Mexican and U.S. researchers said they believe an ancient-looking, rarely seen fish in a Mexican river represents a new species of catfish and an entire new taxonomic family.
MEXICO CITY Mexican and U.S. researchers said they believe an ancient-looking, rarely seen fish in a Mexican river represents a new species of catfish and an entire new taxonomic family.
It would be only the third new family of fish found in the last 60 years, and could offer scientists a view into the distant past, a Mexican scientist said Tuesday.
The new species was dubbed Lacantunia enigmatica, of the family Lacantuniidae, in an article published in the online scientific journal Zootaxa.
The names are derived from the fish's habitat in the Lacantun river of southern Chiapas state, a tributary of the Usumacinta river, which marks the boundary between Mexico and Guatemala.
"It's unusual to find a new family," said biologist Maria del Rocio Rodiles of Mexico's Colegio de la Frontera Sur, who began finding examples of the rare fish in the mid to late 1990s. "It's also unusual to find a new species of catfish of this size."
The Lacantunia enigmatica -- "enigmatic" because scientists are not sure of its habits or its origins -- is a flat-sided, thick-tailed fish that grows to about 1 1/2 feet (1/2 meter) in length.
"This fish has ancestral characteristics. It is not like a modern catfish," said Rodiles, who at first was not sure of the significance of the find, and consulted with researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
"It has characteristics that indicate its ancestors were among the world's earliest catfish," Rodiles said.
The University of Texas said in a news statement that anatomical studies show that the fish is the only member of an ancient group that may have arisen while dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
The new catfish's whiskers are articulated differently, and there also are differences in the bone structure of its skull and in the shape of the air bladder.
About 32 of the fish have been found since the 1990s, but they are rare and hard to catch. Only one specimen was found in a recent five-day expedition.
Moreover, their habitat is located in and around Montes Azules, a jungle reserve endangered by logging, farming and cattle ranching.
Jonathan Armbruster, an associate professor of biology specializing in catfish at Auburn University, said the discovery of the new species was significant because it could help scientists learn more about the movement of continents and people.
"You can almost think of it as a potentially living fossil," he said.
But he cautioned that scientists still had much to learn about the fish's range and habitat.
It became the 37th named family of catfishes. In ichthyology there have been just two new families discovered in the past 60 years: the coelacanth in 1938 and the megamouth shark in 1983.
Source: Associated Press