Apr. 12, 1999 PHILADELPHIA - An Ichthyologist from The Academy of Natural Sciences has discovered a fish that is new to science (in depths of 300 to over 1000 meters) from the coastal waters off New Zealand. This exciting new find is a species of Chimaera, an ancient deep-sea relative of sharks found in all the world's oceans. These fishes evolved 400 million years ago during the Devonian Period and are one of the oldest fish species alive today.
Dr. Dominique Didier Dagit, Assistant Curator and Acting Chair of Ichthyology at The Academy of Natural Sciences and a world authority on chimaeroid fishes, recently discovered and described the new species, Chimaera panthera also known as leopard chimaera. Dagit did not discover the fish while exploring deepwater fishing grounds off the North Island of New Zealand, but rather ironically while visiting a museum. The fish had been given to the National Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, by a local fisherman. Dagit, because of her expertise with these fishes was immediately called to examine the specimen. She determined Chimaera panthera was a new species because of its distinguishing leopard-like brown spots that cover the body and fins. This is the first species of Chimaera to be discovered in New Zealand and the sixth species to be recognized in the genus.
Dagit's ultimate goal is to determine what role Chimaera panthera play in the overall scheme of ocean life of the South Pacific. As these species are frequently fished off the coast of New Zealand, it is important to understand their population cycles and their contributions to the ecosystem. The discovery of this deep-sea creature will also help scientists to clarify the relationships between related species of Chimaeras.
What makes the discovery of this new species so exciting is that it has great implications for biodiversity; it challenges how much is known about what other species exist. "This discovery indicates there are more things out there than we ever knew. We have only discovered a fraction of the species living in the oceans," said Dagit. Scientists have identified only 25,000 fish in the world, but based on current patterns there are suspected to be 40,000 yet to be discovered.
Dagit hopes the discovery leads to increasing laws protecting the Chimaera from being fished for food. "Since no one has really studied Chimaera, we have no clue what their role is in the ecosystem," warns Dagit. "Do chimaeroid fishes contain natural antibiotics like their shark relatives, and can these be applied to humans," asks Dagit. "These are the questions I hope we can answer in our continued study of these fishes." She is hoping for increased funding in the future so that she may continue with her exploratory fishing expeditions.
Dagit is considered a world authority on chimaeroid fishes for which scant research exists. "The reason I study them is because nobody else does," Dagit said. "There are so many species that are undescribed. We don't know about their distribution or their reproduction." They are some of the most difficult fishes to collect and curate and, therefore, are poorly represented in many museum collections. They are often quite large, and many are found in deep ocean waters where it is sometimes dangerous and always costly to conduct research."
Dominique admits she used to refer to Chimaeras as "The Supreme Ugliness." The name chimaeroid stems from a fire-breathing she-monster in Greek mythology that has a lion's body and a serpent's tail. However, while an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University, Dagit developed a life-long affection for these creatures. "I fell in love with Chimaera not for what is known about the species, but because so much is actually unknown about them," Dagit explains.
Dagit distinguishes her research methods from that of others by collecting and studying live chimaeroid fishes and their embroyos rather than by relying on fossils. To get the fish, she's accompanied New Zealanders on fishing trips that turned into nightmares of sudden, driving rain storms with 50-knot winds that kicked up 12-foot waves. "The wind was blowing so hard you couldn't stand up. I had to hang on at the bow for dear life," Dagit recalled, adding that if she had gone inside the cabin she would have gotten seasick from the smell of diesel.
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