With a color palette brighter than a bag of Skittles, you’d think the Rose-Villa Napoleon Wrasse would have no trouble standing out. But in the teeming waters of the Indian Ocean, it’s easy for a fish to swim under the radar, even if it appears to be ultraviolet.
For decades, the rose-veiled wrasse has been confused with its relative, the rose-scaled wrasse. Both reef fish are up to three inches long, sport the same shocking shadow pattern, and float around the water column like dazed little sprites. But there are some subtle differences. The roseate wrasse has a more rounded caudal fin and purple-red hatching on parts of its body. Adults of both species also vary in coloration, though it’s hard to tell with the penumbra underwater.
[Related: An unknown Galapagos tortoise species may be lurking in museum bones]
It was these small details that helped biologists in the Maldives identify a new type of marine life, which they already knew well. The rose-veiled wrasse is a beloved aquarium fish found specifically in twilight reefs, a coral habitat that thrives 100 to 300 feet below the ocean surface. Reefs are adapted to low light conditions and are generally better preserved than bottom corals, which are exposed to human disturbances such as climate change.
“Although the species is quite abundant and therefore not currently at high risk of overexploitation, it is always troubling when a fish is already commercialized before it even has a scientific name”, Luiz Roza, curator of ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences, said in a press release. He worked with researchers from the Maldives, Australia and the Field Museum in Chicago to publish a description of the species of rose-veiled wrasse in the newspaper Zoo Keys.
The article compares specimens of rose-veiled wrasse with several other species in the same genus, including rose-scaled wrasse, with which it was formerly grouped. The first species is found in the waters between the Maldives and Sri Lanka; the second lives further south around the small chain of Chagos islands. According to research, the two frequent “rubble bottoms interspersed with loose coral cover.”
The authors also cited photos, videos and measurements taken from remotely operated submersibles in the twilight zone. In the end, they recorded enough visual differences to propose the rose-veiled wrasse as its own species. They gave it the Latin name, Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa, after the national flower of the Maldives. (This translates to “rose” in the local Dhivehi language.)
The research was part of a longer expedition called Hope for the reefs, where divers and biologists team up to analyze the biodiversity of the twilight zone of the Maldives. In the process, they come up with strategies for conserving deep-sea corals and all the eye candy that lives there.