The Gollum snakehead, named after the subterranean character in Lord of the Rings, is one of two species in a newfound taxonomic family of fishes.
When the Gollum snakehead was discovered in 2019, it was grouped with all the other cave-dwelling, eel-like fish in Channidae. But much like its Middle Earth namesake, the Gollum snakehead has found itself kicked out of a family where it doesn’t fit in.
Instead, a study published last month in the journal Scientific Reports places the Gollum snakehead and another recently described species, the Mahabali snakehead, into a family all their own. A family is a descriptive category above genus and species; for example, humans share a family, Hominidae, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas, Douglas Main reports for National Geographic.
With its long, scaly body and delicate, veil-like fins, the Gollum snakehead captured quite some attention when discovered last year in south India. Scientists have found that it is genetically distinct from other snakehead fish worldwide and sports so many unique features that it warrants its very own family, Aenigmachannidae.
This new family is also ancient. It possibly evolved at least 109 million years ago (when the last dinosaurs still roamed the world), after the Indian plate drifted away from the supercontinent of Gondwana. The Gollum snakehead could well be a living fossil.
Dr. Ralf Britz, a scientific associate at the Museum based at the Senckenberg Natural History Collections, Dresden, first helped describe Aenigmachanna Gollum in 2019 and has since been looking at the fish in further detail.
Another breakthrough came when Britz and others visited a farmer’s field north of Kochi, a Kerala town. There, late at night, they found Gollum snakeheads surfacing into a flooded rice paddy.
But when Britz and his colleagues performed further research on these fishes’ anatomy and genetics, he found they belong in a new family entirely. His genetic analysis shows they may have diverged from their nearest relatives, snakeheads in the family Channidae before Africa and India separated and spread apart 120 million years ago, Britz says.
More than 50 species of Channidae snakeheads live in streams and lakes throughout Asia and Africa.