Never mind the Tassie tiger — Hobart’s spotted handfish are super rare, found nowhere else on the planet and are really rather cute, in a weird-looking fishy way.
Spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus) are a type of anglerfish that prefer to walk on their fins along the seabed rather than swim.
Spotted handfish use their fins like hands and feet, walking rather than swimming. (Supplied: Tim Lynch)
Handfish were once abundant around the globe but are now only found in waters off south-east Australia, with most species endemic to Tasmania.
“It’s a fantastic place, Tasmania. It’s a bit like Madagascar — there’s lots of strange and rarer animals here,” said Tim Lynch, senior research scientist at CSIRO.
“[The spotted handfish] have the dubious distinction of being the first marine fish to be listed as critically endangered back in 1996.
“As a Tassie biologist, we’re haunted by the Tassie tiger. We just don’t want another one of these things to go extinct.”
Dr Lynch said spotted handfish were at high risk as they were only found in a handful of spots in the River Derwent and one spot in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.
Dr Tim Lynch wants to stop the spotted handfish going the same way as the thylacine. (ABC Radio Hobart: Carol Rääbus)
If one of the many large ships coming and going from Hobart’s ports had an accident in the Derwent, it could mean the end of the species.
“We thought with the decline of the handfish, at this moment while there’s still some, it would be prudent to get some captive populations going for insurance purposes,” Dr Lynch told Ryk Goddard on ABC Radio Hobart.
It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a number of organisations to raise a handfish.
Dr Lynch started a captive breeding program at the CSIRO in Hobart with support from Seahorse World, the Zoo and Aquarium Association, the National Environmental Science Program (NESP) and the SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium.
And so far the program has had a positive start.
Almost totally hidden in the background, behind a pole, is a juvenile spotted handfish, collected at the same time as the two adults. (ABC Radio Hobart: Carol Rääbus)
Three spotted handfish were collected from the River Derwent off the shore of Battery Point and taken to a tank at the CSIRO a few metres away.
The two adults, dubbed Harley and Rose, immediately started to dance around the pole placed in the tank for breeding.
“She was already what is called gravid with eggs,” Tim Fountain, research technician at CSIRO, said.
Rose, the mother spotted handfish, will protect her pole of eggs until they hatch in six to eight weeks. (ABC Radio Hobart: Carol Rääbus)
“We had such a beautiful transfer … that in 10 minutes they were exhibiting courtship behaviour in the tank, so they really didn’t know they’d come out of the river.”
The aquarium Mr Fountain built for the handfish looks gloomy compared to a pet fish aquarium.
“It’s not your happy tank, it’s the bottom of the River Derwent,” he said.
“We had to replicate, basically, the bottom of the River Derwent.
“It’s a very bleak-looking tank, it’s got wine bottles and stubbies in it.”
The breeding tank replicates the bottom of the River Derwent, complete with old wine and beer bottles. (ABC Radio Hobart: Carol Rääbus)
Harley and Rose will eventually be moved, very carefully, to one of the program’s partners to hopefully continue to breed and build an insurance population.
Meanwhile Dr Lynch and Mr Fountain will look for more spotted handfish to breed in their artificial River Derwent.
“It’s Hobart’s iconic fish,” Mr Fountain said.
“It’s the only one we’ve got, it’s only found in the Derwent — let’s have a day off for it.”