The new species of batfish, Halieutichthys intermedius, lives in the waters completely encompassed by the Gulf oil spill. (Credit: Ho, Chakrabarty & Sparks (2010))
The Gulf oil spill victims may include two fish species that are new to science—and really weird looking. The creatures, called pancake batfish, are flat bottom-dwellers with enormous heads that don’t swim, but instead use their stout pelvic fins to walk awkwardly on the sea floor, hundreds of feet beneath the surface.
The fish, Halieutichthys intermedius and Halieutichthy bispinosus, had previously been lumped in with another batfish, Halieutichthy aculeatus, because they look alike, but researchers report in the Journal of Fish Biology that they are indeed three different species. All live in waters either partially or fully encompassed by the recent oil spill.
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"One of the fishes that we describe is completely restricted to the oil spill area," said John Sparks, curator of Ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History
and a study co-author, in a statement. "If we are still finding new species of fishes in the Gulf, imagine how much diversity—especially microdiversity—is out there that we do not know about."
BP hopes to stop the leak, which has pumped millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf, by August, when relief wells are expected to be completed. But the wildlife death toll continues to mount. About 420 birds harmed by oil have been found on the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, 190 of which were found dead, and countless others will never be found; millions more will flock to the Gulf during fall migration. Dolphins and sea turtles have perished, and the disaster has impaired critical Atlantic bluefin tuna spawning grounds.
Says Sparks, "These discoveries underscore the potential loss of undocumented biodiversity that a disaster of this scale may portend.”