Written By: Clare Kelly
Fishy business comes swimming when the time comes. On Oct. 19, headlines of a National Geographic article flashed with the words, “Dragon snakeheads—strange new underground fish—discovered in India.” The leader of research, Ralf Britz who is the ichthyologist at Senckenberg Natural History Collections said, “We think this is the most exciting discovery in the fish world of the last decade.” In southern India, a new family of snakelike fish was discovered. Believed to be primitive fish, they are considered a type of “living fossil.”
As David Johnson, an ichthyologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History said, “Dragon snakeheads have ‘a whole series of primitive characteristics.’” National Geographic cites that researchers expressed the possibility that the nearest relatives may have separated from this family over a hundred million years ago. Doug Main of National Geographic wrote that some of the rare traits found in these dragon snakeheads include “a shortened swim bladder and fewer vertebrae with ribs,” which are traits that “show the dragon snakeheads are less specialized than regular snakeheads.” In addition, this family of fish lacks a suprabranchial organ, which is essential to allow air to be breathed by Snakeheads. The Smithsonian magazine expands on this idea and writes that the dragon snakeheads might have developed away from the other snakeheads when Gondwana, a large continent of all the continents, broke into smaller continents, specifically when India broke away. According to Theresa Machemer, a freelance writer for the Smithsonian, during this process the dinosaurs still roamed the earth.
The National Geographic expressed Britz’s thoughts that the commonality of this occurring is not very frequent, in fact finding a new group of fish is not common. Britz speaks of the finding of a new “taxonomic category above genus and species:” in this family of fish, there are only two distinct species.
One distinctive aspect of these fish includes their way of moving in the water, in which they move their vertical to create motion that moves them forward and backward. It is hypothesized that this form of moving allows navigating the porous underground places which they habited. As Britz says, the fish moves “like a veil in the wind.”
Britz also mentioned how the name of the fish family matches the fish because “everyone who sees a photo of the fish is somehow reminded of a dragon.” The “long-bodied fish” resides in an underground layer where rocks are porous; they are not often detected with one’s eyes. The only time they are cited with a surface sighting includes floating to the top of the water when a flood happens.
The studying of this fish began when someone discovered the fish in their backyard in 2018. Rajeev Raghavan, a researcher from Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies and a study co-author, shared the photo with Britz, who reportedly had, “no idea what it was.” He was unable to identify the type of fish, taxonomy, or the group that the fish belonged in; therefore, he journeyed to India in 2019 to conduct research. After some research, the team named the fish Aenigmachanna gollum, or the Gollum snakehead, but after another sighting of the fish in a town in Kerala, a state in India. The research Britz and his team completed allowed a clearer perspective on the anatomy and genetics of the fish; this proved that the fish belonged in a different family.