Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

WAM describes new toothed clingfish

The fish’s upper jaw is above and the lower jaw is below. Kevin Conway and Adam Summers.

Michelle Ma, New many-toothed clingfish discovered with help of digital scans, UW Today, 17 April 2017

A set of curious researchers, state-of-the-art visual technology and a bit of good luck helped find a new fish whose tooth collection could put a shark to shame.

Scientists at the University of Washington, Texas A&M University and the Western Australian Museum have discovered and named a new genus and species of clingfish after stumbling upon a specimen preserved in a jar dating back to the 1970s. The fish was unmistakably different from the other 160 known clingfishes, named for the disc on their bellies that can summon massive sticking power in wet, slimy environments.

The researchers named the new species “duckbilled clingfish” (Nettorhamphos radula) for its broad, flat snout ― not unlike the bill of a duck ― that houses an impressive number of tiny, conical teeth.

“This fish has characteristics we just haven’t seen before in other clingfish. It’s the teeth that really gave away the fact that this is a new species,” said lead author Kevin Conway, a fish taxonomist and associate professor at Texas A&M University.

A detailed description of the new genus and species was published April 14 in the journal Copeia.

Scientists, including co-author Adam Summers of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, are interested in clingfish for their ability to stick to rough surfaces. The finger-sized fish uses suction forces to hold up to 150 times its own body weight. Understanding the biomechanics of these fish could be useful in designing devices and instruments to be used in surgery, or to tag and track whales in the ocean.

Conway and co-author Glenn Moore of Western Australian Museum discovered the new clingfish while looking through specimens preserved in jars at the museum in Welshpool, Australia. It’s common for unknown specimens collected during surveys to be registered and shelved until an expert has the time, and interest, to take a closer look. This specimen was caught off the coast of Southern Australia in 1977. Even though the fish is only as big as a pinky finger, its unique teeth structure caught their attention.

A couple of hours later, Moore found yet another specimen with similar features on the museum shelves. Together, the specimens are thought to be the only two of this new species that exist out of water.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2017
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