Twenty new species of freshwater fish have been discovered in a remote part of Australia, scientists at the University of Melbourne have just announced.
The finds boost Australia's total number of known freshwater fish species by nearly 10 percent, and highlight a region called the Kimberley as being the nation's most biodiverse area for these kinds of fish. The Kimberley is Western Australia's sparsely settled northern region.
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"The freshwater ecosystems of the Kimberley are among the poorest known and least researched areas of Australia," associate professor Tim Dempster of the university's School of Biosciences said in a press release.
"Certainly, it is a treasure trove for freshwater fish - and the amazing thing is that we weren't even looking for it," he added.
The discoveries were made as Dempster and his team were in the Kimberley studying extinction risks for freshwater fish there. A helicopter was used to enter parts of the area. The scientists also did some snorkeling, which proved to be dangerous.
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Researcher James Shelley, for example, was attacked by a crocodile while snorkeling in the Glenelg river on the Kimberley plateau. The crocodile bit him right in the forehead, but could not get a full grip on Shelley, who survived to tell the tale and is fine now.
The new fish species fall within three categories:
Terapontidae (grunters) 16 new species Eleotridae (gudgeons) 3 new species Atherinidae (hardyheads) 1 new species Grunters really do grunt when threatened, sounding somewhat like a pig. Gudgeons are small, spiny-finned freshwater fish. Hardyheads are small too, and are not known for their heads, as their name would suggest, but instead for their silvery, iridescent bodies.
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One of the new grunters from the Prince Regent River will be named after popular Australian novelist Tim Winton. On a morning news show, he quipped that the "redneck" in him wonders what the fish tastes like, but he added that the namesake fish "is a great honor."
Explaining the name, Shelley said, "It's in recognition of (Winton's) contribution to Australia's cultural life, his love of fish which shines through in many of his novels, and his staunch advocacy for conservation in the Kimberley."
Most of the new fish are limited to very small habitats, so Winton and the scientists are already concerned about their welfare. Dempster and the University of Melbourne are in the process of creating a conservation fund that would aim to protect Australia's 220-plus freshwater fish and other marine life.
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Such conservation efforts are critical, particularly in light of the fact that 2016 has already seen at least eight extinctions. The Smithsonian Institution announced earlier this week that eight Panamanian species of frogs are now extinct in the wild due to disease-related declines.
Identifying extinctions, as well as new species, is an ongoing effort for researchers, who hope to prioritize saving not only particular animals, but also bio-rich areas such as the Kimberley and parts of Panama.