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Subterranean Snakehead Fish: Floods reveal hidden ecosystem

In September 2018, Mohammad Ajeer, a young industrial worker and fishing hobbyist from Malappuram, Kerala scooped two nine-centimetre long fish from his flooded paddy field. He found the fish strange and shared photos of the fish on social media.

Rajeev Raghavan, a fish taxonomist from the KUFOS, Kochi saw Ajeer’s WhatsApp post. His interest was piqued. His colleagues, V. K. Anoop, KUFOS and Neelesh Dahanukar,
IISER Pune collected specimens for analysis. The fish looked like a snakehead. But they had never seen such fish before.

aenigmachanna-gollum-.jpg

Aenigmachanna gollum, the recently found fish species Image: V. K. Anoop

Ralf Britz, a scientist from the Natural History Museum, London, an expert on snakeheads, joined the team for the investigation. The team did a detailed morphometric
study and genetic analyses. They found the fish to be genetically different from known Asian and African snakeheads. So the species was placed in a new genus,  Aenigmachanna. Channa comes from the generic term for snakeheads and, indeed, it is an enigma. The new species is named gollum, after the character in J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous novel, The Hobbit. Gollum too lived a subterranean life like Aenigmachanna
gollum, the recently found fish species.

The researchers say that this snakehead fish has adapted to underground life over millions of years. It has evolved a long cylindrical eel-like body with long fins and large
scales in the head region, to crawl through crevices in subterranean water bodies. It has no use for eyes. While snakeheads are generally bright coloured, this one is mostly  brown.

In August 2018, Kerala faced unusual floods. High rainfall during the monsoon might have brought out the species from their subterranean habitat. This could be how Mohammad Ajeer found the species.

The fish diversity of the Western- Ghats is not appreciated, says Neelesh Dahanukar, IISER Pune, who has discovered 12 new species in recent years. He estimates that we
have described only about 10% of the fish species in the region.

Involving citizen scientists, like Mohammad Ajeer, to document their findings and provoke scientists to follow through can help map as yet unknown biodiversity.

Zootaxa 4603 (2): 377–388 (2019);
DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.4603.2.10

Sileesh Mullasseri, 
KUFOS

*This is an edited version of a report published in Curr. Sci., 116 (11): 1783 (10 JUNE 2019)

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Categorised in: Ecology, Environment, Fisheries, Kerala

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