Uncovering a New Bonefish Species Through DNA

While studying two bonefish species in the Florida Keys, researchers discovered a third physically and genetically unique species.

bonefish, caption below

Researchers discovered a third bonefish species in the Florida Keys through genetic analysis.

Photo credit: Aaron Adams

Anglers flock to the Florida Keys to take on the challenge of catching a bonefish, which they know to be a feisty, elusive target. But fishing enthusiasts may be unaware that when they have a “grey ghost” on the line, they could be reeling in a bonefish species that was – until recently – unknown. Though it has been a popular sport fish for some time, scientists only began studying bonefish genetics in recent years. Worldwide, there are eight formally recognized species, two of which have been known to occur in the Keys. While FWRI marine fisheries scientists were studying these two species a few years ago, they discovered a third.

Genetics was already used to distinguish the two previously known Florida bonefish species, which are otherwise impossible to tell apart. FWRI scientists uncovered evidence of the third species while studying the habitat locations and seasonal distributions of the other two. The newly discovered species is very different genetically from the previously known species. It also has a physical distinction, though it’s not visible to the naked eye. This bonefish has a different number of vertebrae in its spinal column.

Heading into the final year of the project, geneticists are working to develop a formal description of the third Florida bonefish species and define its relationship to the other bonefish found in the Keys. Project scientists are also mapping the distribution of all three species in the state. They have found that the newly discovered species is not limited to the Sunshine State, but is found in waters along parts of Mexico and other areas of the Caribbean. Back in Florida, the discovery of the additional species led to a requirement that scientists now account for the subtle differences between the three species in any bonefish study. Fisheries managers have also acknowledged the newly discovered species by changing state fishing regulations.

Partners in this project include Mote Marine Laboratory and the University of Miami.



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