Behold the Pink Handfish, one of fourteen species of bottom-dwelling marine fish endemic of the waters of Southern Australia and Tasmania, or, as World of Warcraft players know them, Murlocs.

It's easy to imagine the handfish as the inspiration for some of World of Warcraft's most hated and beloved enemies. They've got the same hands and feet as the fantasy race, after all, as well as that striking crest, formed out of its secondary dorsal spine and a flap of skin.

One of the few species of marine life endemic to Australia, the handfish has been difficult to classify in the past, due to relative rarity of specimens. Take the Pink Handfish, pictured above. That picture was taken off the Tasman Peninsula in 1999, the last recorded sighting of the beautiful creature. The picture represents one of only four specimens on record.

The nine new species of handfish recently described by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization brought the grand total of handfish species to fourteen, six of which are exclusively found in Tasmania, and one of which was "possibly collected in Tasmania by early European explorers, yet not recorded since."


Unlike World of Warcraft's Murlocs, handfish are relatively scarce. Two of the fourteen known species - the Red Handfish and Ziebell's Handfish - are listed as vulnerable to extinction under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, with the Spotted Handfish listed as endangered.

And that's only the beginning of the handfish's problems, according to fish taxonomist Peter Last of CSIRO.

"There is evidence of shallow-water species disappearing quickly, from being common in certain areas a few decades ago, to apparently being locally extinct in some areas," Dr Last says.

"It's not just two or three handfish species of concern. Our work has described nine new species, each with its own environmental niches and needs, and several of these appear to have very restricted distributions, and/or occur in very low abundance."


With the various species extremely sensitive to environmental change and plagued with low breeding rates, perhaps one day World of Warcraft's Murloc will be the closest anyone can come to seeing a wild handfish.


Nine new species for disappearing handfish family [CSIRO - Thanks Mark!]