The Devil in the Deep: Expanding the Known Habitat of a Rare and Protected Fish

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Abstract

The accepted geographic range of a species is related to both opportunity and effort in sampling that range. In deepwater ecosystems where human access is limited, the geographic ranges of many marine species are likely to be underestimated. A chance recording from baited cameras deployed on deep uncharted reef revealed an eastern blue devil fish (Paraplesiops bleekeri) at a depth of 51 m and more than 2 km further down the continental shelf slope than previously observed. This is the first verifiable observation of eastern blue devil fish, a protected and endemic southeastern Australian temperate reef species, at depths greater than the typically accepted depth range of 30 m. Knowledge on the ecology of this and many other reef species is indeed often limited to shallow coastal reefs, which are easily accessible by divers and researchers. Suitable habitat for many reef species appears to exist on deeper offshore reefs but is likely being overlooked due to the logistics of conducting research on these often uncharted habitats. On the basis of our observation at a depth of 51 m and observations by recreational fishers catching eastern blue devil fishes on deep offshore reefs, we suggest that the current depth range of eastern blue devil fish is being underestimated at 30 m. We also observed several common reef species well outside of their accepted depth range. Notably, immaculate damsel (Mecaenichthys immaculatus), red morwong (Cheilodactylus fuscus), mado (Atypichthys strigatus), white-ear (Parma microlepis) and silver sweep (Scorpis lineolata) were abundant and recorded in a number of locations at up to a depth of at least 55 m. This underestimation of depth potentially represents a large area of deep offshore reefs and micro-habitats out on the continental shelf that could contribute to the resilience of eastern blue devil fish to extinction risk and contribute to the resilience of many reef species to climate change

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