In the midst of the ongoing IUCN World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, scientists from Bishop Museum and NOAA published a description of a new species of butterflyfish from deep reefs of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which was recently expanded by President Barack Obama to become world’s largest protected area. The study is published in the open-access scientific journal ZooKeys.
“Butterflyfish are among the most conspicuous fishes on the reefs,” said Richard Pyle, Bishop Museum researcher and first author on the publication. “They are colorful, beautiful, and have been well-studied worldwide. Thus, finding a new species of butterflyfish is a rare event.”
Coral reefs at depths of 100 to 500 feet, also known as mesophotic coral ecosystems or the coral-reef “twilight zone,” are among the most poorly explored of all marine ecosystems. Deeper than scuba divers can safely venture, and shallower than most submersible-based exploration, these reefs represent a new frontier for coral-reef research.
“Discoveries such as this underscore how poorly explored our deep coral reefs are,” said Randall Kosaki, NOAA scientist and co-author of the study. “Virtually every deep dive reveals a reef that no human being has ever laid eyes on.” Pyle and Kosaki have pioneered the use of advanced mixed-gas diving systems known as rebreathers (because they recycle the diver’s breathing gas). Rebreathers allow deeper and longer dives, enabling new opportunities for exploring and documenting deep coral reef habitats throughout the world’s tropical seas.
The new butterflyfish was first seen in submersible video over twenty years ago, at depths exceeding 600 feet. At the time, Pyle and University of Hawai‘i marine biologist E.H. “Deetsie” Chave recognized it as a potential new species. However, because of the extreme depths, it was years before technical divers using rebreather technology were able to collect specimens for proper scientific documentation.
Using this technology, NOAA and Museum researchers have encountered the new butterflyfish regularly during deep exploratory dives up to 330 feet on NOAA expeditions to the Monument, where the specimens for the scientific description were collected
The new fish, Prognathodes basabei, is named after Pete Basabe, a veteran local diver from Kona, Hawai‘i who, over the years, has assisted with the collection of reef fishes for numerous scientific studies and educational displays. Basabe, an experienced deep diver himself, was instrumental in providing support for the dives that produced the first specimen of the fish that now bears his name.
At the urging of Native Hawaiian leaders, conservationists, and many marine scientists, President Obama recently expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. At 582,578 square miles, Papahānaumokuākea is now the largest protected area on Earth.
“This new discovery illustrates the conservation value of very large marine protected areas,” said Kosaki. “Not only do they protect the biodiversity that we already know about, they also protect the diversity we’ve yet to discover. And there’s a lot left to discover.”
Pyle RL, Kosaki RK (2016) Prognathodes basabei, a new species of butterflyfish (Perciformes, Chaetodontidae) from the Hawaiian Archipelago. ZooKeys 614: 137-152. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.614.10200