As far as oil spill poster animals go, the pancake batfish seems unlikely to capture any hearts. "They're really weird," says Prosanta Chakrabarty, an ichthyologist at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. Hanging out at depths down to 400 meters, batfish don't swim, but instead hop along the sea floor on their pelvic fins.
Chakrabarty discovered two new species of pancake batfish last year in museum collections. Then he caught specimens of both during bottom trawls in the northern Gulf of Mexico. With an unknown quantity of oil below the surface now lapping at their habitat, Chakrabarty wonders if the strange creatures will survive. "A lot of focus is on the charismatic megafauna, the whales and turtles," he says. "But we can't tell what's going on below the surface."
Current sampling efforts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have so far focused mainly on the location of the oil, and "rightfully so," says Chakrabarty, who learned of the administration's research endeavors at a meeting yesterday at LSU. But even when scientists start to look for a toll in the benthos, Chakrabarty worries that their incomplete knowledge of species abundance there will complicate assessment of the oil's impact.
With many species likely still undiscovered, researchers like Chakrabarty have their work cut out for them even without a spill to worry about. "People think the gulf is well described just because it's off the coast of the U.S., but there are a lot of new things there," he says.
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