In a career full of fish discoveries, these 5 species stand out

© Conservation International /photo by Mark Erdmann

The tubeworm dwarfgoby (Sueviota tubicola), Mark Erdmann’s 100th new fish species description, resides in Papua New Guinea’s Milne Bay. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark Erdmann)

The recent publication highlighting the discovery of a new reef fish in Papua New Guinea called the tubeworm dwarfgoby (Sueviota tubicola) marked an important milestone in my career: my 100th description of a new fish species, all completed during my 13 years at Conservation International (CI). (If you include the species I have both discovered and described, the number increases to over 150.)

Among those 100 fish that I have introduced to the scientific community, here are five of my favorites.

  1. The tilefish with the vanishing stripes
A species of tilefish (Hoplolatilus erdmanni) discovered by Mark Erdmann in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head region. (© Gerald Allen)

During our first marine rapid assessment of Indonesia’s Kaimana coastline in the southern Bird’s Head region, I found a beautiful tilefish on a deep 70-meter (230-foot) dive. This striking fish builds large communal mounds of rubble that cover its labyrinthine burrows beneath. It bears a striking resemblance to another tilefish that my fellow scientist Dr. Gerry Allen and I had described, differing only in the presence of tiger stripes on its body.

When I first encountered this fish, I had very limited time to safely stay at this depth, and I had to choose between photographing and collecting the fish. I decided to collect it, but by the time I emerged from my very long dive, the specimen had died, and its stripes disappeared! Gerry was underwhelmed and reckoned I had hallucinated the stripes on the fish. This meant I had to do yet another very deep dive — this time as the sun was going down, and our survey time running out — to properly photograph the live fish in its natural habitat. I managed to find another mound and photograph the elusive tiger pattern, and Gerry decided on the spot to name the new species after me.

  1. The coral bream that inspired a marine protected area

My first opportunity to leverage conservation results from a new species discovery came with the coral bream we decided to name Pentapodus numberii. This subtly handsome fish is endemic to Indonesia’s Bird’s Head region, and was fitting to name after the honorable Freddy Numberi, the Indonesian minister of marine affairs and fisheries and the first native Papuan to be made a minister in the national government.

Minister Numberi was already an important ally of our conservation work in Papua, but after we named the new species after him, he redoubled his efforts. Shortly thereafter, he presided over the declaration of the Raja Ampat and Kaimana marine protected area (MPA) networks — important milestones for conservation in some of the world’s richest waters.

  1. The shark that walks
The naming rights for the Cendrawasih walking shark (Hemiscyllium galei) raised US$ 500,000 in conservation funding for a flagship environmental education program in Indonesia. (© Gerald Allen)

Shortly after the coral bream discovery, another Bird’s Head endemic species we found and described made headlines as the top earner at the “Blue Auction” held in Monaco under the sponsorship of HSH Prince Albert II.

The charity auction, in which we auctioned the naming rights to 11 new fish species, raised just over US$ 2.1 million in conservation funding for the Bird’s Head Seascape program, with the charming little walking shark Hemiscyllium galei fetching US$ 500,000! We used that funding to launch our flagship marine conservation education program, featuring the brightly painted Kalabia ship — named for the local word for walking shark — that travels between coastal villages educating the children who live there.

  1. The fairy wrasse named for two conservation champions
The Raja Ampat fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus marinda) named after the former regent and vice regent of Raja Ampat, Indonesia. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark Erdmann)

For over a decade, our marine conservation program in Raja Ampat worked closely with the communities and government to set up and implement what is probably the world’s most biodiverse MPA network. The strong and unwavering support of Marcus Wanma and Inda Arfan, the former regent and vice regent of Raja Ampat, respectively, was critical to the success of this decade-long effort; to show my appreciation, I had long been searching for an appropriately showy and beautiful new species to name in their honor.

I was delighted to find the stunning Raja Ampat fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus marinda) only a few months before the end of their second and final term in office, and we were able to rush the description in order to present Drs. Wanma and Arfan with their honorary new species at their farewell ceremony. (The species name marinda is a combination of their first names.)

  1. The dwarfgoby honoring a national hero
The coral dwarfgoby (Eviota santanai) from Timor-Leste. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark Erdmann)

We named this coral dwarfgoby (Eviota santanai) in honor of Nino Konis Santana, a national hero in Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence who was also renowned for his environmental awareness. We collected this gorgeous little goby just in front of Santana’s birthplace while conducting a marine rapid biodiversity assessment of the Nino Konis Santana National Park in Timor-Leste. Naming the fish after Santana seemed a natural choice, but we were quite overwhelmed with the proud, emotional response this decision garnered in the tiny nation. This new species helped catalyze a strong community commitment to protecting and managing Timor-Leste’s first national marine park — a poignant reminder that species do matter to many people, and can in fact be a great source of conservation inspiration!

A team effort

As I recollect on these stories, I must extend my heartfelt gratitude to my mentor and close friend Dr. Gerry Allen, a longtime CI consultant and world-renowned reef fish expert who is also the lead author on the vast majority of my new fish species descriptions. Within a month of joining CI in late 2004, I was in the water with Gerry for a survey of tsunami impacts on the reefs of Aceh, Indonesia — a survey in which we found and discovered several new fish species together. Since that time, we’ve done thousands of dives together throughout the Coral Triangle region, discovering on average one new species every month. Here’s to many more discoveries to come.

Mark Erdmann is a marine scientist and the vice president of CI’s Asia Pacific marine programs.

Further reading