A newly discovered species of coral reef fish is among the few to protect and care for their young till they are old enough to fend for themselves.
Most coral reef fishes do not take care of their young. They produce large numbers of young that drift away with the currents, leaving them to fend for themselves.
However, while on a recent trip to the Philippines, a professor discovered a new species of damselfish that bucks the trend. He and his graduate students had travelled there to study two species of damselfish that lived in the shallow waters off the island of Busuanga. It was on the final day that they came across the new species on the other side of the island, away from their study site.
“Immediately, as soon as we went in the water, we saw that this was a different species. It's very unusual to see a coral reef fish guarding its babies, so it's really cool when you see it,” said Professor Giacomo Bernardi, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California, Santa Cruz.
The fish was named Altrichthys alelia (Alelia's damselfish, derived from the names of Bernardi's children, Alessio and Amalia, who had helped with his field research).
The practice of caring for their offspring is rare among reef fish, even though it can improve the survival rates of the offspring by as much as 35 percent. On the other hand, it also means that the young do not colonise new sites that are far from their parents’ reef. This in turn leaves them vulnerable to extinction, as the population tends to remain in highly restricted areas.
“I suspect that species evolve this strategy regularly, and they are successful until there is some change to the local habitat, and then the whole population gets wiped out,” said Professor Bernardi.