Red handfish (Thymichthys politus) Image Credit: © Phil Malin

Red handfish

  • October 17, 2014

This red-embellished handfish uses its limbs to 'walk' along the seafloor

IUCN status
Not listed

AUSTRALIAN CONSERVATION STATUS (EPBC Act)
Critically Endangered

RANGE
Coastal waters off eastern Tasmania

COMMON NAME
Red handfish

HABITAT
Along reef-sand junction, sandy areas around and on top of rocks 

CLASSIFICATION
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Actinopterygii
Order Lophiiformes
Family Brachionichthyidae
Genus Thymichthys
Species: politus


THIS IS ONE fish that will always be caught red-handed. Ok, bad pun, but it is an interesting fish. Endemic to Tasmania's eastern coast, the red handfish is so named because of its apparent use of its fins as hands, even using a type of walking motion on the seafloor.

It's a benthic fish, preferring to hang around the sandy and rocky bottoms of the seafloor. They've been observed eating small crustaceans and worms.

There are two colour varieties - one with red embellishments (seen in the image above) and the other a right red all over. It grows from about 6cm to about 13.5cm long.

The red handfish was first discovered in the 1800s around Port Arthur. In the 1980s a small population was found on the Actaeon Islands, south of Hobart, and the biggest population to date was found on a reef off Primrose Sands around Hobart (10 individuals) in the 1990s. However, in a survey in 2005, no handfish were found in those areas. 

They may be hanging on, because in 2010, three individuals were found in the Primrose Sands location. Though the species hasn't had a full, systematic survey of its numbers, it seems that populations are few and far between, and there's likely to be not more than 1000 individuals in the wild, and likely only hundreds.

The red handfish was known as the Brachionichthys politus, but in 2009, it was re-categorised as Thymichthys politus.

Threats to red handfish include poaching for use as pets. Its low reproductive rate and low dispersal rate make is a challenge for the species' survival. Fragmentation of the populations is also a challenge for reproductive success.

A recovery plan for the species is in place.