In New Zealand, New Fish Species Is Discovered By Phila. Researcher Dominique Dagit Has Found ``chimaera Panthera,'' Or Leopard Chimaera. It Is An Old Relative Of The Shark.

Posted: March 30, 1999

A new species of ugly fish may not be exactly what the world has been waiting for, but that is what Academy of Natural Sciences researcher Dominique Dagit found in New Zealand.

The new species, which Dagit named Chimaera panthera or the leopard chimaera, is an ancient relative of the shark. About three feet long with brown spots, the fish is only the sixth recorded Chimaera species in the world.

``The ocean is the last great unknown on Earth,'' Dagit said, ``and it is the place where we have the greatest likelihood of finding new species.'' Scientists have identified 25,000 species of fish, but estimate there may be as many as 40,000 still undiscovered.

``At a time when we are increasingly worried about the loss of biodiversity and when the oceans are being exploited more and more, it is really important to figure out what's out there and how ocean ecosystems work,'' Dagit said.

The fish was caught by fishermen in the deep waters off the coast of New Zealand. Because it looked new and strange, it was given to the National Museum of New Zealand. The museum staff knew it was a Chimaera and called Dagit - who happened to be visiting the country.

They contacted Dagit because she is not just a leading expert on Chimaera, but because she is the only expert in the world. ``I am probably the one person in the world who can identify a new species,'' she said.

Dagit, who is an assistant curator and acting chair of ichthyology at the academy, has been studying Chimaera since her undergraduate days at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Why? ``Because nobody else does,'' she said.

After the New Zealand discovery, Dagit searched the collections of other museums and found another specimen of the leopard chimaera in Tokyo. ``Often a new species is discovered not in the wild, but in museums,'' she said. ``Often museums don't really know what they have.''

The fish collection Dagit oversees at the academy is the fifth-largest in the world with 2.5 million specimens covering 10,000 different species.

The Chimaera evolved 400 million years ago in the oceans of the Devonian Era. It is a deepwater fish usually found between about 1,000 to 3,000 feet below the surface. Aside from that, little is known about the fish.

``What role do these fish play in the ocean ecosystem? We really don't know,'' Dagit said. It is, she maintains, more than an academic question. ``The biodiversity of the deep ocean relates directly to the fishing industry. The health of fish stocks is directly related to the health of the ecosystem.''

Dagit's work often intersects with the fishing industry. She is a contributor to the United Nations guides used by fishermen around the world to identify species, and sometimes she spends a day hauling nets and gutting fish on commercial boats.

``It's a way of looking for new species. If we get anything interesting they let me keep it, and if we don't find anything new at least I get to earn my dinner,'' she said.

As some of the more traditional fish stocks such as cod become depleted, fisherman are catching species that were once considered ``junk'' - such as dogfish, sharks and chimaera. Chimaera are now being used for fish and chips in Australia and New Zealand, Dagit said.

The Chimaera are relatives of the the shark, but they do not have the shark's sharp teeth and predatory disposition. To hear Dagit tell it, they are friendly and gentle animals. ``The ones that I keep in a tank respond to light and to me,'' she said. ``They come to the top of the tank and let me pet them.''

Although they may have a nice personality, Dagit concedes that to many people ``they look kind of horrible.'' Even she, a Chimaera lover, used to call them ``The Supreme Ugliness.''

Over the years, Dagit has had a change of heart and eye, and praises their gold-flecked bodies and clear, green glowing eyes. ``They are so excellent because they are different and beautiful,'' she said.

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