We’ve Been Purchasing the Most Common and Ordinary Fish for Our Aquariums for Years. It Turns Out That It’s Actually a New Species

This particular fish has been a beloved staple in aquariums worldwide. Surprisingly, it was also previously unknown to us.

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The fish officially known as Garra panitvongi was an unusual finding. Last year, its discovery in the waters of a remote river in Southeast Asia sparked excitement, interest, pride, and the taxonomic prurience typical of when a new species is introduced. However, it also triggered some disappointment because, despite the novelty of its name, Garra panitvongi has been known to scientists for several decades.

In fact, if you have an aquarium nearby, one of these fish may be watching you as it gobbles up algae.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Garra panitvongi. Larry Page, a researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, formally introduced the world to Garra panitvongi. However, the creature found in a remote Southeast Asian river is already familiar to aquarium hobbyists. For 20 years, it’s been a popular species in pet stores, albeit known by a different name: redtail garra.

According to the Florida Museum’s Jerald Pinson, researchers “were peripherally aware” of the fish, but to identify it as a new species, they needed more than just seeing it behind the glass of a fish tank. They needed the scientific description of specimens captured directly in their natural environment.

Redtail garra fish Experts point out that many garra species have barbed nodules called tubercles that they can use to attract mates or defend themselves against adversaries.

A trip to Asia. And this is exactly what Page, who’s been studying fish in Thailand for more than 15 years, did. While on a fieldwork expedition in the Kasat River, a tributary of the Ataran, he encountered several wild specimens of the popular redtail garra. This finding is particularly noteworthy because, as Page points out, it proves that these peculiar fish actually live in a much smaller area than previously thought.

A specific river. “When we first collected specimens, we thought it must be widespread in Myanmar because of its popularity in the aquarium trade. But it turns out it’s not. It’s only in the Ataran River basin,” Page says. In fact, they’re actually confined to a small stretch of river straddling the Thai-Myanmar border. This isolated region is difficult to access, which explains why these wild specimens have existed “in relative obscurity,” according to the Florida Museum team, while captive-bred ones have become popular in the aquarium trade.

What does Garra panitvongi look like? Just as it always has. However, we now have a much wider arsenal of data and a name that helps scientists designate it more precisely. When it came to the latter, Page wanted to name it after Thai ichthyologist Noon Panitvong, a fervent defender of his country’s biodiversity. As for the shape, size, habits, and shades of the “new” fish, the Florida expert has detailed his findings in an article published in the journal Zootaxa.

The Garra panitvongi, or redtail garra, is a type of fish that belongs to the genus Garra, which includes almost 200 other species, making it one of the most diverse groups of fish in the world. Scientists have found these fish in various places, including streams and rivers in West Africa, regions of India, the Middle East, and South and East Asia, including China. Despite its wide distribution, according to Page, the fish hasn’t received much attention from researchers, and to date, “there’s surprisingly little information available on their natural history.”

Map Scientists believe that populations of the red-tailed garras are concentrated in a small river basin that crosses the Thai-Myanmar border.

Looking at the Garra family. “Most of them live in fast-moving water, and they have a disc-like structure formed from a modification of the lower lip, which they use as an adhesive pad to cling to rocks and maintain their position in the water column as they feed,” Page says. Because of these capabilities and their specialized mouths, the Garra can devour algae and some arthropods directly from rocks.

The redtail garras share some of the peculiarities scientists have previously observed in other species of the same genus. Strikingly, the fish has a “snout” encrusted with hardened scales known as “tubercles.” These structures protect its nests from other fish and predators. What’s unusual about Garra panitvongi is that it permanently displays these tubercles as weapons. These structures are temporary and end up falling off at the end of the breeding season in other groups of fish.

Colorful, voracious, and a peculiar snout. The redtail garra has a peculiar elongated snout and is covered with hardened scales, which it can raise or lower to intimidate its enemies in combat. However, these are, by no means, its only distinguishing features. As indicated by its name, its tail is emblazoned with a reddish color. Thanks to its colorful appearance and its skill in removing algae, the redtail garra is a popular species among aquarium enthusiasts.

“New” species, old lesson. The research conducted by Page and his colleagues not only enabled us to identify a new species based on academic criteria but also provided an important lesson. It highlights the fact that there’s still a lot of work to be done if we want to fully understand the diversity of plant and animal life on our planet. “Their late addition to the roster of scientifically described species underscores a pressing need to take stock of biodiversity in understudied regions,” the Florida Museum points out.

“Many of the fishes in Southeast Asia are referred to by names given to species discovered in India or Indonesia because they look similar,” Page says. This confusion and mixing of species from different geographical areas not only undermines the accuracy of studies but, as the organization states, also leads to biodiversity being “drastically underestimated.”

Image | Tangjitjaroen et Al. (2023)

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