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New clingfish discovery shows value of museum collections

The Duckbilled Clingfish specimens. Image courtesy Western Australian Museum, Dr Glenn Moore.Texas A&M University, Dr Kevin Conway.

The Duckbilled Clingfish specimens. Image courtesy Western Australian Museum, Dr Glenn Moore.Texas A&M University, Dr Kevin Conway.

A new genus and species of clingfish has been discovered on the shelves of the Western Australian Museum’s Harry Butler Research Centre.

Western Australian Museum Curator of Fishes Dr Glenn Moore discovered the new clingfish with fellow researcher Dr Kevin Conway from Texas A&M University.

“We came across two specimens of clingfish that had similar characteristics, yet unmistakably different from the other 160 known clingfishes,” Dr Moore said.

The specimens were caught in 1977, offshore from Garden Island, Western Australia which is part of the temperate southern Australian waters known for its clingfish diversity and abundance. The specimens are believed to be the only two of this new species that exist out of water.

The researchers named the new species Duckbilled Clingfish (Nettorhamphos radula) for its broad, flat snout – not unlike the bill of a duck – that houses an impressive number of tiny, conical teeth.

“This fish has characteristics we just haven’t seen before in other clingfish. Even though the fish is only as big as a pinky finger, its unique teeth structure is what really gave away the fact that this is a new species,” Dr Moore said.

Dr Conway advised that the clingfish is named for the disc on their bellies which can summon massive sticking power in wet, slimy environments as well as on rough surfaces.

“This finger-sized fish uses suction forces to hold up to 150 times its own body weight. Understanding the biomechanics of these fish could be useful in designing devices and instruments to be used in surgery or to tag and track whales in the ocean,” Dr Conway said.

Naming a new species requires an intact, complete fish with good documentation of its morphology and clear distinctions from other species. With only two known specimens, dissection was out of the question and therefore colleague Dr Adam Summers from the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories was engaged to use a computerised tomography (CT) scanner.

“This CT scan allowed us to take a completely non-invasive look at the entire skeleton of the fish and it produced a gorgeous set of morphological photos that you couldn’t get from dissection,” Dr Summers said. “It’s a testament to the importance of using these methods of non-invasive data collection.”

This significant discovery using a specimen contained in the WA Museum Collection follows the discovery of the Ruby Seadragon in 2015, which was also made possible with a specimen in the WA Museum Collection that had washed up on Cottesloe Beach in 1919. This clearly demonstrates the value of museum collections in informing current and future scientific research.

A detailed description of the new genus and species of clingfish was published in the journal Copeia.