New Rainbow-Colored, Deep-Sea Fish Officially Described by Scientists in the Maldives

The new-to-science species was named after roses, the Maldivian national flower

An image of a rainbow-hued male rose-veiled wrasse
The rose-veiled fairy wrasse is the first Maldivian fish to be described by a local scientist. Pictured: a male rose-veiled fairy wrasse Yi-Kai Tea/Californa Academy of Sciences

Deep in the waters off the coast of the Maldives, several small islands located 466 miles from India, a rainbow-hued fish calls the ocean's twilight zone its home. Found at depths ranging from 131 to 229 feet below the suface, the rose-veiled fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa) sports a striking, red-orange color on its face that gradually fades to pops of yellow and violet near its tail.

While hundreds of species thrive in the waters surrounding the Maldives, this fairy wrasse is the first to be described by a Maldivian scientist, and it is also the first species with a scientific name derived from the local Dhivehi language, reports Ashley Strickland for CNN. Before being formally described, the fish was long mistaken as a red velvet fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis). Scientists published details about the vivid ocean dweller earlier this month in the journal ZooKeys.

Marine biologists first collected the colorful fish in the 1990s. However, it was not scientifically described because researchers thought it was an adult version of an existing species, a California Academy of Sciences statement explains. C. rubrisquamis's description was based on one juvenile specimen collected in the Chagos Archipelago, located 621 miles south of the Maldives, per a statement. 

It can be challenging to distinguish fish belonging to the wrasse family because the brightly colored fish change hues as they grow into adulthood, CNN reports. Young wrasses will often look like another species and don't gain differentiating characteristics until fully grown. Scientists first suspected the pair were two separate species after comparing footage of adult wrasses from the Maldives with wrasses from Chagos.

An image of a pink-hued rose-veiled Fairy Wrassee
The Rose-veiled fairy wrasse's species name, finifenmaa, means rose in the local Dhivehi language and also describes the fish's blush-toned hues. Yi-Kai Tea/California Academy of Sciences

 "A few months ago, Yi-Kai Tea (our first author) received (remotely operated vehicle) footage from Chagos showing adults, which were very different from the adults from the Maldives," study author Luiz Rocha, a fish scientist at the California Academy of Science, tells CNN. "That's when we decided that the species from the Maldives was new and different from C. rubrisquamis."

To describe the vibrant new fairy wrasse, a team of researchers from the California Academy of Sciences, the University of Sydney, the Maldives Marine Research Institute, and the Field Museum in Chicago conducted genetic analyses on both C. rubrisquamis and C. finifenmaa to confirm that the rose-veiled fairy wrasse was a different species, reports Asha Gilbert for USA Today. They also focused on the differences between adults and juveniles by measuring the height of their spines, identifying color patterns, and counting each scale, per CNN.

In honor of the fish's blush tones, researchers gave it the name finifenmaa, which means rose in Dhivehi. Roses are also the Maldives' national flower.

Besides identifying the rose-veiled fairy wrasse, divers found eight other fish that could all be new species. Per USA Today, the collaborative effort was part of the California Academy of Science's Hope for Reefs initiative to study, protect, and restore global reef ecosystems. By cataloging and identifying new fish species, researchers can get a better sense of how to preserve fragile reef ecosystems and set conservation priorities based on the range of each fish. 

"Our partnership will help us better understand the unexplored depths of our marine ecosystems and their inhabitants. The more we understand and the more compelling scientific evidence we can gather, the better we can protect them," says study author Ahmed Najeeb, a biologist at the Maldives Marine Research Institute, in a statement.