A paper recently published in the journal Zootaxa described three new species of coral reef fish found in the waters off eastern Indonesia — one of which has been named after CI’s own Mark Erdmann. Mark reflects on this honor.
In sixth grade, I recall giving a speech to my class in which I bemoaned the fact that the golden age of the great naturalists — Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and their colleagues — had long since passed. My greatest wish was to explore exotic lands while uncovering nature’s secrets; alas, as I noted to my teacher, the world’s species were disappearing, and I’d just have to console myself reading about those great voyages of discovery back in the 1800s.
Little did I know that there are still lots of mysteries in nature waiting to be explored, and a wealth of biodiversity we haven’t even imagined.
As a marine scientist and conservationist based in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape — known as the global epicenter of marine biodiversity — species discoveries are in fact a relatively regular occurrence in my line of work. In order to better prioritize our conservation efforts in Indonesia, CI works closely with both the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and local universities like the State University of Papua (UNIPA), as well as a core group of internationally-acclaimed taxonomic experts to conduct rapid biodiversity surveys (known as “RAPs” in CI lingo) in our focal regions.
These surveys frequently highlight biodiversity “hotspots” where we are prioritizing conservation efforts to maintain unique biodiversity and the healthy ecosystems that rely upon it. A new species discovery calls attention to the area it was discovered and — in the case of multiple new species found in a given area — helps us identify areas which contain many species that are found nowhere else, and are hence especially worthy of protection.
Dr. William Smith-Vaniz and Dr. Gerald Allen recently published a paper describing three new coral reef fish species (fang blennies in the genus Meiacanthus) uncovered during CI-sponsored surveys in eastern Indonesia. This particular paper has special meaning to me, as my colleagues decided to name one of these species Meiacanthus erdmanni in my honor.
I had discovered this fish in September 2010 while surveying the deep reefs of West Papua’s Cendrawasih Bay. The discovery was very exciting, as these fang blennies are typically found in shallow waters and are in fact often seen by snorkelers. When I saw this particular fish hiding in a sea fan at the base of a 150-foot [46-meter] vertical coral wall, I immediately knew it was something special, and spent considerable effort assisting Dr. Allen in photographing and collecting the specimen for examination by Dr. Smith-Vaniz, the world expert on fang blennies.
This publication is but the latest in a string of six papers over the last few months that describe an additional 13 new species of marine life from the Bird’s Head Seascape. These new discoveries include three endemic hard corals, three freshwater fishes and seven coral reef fishes. Of the 16 new species described, eight appear to be found only in the Bird’s Head region — providing even stronger verification of my oft-stated claim that this region is a true “species factory” and hence an absolute global priority for conservation efforts. Indeed, with these new species records, the Bird’s Head region now boasts 1,630 known coral reef fish species (over 40 of which appear to be endemic to the region) and over 600 hard coral species. To give this perspective, this 185,000 square-kilometer (71,400 square-mile) area is home to over 10 times as many coral species as are found in the entire Caribbean Sea.
Three of these new fish species now bear my name (the aforementioned fang blenny, plus the goby Trimma erdmanni and the dottyback Pseudochromis erdmanni), which is certainly an honor. My children seem pleased by it as well; my son told me it “makes up for all the time you spend away from us underwater.” I just wish his mother agreed!
The buzz that comes from finding a species new to science is hard to explain unless you’re a fellow fish geek. Fortunately, I know plenty of them. Over eight years working for CI, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with a number of fantastic scientists from LIPI and UNIPA, while also being mentored by one of the most prolific ichthyologists of all time, Dr. Gerry Allen. Together we’ve discovered nearly 80 new fish species — many from the Bird’s Head. Right now Gerry is working furiously towards a self-imposed end-of-year deadline to publish our three-volume book set, “Reef Fishes of the East Indies,” which aims to provide photographs and descriptions of all of the known reef fishes from the Coral Triangle region — about 2,700 species — a task which has never before been attempted!
Beyond species discovery, the real thrill for me comes from exploring the spectacular reefs of the region. I’ve been blessed with a job that allows me to both seek out and work hard to protect some of this undescribed marine biodiversity so that it may continue to provide benefits to the people of Indonesia. Along the way I get to work with some of the most dedicated and passionate conservationists on the planet — our CI-Indonesia marine staff — and that alone is even more satisfying than finding a new species.
Dr. Mark Erdmann is the regional coordinator of the Global Marine division’s Bird’s Head Seascape Initiative. Download the Zootaxa paper (PDF – 2.51 MB).