A fish called Wakanda: New purple fish honors ‘Black Panther’

Although the nation of Wakanda exists only in the Marvel Comics universe, where it is superhero Black Panther’s home, researchers believe they have found a version of it underwater. And here, 260 feet below the surface in secretive reefs, the warriors accented with vibrant purple are fish.

Previously unknown, the fish species lives in dark coral reefs, called “Twilight Zone” reefs, in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. The fish are known as fairy wrasses.

The findings are detailed in a study published Thursday in the journal ZooKeys.

Their scales are so deeply pigmented that the deep purple remains even during the preservation process, when color is usually lost.

The fish were discovered by scientists participating in the California Academy of Sciences’ Hope for Reefs initiative, which aims to research and restore coral reef systems. The species went unknown for so long because their home is below recreational diving limits. Hope for Reefs divers are trained to research in the “Twilight Zone” reefs, which can be 200 to 500 feet beneath the surface.

“Preparation for these deep dives is very intense, and our dive gear often weighs more than us,” said Luiz Rocha, the academy’s curator of fishes and co-leader of Hope for Reefs. “When we reach these reefs and find unknown species as spectacular as this fairy wrasse, it feels like our hard work is paying off.”

The divers can explore the reefs for only minutes before a long ascent back to the surface that can take hours to do safely.

The fish were named Cirrhilabrus wakanda, or the vibranium fairy wrasse, in honor of Wakanda and “Black Panther.”

“When we thought about the secretive and isolated nature of these unexplored African reefs, we knew we had to name this new species after Wakanda,” said Yi-Kai Tea, lead author of the new study and an ichthyology Ph.D. student from the University of Sydney. “We’ve known about other related fairy wrasses from the Indian Ocean but always thought there was a missing species along the continent’s eastern edge. When I saw this amazing purple fish, I knew instantly we were dealing with the missing piece of the puzzle.”

These fairy wrasses are different from the seven other species found in the Indian Ocean, as well as related ones in the Pacific Ocean.

The team studied the fish scales, fin rays and structures in detail. Up close, the pattern of the scales reminded the scientists of Black Panther’s vibranium suit and even the fabric worn by Wakandans in the “Black Panther” film.

The Hope for Reefs team has also discovered that the deep reefs provide a unique ecosystem that supports an abundance of life. But their depth doesn’t protect them from the threats that humans pose to shallow reefs.

More dives are planned to study these deep reefs around the world.

Rocha and his colleagues also discovered deep reef fish off the coasts of Easter Island and Micronesia, both a brilliant mix of orange and yellow.

“It’s a time of global crisis for coral reefs, and exploring little-known habitats and the life they support is now more important than ever,” Rocha said. “Because they are out of sight, these deeper reefs are often left out of marine reserves, so we hope our discoveries inspire their protection.”

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