Why the death of a small, punk-like fish rocked the marine world

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The smooth handfish is the first extinct marine bony fish of modern times. Scientists are now wondering how many more have disappeared unnoticed

In 1802, when French naturalist François Péron slipped a small, chunky Australian fish into a jar of preservative, little did he suspect that his unassuming prize would be the only member of its species ever known to science. The smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis) was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List earlier this year. This strange and spiny bottom-dweller made history with its passing. It became the first marine bony fish to be listed as extinct in modern times. Today, all that remains of the species is that discoloured specimen in the Natural History Museum in Paris.

Scooped up off the coast of south-east Tasmania, Péron’s catch was one of the 14 handfish species living in southern Australian waters at the time. The relatives of the smooth handfish are a colourful family which crawl around the seafloor using adapted fins as “hands”. They look like grumpy ageing punks, each sporting a dorsal fin over its head like a mohawk, bulging eyes and a cantankerous expression.

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