Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, six species of catfish with tentacles all over their faces have been discovered in the Amazon rainforest.
If it helps, the tentacles are only on the faces of the males. The females have normal catfish faces. But as animals with tentacles on their faces go, these are “hideously adorable,” their doting discoverer claims.
“We discovered six new species of really cool catfish from the Amazon and Orinoco River basins. They have tentacles on their snouts, they have spines that stick out from their heads, almost like claws, to protect themselves and their nests, and their body is covered with bony plates like armor,” says Lesley de Souza, a conservation scientist and ichthyologist at Chicago’s Field Museum and lead author of a paper in Zootaxa describing the new species. “They’re warriors, they’re fish superheroes,” she adds.
Owners of home aquaria at war with algae in their tanks may agree. All six are relatives of a well-known fish in the West: the whiskered aquarium cleaner with its sucker mouth. Those can get impressively large, by the way.
Not all the "new species" were discovered just now, or even that recently. De Souza explains that the “type specimen” for the family – the hideously adorable Ancistrus yutajae – was named for star-crossed lovers in an Amazonian legend, after being serendipitously discovered on Valentine’s Day in 1981.
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De Souza, clearly a woman in love, gave at least one of the diminutive new catfish – which are all of 3 to 6 inches (7.6 to 15 centimeters) in length – a name appropriate to its superheroic status: Ancistrus patronus (Latin for protector), a reference to how Ancistrus fish fathers care for their young.
Ancistrus catfish use their tentacles both to attract females – really – and to warn predators away from their kids.
“The idea is that when a female fish sees a male with these tentacles, to her they look like eggs. That signifies to her that he’s a good father who’s able to produce offspring and protect them,” says de Souza, possibly romantically. We have no evidence from the females that they think the tentacles look like eggs, but they kind of do, so maybe de Souza is spot on.
De Souza named Ancistrus kellerae for Connie Keller, a supporter of conservation science at the Field Museum; A. leoni after a deceased colleague; and A. saudades for the Portuguese word for melancholy – representing de Souza’s nostalgia for her Brazilian homeland, the paper in Zootaxa explains.
Naming new species is quite the art form: A recently discovered blind, burrowing amphibian was named Dermophis Donaldtrumpi, in recognition of the U.S. president's obliviousness to climate change.
As for the catfish, they were found in an area of Venezuela, Colombia and Guyana known as the Guiana Shield, living in fast-moving rivers and streams.
Though previously unknown to science, they had been quite common, De Souza says. However, they are becoming less so because of habitat destruction – not least from gold mining that dredges up riverbeds and uses toxic materials, including mercury, that goes up the food chain from the catfish to their predators, including otters and jaguars. And trees. Heavy metals in the water supply will end up in the flora too.
De Souza also notes something perhaps not obvious to laypeople: You can’t protect a species until it has a name and, preferably, an advocacy group.
She cowrote her paper with Jonathan Armbruster of the Auburn University Museum of Natural History, an expert in South American sucker-mouth catfishes, and Donald Taphorn, a Neotropical ichthyologist.