For many scuba divers, flittering fairy wrasse are just part of the background scenery on colourful coral reefs, but for marine biologists there are at least 60 distinct species – and now one pink-hued fish has been described for the first time by a scientist from the Maldives.
Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa, or the rose-veiled fairy wrasse, has been named after the country’s national flower the pinkrose – finifenmaa means rose in the Dhivehi language.
The fish appears to be abundant in the Maldives but was studied in forensic detail during a Hope for Reefs research expedition mounted by the San Francisco-based California Academy of Sciences (CAS) in collaboration with the Maldives Marine Research Institute (MMRI) and the Field Museum.
“It has always been foreign scientists who have described species found in the Maldives, without much involvement from local scientists, even those that are endemic to the Maldives,” said study co-author and MMRI biologist Ahmed Najeeb, who was responsible for describing the new species.
“This time it is different, and getting to be part of something for the first time has been really exciting, especially having the opportunity to work alongside top ichthyologists on such an elegant and beautiful species.”
First collected by researchers in the 1990s, C finifenmaa was originally thought to be the adult version of C rubrisquamis, a fairy wrasse described from a single juvenile specimen found elsewhere in the Indian Ocean – the isolated Chagos archipelago.
With the new species the researchers combined genetic analysis with a deep dive into scale numbers and spine measurements of both adult and juvenile specimens.
“What we previously thought was one widespread species of fish is actually two different species, each with a potentially much more restricted distribution,” said lead author Yi-Kai Tea, a University of Sydney doctoral student. “This exemplifies why describing new species, and taxonomy in general, is important for conservation and biodiversity management.”
Rose-veiled fairy wrasse are already being collected by tropical fish-keepers, say the researchers. “Though the species is quite abundant and therefore not currently at a high risk of over-exploitation, it’s still unsettling when a fish is already being commercialised before it even has a scientific name,” said senior author and CAS curator of ichthyology Dr Luiz Rocha, co-director of the Hope for Reefs initiative.
“It speaks to how much biodiversity there is still left to be described from coral reef ecosystems.”
Last month the Hope for Reefs researchers conducted the first surveys of the Maldives’ reefs between 50 and 150m deep – the “Twilight Zone” – where they recorded not only C finifenmaa but what they believe are at least eight other potentially new-to-science species.
“Nobody knows these waters better than the Maldivian people,” said Rocha. “Our research is stronger when it’s done in collaboration with local researchers and divers.”
“Collaborating with organisations such as the academy helps us build our local capacity to expand knowledge in this field,” added Najeeb. “This is just the start, and we are already working together on future projects.” The rose-veiled fairy wrasse is described in the journal Zookeys.