A new fish was recently discovered in the deepwater of God’s own state, Kerala. According to the natives, the fish swims like an eel and looks like a dragon. It has remained hidden from the whole human race for a hundred million years.
This discovery of this fish was triggered by a social media post that intrigued an inquisitive researcher in Kerala. His curiosity found an adventure in looking for the new species in the watery underground rocks of Kerala. What is interesting is that the scientists have named this fish “Gollum”. This name is inspired by the dark and conflicted character of ‘Lord of the Rings’, JRR Tolkien’s epic saga. ‘Aenigmachanna Gollum’ comes from an old family of fish which is called the dragon snakeheads. They are known for retaining their primitive characteristics even after all these millennia.
Researchers Siby Philip, Rajeev Raghavan, Brett Clark, Ralf Britz, Neelesh Dahanukar, VK Anoop, and Lukas Ruber have written a paper on the same species titled ‘Aenigmachannidae, a new family of snakehead fishes from subterranean waters of South’. The research paper is published on the open access nature.com. In the document, they say that these living fossils hold an extremely crucial role in our understanding of the diversification of the group in question.
In fact, apart from this, a sister species called ‘Aenigmachanna mahabali’ has also been discovered, which the scientists call one of the most exciting in the fish world of the last ten years.
Why is this an important landmark in the research field?
- A rare sighting
It is extremely rare and scarce for us to discover a new family of fish. Till now, the dragon snakeheads have been successful in evading scientists because of the fact that they live in subterranean aquifers and come to the surface only after heavy flooding from rain.
The closest relative we know of the family Aenigmachannidae is the “Channidae”. We can find at least 50 species in the streams and lakes of Asia and tropical Africa of this species. The study of Molecular analyses says that the two families of fish split from each other 34 million to 109 million years ago. In the above-mentioned paper also, the researchers have said that this whole scenario may indicate that Aenigmachanna is a Gondwanan lineage and that it has survived the break-up of the supercontinent when India separated from Africa as long as 120 million years ago.
- Relic from another time
The fish species thus discovered dates back from another time in the history of mankind. This lack of evolution can be seen in the fewer vertebrae with ribs as well as the shortened swim bladder of the dragon snakeheads. Both these features indicate that the family is less specialized in comparison to the regular snakeheads and also has eyes and a reddish-brown pigmentation. This pigmentation is quite unusual as most subterranean fish are dull-colored and have no eyes.
The Aenigmachannidae, unlike the Channidae, do not have the suprabranchial organ. This part of the fish’s body allows it to breathe air and proliferate widely.
The paper drafted on this topic suggests that “Among the seemingly endless diversity of animal life on our planet, a few extant species hold a unique position for our understanding of the evolution of the group to which they belong. Such taxa have previously been characterized with the term ‘living fossil’ starting with Darwin or have been referred to as ‘basal taxa’. They exhibit a striking level of morphological stasis as evidenced by a surprisingly large number of primitive characters compared to their extant sister group, and often represent lineages with only a few extant representatives and a restricted distribution”.
- Powered by social media
The driving force in the discovery of these species was social media and it is quite possible that the Gollum and Mahabali would have remained unidentified for much more long periods of time.
It was in early 2018 when Rajeev Raghavan, co-author of the present study and a fish researcher at Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies, came across a post on social media. The post talked about a curious fish that a person had seen in a well in the backyard and could not recognize the creature. He then emailed its picture to Britz, who failed to understand it too.
After this astonishing finding, Raghavan along with his colleagues started to collect information about the whole incident and more specimens of the fish. He then used these specimens to conduct a scientific study that could bring Britz all the way to India. After which Britz could see the dazzling fish rise to the water surface late one night in a flooded paddy field in Kochi.
The Gollum snakehead was identified as a new species and genus for the very first time in a study published in Zootaxa in May 2019. And soon after this, the researchers and scientists identified the Mahabali snakehead, a single specimen of its sister.
- There’s more mystery to it
This is not all. The researchers working on this project say that the area where Aenigmachanna was collected is located in the Western Ghats – Sri Lanka Hotspot. This area is one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the whole world.
The location holds immense significance in the research paper also. The paper says that the hotspot’s high levels of endemism are a result of various factors including recent radiations and the presence of a number of ancient lineages. There are a number of such relic lineages that could be found in the Western Ghats, especially among vertebrates. However, these species often come with remote biogeographical connections as was in the case of burrowing frog Nasikabatrachus. Apart from this, species with unclear phylogenetic relationships are also in the count, such as the cyprinid Lepidopygopsis and the catfish Kryptoglanis.