MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Stories told by fishermen tend to follow a pattern, an endless sea and a mighty struggle with a fish so huge you can't believe it. In the end, the biggest fish all seem to get away. Then there's the fish tale just published in a British scientific journal. It's about a creature from a black lagoon on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Scientists say it's not only the world's smallest known fish, it's also the tiniest vertebrate ever found. NPR's John Nielsen reports.
JOHN NIELSEN: Humans rarely wander through the dark, wet peat bogs of Sumatra. One exception is Swiss ichthyologist Maurice Kottelat. To find out more about the animals that live in these bogs he spends lots of time hunting for fish in ways that make him look like a nutcase.
MAURICE KOTTELAT: You would see pumping on the shore to make the fish move out from the peat. You would see me deep to my neck in the water with a kind of net for catching fish. You would see me covered of peat coming out of the water. And you will never see me dry.
NIELSEN: Kottelat's been doing this wet work for nearly five years now, racing to discover new species of fish before these bogs are drained and burned by settlers.
KOTTELAT: And in this time I've discovered maybe 450 new species of fish. And there are also many more what I already collected and which I have not yet had the time to make known to the public.
NIELSEN: Big fish are rare in the black acidic waters of the Sumatran peat bogs. Six inchers are said to be about as common as the Loch Ness Monster. But recently Kottelat pulled his net out of a bog and saw a fish that was even tinier than usual.
KOTTELAT: There was a very small fish larvae, transparent, slightly orangish, just jumping a little bit in the net.
NIELSEN: Kottelat thought the fish was a baby. He sent it to London's Natural History Museum where researchers quickly concluded that the creature from the black lagoon was not only not a baby, but the smallest adult fish ever found. Actually it was the smallest adult vertebrate of any kind ever found. Ichthyologist Rolph Blitz says the fish was the size of a fingernail clipping.
ROLPH BLITZ: I think it's smaller than the diameter of a one-cent coin.
NIELSEN: Blitz says Kottelat's find took the title of world's smallest vertebrate away from another fish, a half-inch long goby found in the Northern Pacific. Blitz adds that the new species is one of the weirdest looking fish he's ever seen, with oversized fins, see-through skin, and skull bones that only cover the sides of its head.
BLITZ: So the brain is not covered by bone and only covered by skin.
NIELSEN: Nobody knows how fish like these make their living in the peat bogs or whether they might hold some gene that could be important to humans in the future. Kottelat says high tech tests could answer those questions eventually, but only if field biologists keep slogging through the disappearing bogs.
KOTTELAT: Nice, fashionable studies, they can still be done tomorrow, but today we need the data which can only be obtained today.
NIELSEN: Kottelat's fish is described in a report published by the Royal Society in London. John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.
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BLOCK: You can see an image of the tiniest vertebrate at our website, npr.org, and we promise you won't need your glasses to see it.
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