Sci­en­tists be­lieve they have dis­cov­ered new species of fish vi­tal to UAE’s reefs


Sci­en­tists be­lieve they have dis­cov­ered three new species of tiny, colour­ful fish that are the foun­da­tion of the UAE’s co­ral reefs.

The bot­tom-dwelling fish are so small as to be vir­tu­ally im­per­cep­ti­ble and evaded pre­vi­ous sur­veys of Gulf reef fish, a con­fer­ence at New York Univer­sity Abu Dhabi heard yes­ter­day.

But the diminu­tive marine crea­tures, known as cryp­to­ben­thic fish, are a di­verse bunch that can ac­count for up to 60 per cent of fish eaten in reefs.

Ge­netic test­ing will con­firm whether new species have been iden­ti­fied. The study found an ad­di­tional four species pre­vi­ously un­seen in UAE wa­ters.

The species were dis­cov­ered dur­ing re­search on adap­ta­tion to the hot wa­ters of the Ara­bian Gulf, where tem­per­a­tures range from 16°C to 36°C, mak­ing it a favoured desti­na­tion for sci­en­tists study­ing the ef­fect of warm­ing on the world’s oceans.

Bi­ol­o­gists anaes­thetised small patches of the reef with clove oil un­der a plas­tic cover to take stock of its bio­di­ver­sity.

There were 44 cryp­to­ben­thic species found in the Gulf of Oman. Of these, only 21 were found in the Ara­bian Gulf, where wa­ter tem­per­a­tures are more ex­treme.

The slen­der fish are no larger than 40 mil­lime­tres and weigh less than two grams. They feed on al­gae and mi­cro in­ver­te­brates and de­spite their im­por­tance to reef life, they have been over­looked as co­ral, sharks and larger fish typ­i­cally get the at­ten­tion.

Some live no more than 30 days, a short life­span that makes them a good study for en­vi­ron­men­tal adap­ta­tions.

“You have very rapid adap­ta­tion to dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions so they’re very in­ter­est­ing to look at in terms of how they have solved the prob­lem of ex­treme heat, for in­stance,” said Ja­cob Jo­hansen, an as­sis­tant re­search pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Hawaii and the leader of the study. “You can get more in­for­ma­tion from those than some of the big fish that live 50 years.”

The dis­cov­ery of new species is not a sur­prise, Mr Jo­hansen said. “When you look this deep into the reef, pretty much any­where on the planet, you’re go­ing to find some­thing new.”

What was sur­pris­ing was what the fish ate and what they did not. The study found species in the Ara­bian Gulf had a com­pletely dif­fer­ent diet to their rel­a­tives in the Gulf of Oman.

Species that may oth­er­wise not war­rant much at­ten­tion can be­come crit­i­cal when di­ets change, said Mr Jo­hansen.

“We need to un­der­stand things like diet so we can un­der­stand how chang­ing con­di­tions are go­ing to af­fect these fish,” said Alyssa Marshell, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Sul­tan Qa­boos Univer­sity in Oman.

“They’re the base of the food chain so we need to know what are they eating, whether it de­pends on the en­vi­ron­ment, if the en­vi­ron­ment changes, is that go­ing to in­flu­ence their pop­u­la­tions.

“If it does, that will fall on to the rest of the ecosys­tem.”

Jor­dan M Casey

Some of these tiny fish live for only 30 days but their short life­spans make them a good study for adap­ta­tions

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