Biofluorescence as a survey tool for cryptic marine species

Conserv Biol. 2018 Jun;32(3):706-715. doi: 10.1111/cobi.13033. Epub 2018 Feb 19.


As ecosystems come under increasing anthropogenic pressure, rare species face the highest risk of extinction. Paradoxically, data necessary to evaluate the conservation status of rare species are often lacking because of the challenges of detecting species with low abundance. One group of fishes subject to this undersampling bias are those with cryptic body patterns. Twenty-one percent of cryptic fish species assessed for their extinction risk (International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN]) are data deficient. We developed a nondestructive method for surveying cryptically patterned marine fishes based on the presence of biofluorescence (underwater biofluorescence census, UBC). Blue LED torches were used to investigate how widespread biofluorescence was in cryptic reef fishes in the Coral Triangle region. The effectiveness of UBC to generate abundance data was tested on a data-deficient pygmy seahorse species (Hippocampus bargibanti) and compared with data obtained from standard underwater visual census (UVC) surveys. We recorded 95 reef fish species displaying biofluorescence, 73 of which had not been previously described as biofluorescent. Of those fish with cryptic patterns, 87% were biofluorescent compared with 9% for noncryptic fishes. The probability of species displaying biofluorescence was 70.9 times greater for cryptic species than for noncryptic species. Almost twice the number of H. bargibanti was counted using the UBC compared with UVC. For 2 triplefin species (Ucla xenogrammus, Enneapterygius tutuilae), the abundance detected with UBC was triple that detected with UVC. The UBC method was effective at finding cryptic species that would otherwise be difficult to detect and thus will reduce interobserver variability inherent to UVC surveys. Biofluorescence is ubiquitous in cryptic fishes, making this method applicable across a wide range of species. Data collected using UBC could be used with multiple IUCN criteria to assess the extinction risk of cryptic species. Adopting this technique will enhance researchers' ability to survey cryptic species and facilitate management and conservation of cryptic marine species.

Keywords: Coral Triangle; Triángulo de Coral; biofluorescence; bioluminiscencia; caballito de mar pigmeo; censo visual submarino; cryptic species; cryptobenthic fauna; especie críptica; fauna criptobéntica; muestreo no-destructivo; nondestructive sampling; pygmy seahorse; rarity; underwater visual census; 倭海马; 水下视觉调查; 珊瑚大三角; 生物荧光; 稀有性; 隐秘底栖动物; 隐秘种; 非损伤取样.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Coral Reefs*
  • Ecosystem*
  • Fishes
  • Surveys and Questionnaires