to be seen in 25 years.

The CSIRO-led South-East Australia Marine Ecosystem Survey (SEA-MES) research vessel (RV) Investigator was on a survey to determine how the climate is affecting marine parks and fisheries. It has a deep tow camera system that found the handfish at 292 meters (958 feet) deep off the northeast of Flinders Island in Tasmania in July. 

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The narrowbody handfish (Pezichthys compressus) was first discovered in 1986 and hasn’t been seen in the wild since 1996. However, scientists aren’t entirely sure which species they spotted from the RV.

“We suspect it’s a narrowbody handfish […] This is as close as we can get without seeing others or collecting a sample fish,” research technician Carlie Devine said in a statement. “We can’t be 100 percent sure which handfish species it is.”

The handfish the team observed was much bigger than the two specimens on record in the Australian National Fish Collection and was also observed around 100 kilometers (621 miles) away from where the known location of the last species was seen.

Orangey pick handfish specimen wit black fins on a white background
A previously discovered handfish specimen showing those unusual fins.
Image Courtesy of CSIRO


"I was pretty excited to find the handfish. I know that this is a rare and special fish. And that the chances of seeing one in this environment and capturing it on the deep tow camera are very rare. It's an important discovery," said Dr Candice Untiedt, a marine ecologist who was aboard the RV and identified the handfish.

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Handfish are unusual for more than their camera-shy personalities, these fish move by “walking” along the seafloor on their fins. There are 14 known species of handfish with seven that live around Tasmania and the Bass Strait, including the spotted handfish that managed to scoop first prize at Ocean Art 2022.


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