Odd fish a prize find on scientists' research trip

KIRAN CHUG
Last updated 05:00 19/07/2011
batfish
KENT BLECHYNDEN/The Dominion Post
FROM THE DEPTHS: The batfish found on the research voyage, above, and Sadie Mills with a Gorgonian coral draped with brittle stars.

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A peculiar batfish has been found lurking on the seabed in waters off New Zealand's north coast.

It was found by scientists with the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, carrying out the most extensive survey yet of our continental shelf.

In a 42-day research voyage, crew and scientists on the research ship Tangaroa covered the length of the country, using hi-tech equipment and bringing back about 2600 marine samples.

Programme leader Mark Morrison said the research team surveyed "biodiversity hot spots" around New Zealand's expansive continental shelf.

"They are nursery grounds and places where animals congregate and a lot goes on."

The sites are believed to be a lot less common than they were because of damage done to them over the years. The information on the sites could be used to help protect what was left and look at possible restoration, he said.

The batfish is a small fish with a triangular head.

Its specially modified lower fins looked remarkably like frogs' legs and allowed it to "walk" across the sea floor, Dr Morrison said.

The batfish sample was being sent to Te Papa for further study.

Andrew Stewart, the museum's fish collection manager, said the find was a "very important catch scientifically".

Until he had examined the batfish, he was unable to say which species it was, but it appeared to be a member of the Malthopsis genus. Scientists knew of only four species in New Zealand waters, two of which had not yet been described.

The fish were poor swimmers and used their legs to sneak up on prey, which were likely to be very small invertebrates, Mr Stewart said.

The batfish was found in waters 117 metres deep, at the most northern location sampled, the Middlesex Bank, 30 kilometres north of the Three Kings Islands.

Other finds in this area included a Gorgonian sea coral or sea fan.

Niwa assistant collection manager Sadie Mills said a large specimen brought back showed marine invertebrates – "brittle stars" – living on the coral.

"This would be their main habitat. They sit there their entire life. It's pretty important for these animals."

The corals were more common at such depths than people realised, and provided areas for fish to shelter in, Ms Mills said.

Processing the information gathered on the trip would take about two years and help advance marine spatial planning, Dr Morrison said.

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Information was gathered using a high-definition video and still camera towed along the sea floor at night, and a multi-beam sonar used to produce maps of the sea floor.

- The Dominion Post

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