There is only one photo of the smooth handfish: an image of a withered, yellowing specimen with pectoral fins that extend like arms, and a triangular crest attached to the top of its head. Sometime between 1800 and 1804, French zoologist François Péron plucked this fish out of the ocean while voyaging through Australia, presumably in the shallow coastal waters of southeastern Tasmania.
Since then, no other smooth handfish (Sympterichthys unipennis) has ever been spotted, and the fish that Péron collected became the holotype for the entire species. In March 2020, the IUCN officially declared the species to be extinct.
The loss of this species may seem insignificant, especially since it hasn’t been seen for about 200 years, but it’s a noteworthy event: the smooth handfish is actually the first marine, bony fish to go extinct in modern times. While it could be argued that the New Zealand grayling (Prototroctes oxyrhynchus) was actually the first oceanic fish to die out, the grayling was migratory and spawned in freshwater, so wasn’t an exclusively marine fish.
Jessica Meeuwig, a professor at the University of Western Australia and director of the university’s Centre for Marine Futures, told Mongabay that the smooth handfish likely disappeared due to habitat loss and destructive fishing practices like scallop trawling, and that the species’ extinction is “indicative of broader problems in how we continue to manage our oceans.”
“Some claim that the ocean is too vast for marine wildlife to go extinct,” Meeuwig said in an email. “But ocean industrialisation from fishing, mining, oil and gas exploration, shipping and infrastructure development is catching up with the scale of industrialisation on land and with it the risk of extinction for marine wildlife.”
There are 13 other handfish species still living in Australian waters. While they come in many different shapes and sizes, handfish are characterized by their ability to “walk” on the seafloor with their pectoral and pelvic fins. They don’t have swim bladders to help control their buoyancy, so walking is their preferred source of transport. Handfish also have flamboyant antenna-like illiciums growing out of the top of their head to help lure prey.