While SCUBA diving off the coast of Zanzibar, marine biologist Luiz Rocha saw a fish he had never seen before. He sent a photograph to his collaborator Yi-Kai Tea, currently a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, who confirmed that it was a new species of fairy wrasse from the genus Cirrhilabrus.
As a fan of the Marvel cinematic universe who had just helped to discover a bright purple fish in an isolated environment in Africa, Tea knew there was just one name they could give their discovery: Cirrhilabrus wakanda, the Vibranium fairy wrasse.
Tea had long hoped that someone would find a member of this genus off the coast of Eastern Africa, which had represented a gap in the distribution of these animals. “When Luiz sent me a photo of this new fish he collected, I knew instantly what it was,” Tea said. “He found the ‘missing piece’ to this biogeographical puzzle!”
Like many other fairy wrasses in genus Cirrhilabrus, the Vibranium wrasse is small, brightly coloured, eats mostly plankton and lives in rubble areas surrounding coral reefs.
But even though it took specialised training and equipment for Rocha and his team to reach the 50 to 80m depths where it lives, humans can still affect the environment there. The research team noted that its habitat was full of discarded fishing gear and other garbage.
“It is sobering that so much uncharacterised biodiversity is lost before it is even discovered,” Tea said. “Every new species we describe is a reminder that we need to act fact before they are all gone.”
The Vibranium fairy wrasse, detailed this week in a paper in ZooKeys, was discovered as part of the California Academy of Sciences’ Hope for Reefs research program, which involves 20 research expeditions all over the world, with a focus on scientifically describing unexplored areas.
Rocha is one of its four co-leaders. Despite being a senior scientist, he regularly seeks out the expertise of Tea, a graduate student on another continent with whom he has worked for years.
“Even back when he was a high school student, his passion for coral reef fishes makes him one of the most knowledgeable people on fish taxonomy in the world,” Rocha said. “When I am in the field, I often send him photos of what we are catching, because I know I will get an ID faster than trying to go through field guides!”
C. wakanda joins a growing list of animals named after pop culture figures, a practice that some of the stuffier types in taxonomy are sceptical of. Tea and Rocha wave off such concerns. “I see this as a way to bridge the divide between science and the general public,” Tea said.
“Research is important, but it is equally important to convey it to people with more general interests. Taxonomy is often seen as boring, but it has massive implications for biodiversity conservation. Inspiring the next generation of taxonomists by making science sound exciting is our goal.”
And while some pop culture names are a little questionable, it’s hard to deny this little fish is channelling Black Panther’s aesthetic with its Vibranium-coloured markings. Hopefully, by raising awareness of this amazing critter and the threats it faces, we can have Cirrhilabrus wakanda forever.