Poised on the beach cradling her fishy find, the mock birth announcement photoshoot of scientist Kelsi Rutledge caught the attention of more than just the marine biology world.
“When I was on the beach we were definitely getting these weird stares from people as I’m holding this dead fish up in the air,” Rutledge says.
A PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles, Rutledge knew she needed to be creative to spread the news about her find. The species, Pseudobatos buthi or the spadenose, is an elasmobranch, a group that includes the sharks, rays and skates. More specifically, it’s a guitarfish, and while sharks often get the limelight for their toothy grins, mention of a guitarfish will likely garner a blank stare.
“They are really the most unique group among the rays, and a lot of times people will forget about them,” Rutledge says. “The purpose was to spice things up.”
Guitarfish are a group of distinct rays, but they don’t look like the winged manta rays and eagle rays many are accustomed to seeing flying in the open ocean. Their bodies resemble a small shark that has had its head smooshed flat with a frying pan—a curious looking body plan but one that has evolved for efficient foraging on the seafloor. Like other rays, their nose and mouth are on the bottom of their head, while their eyes sit perched on top of their head—a perfect setup for munching on clams, crabs and worms in the muddy floors of seagrass beds.
“They have this really unique body form that puts them in the middle of sharks and rays,” Rutledge says. “This makes them a group of outliers, they really don’t fit into the group of rays and they’re not sharks.”
Even Rutledge knew little about these odd fish initially, but a note in an old field notebook would change this ocean ecologist into a guitarfish lover. Now deceased UCLA ichthyologist Boyd Walker indicated that some of the guitarfish held in his 1940s and 1950s Gulf of California field collections looked different than the known Pseudobatos productus that swam in the area. But the observation remained just a side note, and the specimens in question would sit in collection shelves at the university for over 70 years until Rutledge took up the task of reviewing them.
Determining a new species like the spadefish requires hours and hours to meticulously measure the length and number of fins, body parts and the distance between body parts. In total, Rutledge made 64 measurements for not only the 80 individuals of the suspected new species but also for three other species that lived in the Gulf of California. The difference between the shovelnose and the new spadenose turned out to be a slight elongation of the spadenose’s head and its lack of spots.
“The common name for its closest relative is the shovelnose guitarfish, so the common name that I named this one was the spadenose, highlighting that the most obvious trait is that its whole snout is narrower,” Rutledge says.
Because of the tedium, taxonomy (the branch of science that deals with species discovery and classification) is also an area of study that doesn’t get much recognition. But as young scientists savvy in pop culture and social media begin to take the reins from retiring specialists, many, like Rutledge, are getting creative.
“We’re starting to see more and more people taking creative approaches to getting the word out there,” says David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist and elasmobranch specialist who runs the popular Twitter account Why Sharks Matter. “Her photoshoot was one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen in that space.”
The creative methods are working. In 2016, a new plant species named after Matt Damon’s character in The Martian caught the attention of people beyond the natural sciences world, as did a new fish discovered earlier this year that was named Wakanda, after the country in Marvel’s Black Panther. A researcher at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History named a new ant species after the band Radiohead.
Rutledge hopes that the buzz surrounding her photoshoot will be more than a momentary laugh. About 55 percent of guitarfishes are either threatened or near threatened for extinction, and the giant guitarfish is one of the most critically endangered marine fish in the world. Now that the spadefish has a name, scientists can monitor and regulate its existence in the Gulf of California, a location where fishermen in Mexico regularly catch guitarfish for food and sell them as shark fins in the illegal shark fin market.
“Other scientists see [taxonomy] as boring or low impact, but I wanted to highlight that taxonomy can be fun, and it is important,” Rutledge says.