Scientists Discover New Fish in ‘Twilight Zone’ Reef Near Africa

Deep-diving scientists from the California Academy of Sciences’ Hope for Reefs initiative and the University of Sydney spotted dazzling fairy wrasses – previously unknown to science – in the dimly lit mesophotic coral reefs of eastern Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania. The multicolored wrasses sport deep purple scales so pigmented, they even retain their color (which is typically lost) when preserved for research. The scientists name this ‘twilight zone’ reef-dweller Cirrhilabrus wakanda (common name Vibranium Fairy Wrasse) in honor of the mythical nation of Wakanda from the Marvel Entertainment comics and movie “Black Panther.” (Luiz Rocha / California Academy of Sciences)

(CN) – Deep beneath the Indian Ocean’s surface where light barely makes its way down to the coral reef lives a recently discovered purple fish that inspired researchers to name it after Marvel Comics’ “Black Panther” and the fictional nation of Wakanda.

The purple vibranium fairy wrasse is named after the fictional power source in the Marvel universe and featured prominently in the movie “Black Panther.” Researchers detail the species discovery in a study published on Thursday in the scientific journal ZooKeys.

The multicolored fairy wrasse’s purple scales might have driven the late musician Prince crazy with their luminous pigmentation, but study author and University of Sydney doctoral student Yi-Kai Tea said he was inspired by “Black Panther” and the Marvel Comic hero’s nearly indestructible purple and black suit. The scientific name of the new fish species is Cirrhilabrus Wakanda, inspired by the fictional nation in the “Black Panther” comic series, a technologically advanced kingdom hidden from the rest of the world.

“When we thought about the secretive and isolated nature of these unexplored African reefs, we knew we had to name this new species after Wakanda,” says Tea.

Just like visiting the fictional nation of Wakanda, researchers embarked on a perilous journey with special diving gear 200 to 500 feet beneath the ocean’s surface off the coast of Tanzania. The trek to these “twilight zone” coral reefs that are dimly lit by light from the surface required the team to take multiple tanks with custom gas blends and electronic monitoring equipment.

With all that preparation and equipment that weighed almost as much as the researchers, the team could only explore the deep reefs for minutes before they had to spend hours ascending to the surface.

Luiz Rocha, curator of fishes for the California Academy of Sciences and co-leader of the Hope for Reefs initiative said, “When we reach these reefs and find unknown species as spectacular as this fairy wrasse, it feels like our hard work is paying off.”

Researchers say the fairy wrasse’ scales, fin rays and body structure are different from other types of species found in the western Indian Ocean and other relative fish in the Pacific. The deep purple from the fairy wrasse’s scales retain their deep color even after separated from the fish for research and preservation, according to the study authors.

Despite being so far removed from the ocean’s surface, these coral reef dwellers are affected by human actions, according to a separate study from the California Academy of Sciences. Coral ecosystems can become choked due to climate change and trash and debris often finds its way down to the reefs, the researchers said.

Rocha said, “Because they are out of sight, these deeper reefs are often left out of marine reserves, so we hope our discoveries inspire their protection.”

Using a microscope, the science team examined the wrasse specimens’ scales, fin rays, and body structures. DNA and morphological analyses revealed the new fairy wrasse to be different from the other seven species in the western Indian Ocean as well as other relatives in the Pacific. The new species’ common name is inspired by the fictional metal vibranium, a rare, and, according to Rocha, ‘totally awesome’ substance found in the Black Panther nation of Wakanda. The Vibranium Fairy Wrasse’s purple chain-link scale pattern reminded the scientists of Black Panther’s super-strong suit and the fabric motifs worn by Wakandans in the hit film. (Luiz Rocha / California Academy of Sciences)


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