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Unidentified fish hide from an underwater robot's bright lights.

Unidentified fish hide from a submersible's bright lights off Chile. Help scientists give them a name.

Image courtesy Avi Klapfer

An unidentified species of fish.

Image courtesy Avi Klapfer

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published July 30, 2013

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo What's in a name? Whether you're star-crossed lovers in a Shakespeare play or researchers exploring the ends of the Earth, names can be everything. A proper name can transcend languages and cultures, allowing anyone around the world to know who or what you're talking about.

Now, folks have a chance to help give a mystery fish a new identity—and for one lucky contest winner, a chance to go on a ten-day trip to the Galápagos.

Discovered in February in the seas surrounding the Desventuradas Islands (the "unfortunate" islands in Spanish) off the coast of Chile, experts say this fish (pictured) could be a new species.

The National Geographic Society is holding a contest from July 31 to August 26 to give this mystery fish a common name. People can enter their submissions in the comment box below. (Learn more about the contest rules.)

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala came upon the four-inch (ten-centimeter) creature while exploring a seamount near San Félix Island (map) in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

While maneuvering a submersible 436 feet (133 meters) down a basalt wall, Sala and colleagues spotted several brightly colored spots hovering near the rock. "We got closer and tried to focus and zoom our video camera to get a closer look, but the spots darted into a hole and disappeared as soon as our submarine lights were on them," Sala wrote in an email.

They saw more of the yellow-orange spots farther down and were able to get a good look at the organisms. It turns out they were fish that Sala had never seen before.

Crowd Sourcing

"We consulted experts and everyone thought that it was a new species," Sala added in an interview earlier this month.

Confirmation of this fish's new species designation must involve studies of physical specimens—experts performed initial examinations based on video footage and photographs—and a formal description in a scientific journal.

"Scientific naming is a very laborious process," said Luiz Rocha, a fish researcher at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, who was not involved in the expedition.

The amount of time it takes to formally name a species varies, but it can take anywhere from six months to a year, he said.

In the case of a potentially new fish species, specialists look at body measurements including the length, body depth, the number of scales in the lateral line, and the number of flexible spines in the fins called fin rays, explained Rocha.

But until researchers can fully examine this mystery fish, Sala would like to be able to share his find with the public.

"There are parts of science and discovery that should be conducted also by citizens," he wrote. "If people can name planets, they should be able to name animals, too."

Dual Identities

Most organisms on Earth have two identities. All species formally acknowledged by researchers have scientific names: a two-part Latin moniker consisting of a genus and species designation that every specialist follows. (Learn more about the species concept.)

But many are also known by common names—like great white shark, gray wolf, or redwood tree. And those names can differ depending on which region you're in or what language you're speaking.

Rocha does a lot of work in Brazil, and he says that the common names of fish can vary depending on which community he's in. Sometimes those communities are separated by only a few hundred kilometers.

Scientific names do not vary geographically or by language, although it's common for experts to rename species as more information about the organisms' genetics or relationship to other species comes to light.

"It happens relatively often in the scientific literature," Rocha said. "A lot of times we find that one species that was widely distributed is actually two or three or more."

If that's the case, he explained, the original scientific name stays with the species that yielded the original specimen and the "newly" discovered species get their own scientific names.

The Name Game

Despite the importance of naming and describing species—otherwise known as taxonomy—the field tends to get short shrift when it comes time to distribute research funds, said Carole Baldwin, curator of fishes at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Many taxonomists find themselves working on other projects that have better chances of getting funded and doing species descriptions on the side, she said.

But knowing what to call something, and how it fits in with its relatives, is the starting point for any further scientific study, said Baldwin. "It's the foundation of everything we do in biology."

And efforts such as the Encyclopedia of Life, a database with information about and images of all the species known to science, are entirely validated by taxonomy, she added.

The California Academy of Sciences' Rocha agrees, adding that although many people think everything out there has already been described, that's just not the case. (Related: "Pictures: Top 10 Newly Discovered Species of 2012.")

National Geographic's Sala was fairly certain his team would find new species when they ventured to the Unfortunate Islands. "Ours was the first deep-sea exploration of the deep habitats of the Desventuradas Islands with a submarine," he said.

"Of course, we could not know what we were going to find," Sala noted. "That's the magic of exploration."

To enter this contest, list your name for the fish in the comment box below. The contest runs from July 31 to August 26, 2013. Prize provided by National Geographic Expeditions. (Learn more about the contest rules.)

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

9565 comments
Atanaska Novakova
Atanaska Novakova

This little fish is a "messenger of  Peace". It's painted in the colours of peace and it's saying "Make peace not war!"  It could be named "Peace messenger", "Herald of peace", "Peace fish", "Fish of peace", or something fun like "Bohemian fish", "Bohofish", "Hippie fish". 

And we are talking about peace...it could be named "The Planet Earth messenger", "Herald of the Earth", because the message of the Planet Earth is "Stop killing The Planet Earth!". Must be peace and harmony between humans and the Earth.

Or..."Fairy fish" , it's an "Ocean fairy", which makes peace,

"Harmony fish", "Ocean harmony" or only "Harmony".

mehdi zhaleh
mehdi zhaleh

ophilia(a silent & beautifull part or life story)

Sara Sabín Garcia
Sara Sabín Garcia


Chile lotus / Loto de Chile ( The name derives from the comparison made ​​with the lotus flower of India as their colors closely resemble those of fish)

Sara Sabín Garcia
Sara Sabín Garcia

Fire diamond /Diamante de fuego ( Because of the value of the diamonds that are hard to find because they are hidden, moreover, the diamonds shine bright. With this I related the fish, the difficulty and the value  of the discovery of a new specie like this. Also, the fish shine like diamonds. I compared the fire with the warm colours of the fish .)

Sara Sabín Garcia
Sara Sabín Garcia

Venus is the first planet that you can see when the sun goes down and we see it as a light shining bright in the dark sky. We should take this as a metaphor,this discovering could be compared with this light, " the light of the hope". In this time of crisis; logging, the oceanic acidification, overexploitation of fisheries, pollution of the green and blue zones... We need hope, our world need a change and these little things, as the discovering of a new specie, is a push, a sunbeam,a ray of hope, "the first light that we can see at the dark of the night"

Sara Sabín Garcia
Sara Sabín Garcia

hidden light

sea sparkle

fugitive spark

glow fish

gotu fish

citric fish

sea lightning

chiles sunset

Sara Sabín Garcia
Sara Sabín Garcia

"El dorado" ( "El dorado" is a famous legend which tells the story of a lost city, utopian, hidden and that nobody has ever seen, which is built in gold. Many expeditions went to America in search of this treasure. I compared this fish with "El dorado" because it had never been seen before, lay hidden like treasure. Its warm colours and brightness reminiscent gold (precious metal, soft, yellowish, bright, which can be found in its purest form which can be found in the bed of the rivers or in depths of the earth).The value of the discovery of a new species could compare with the value of gold )


Iryna K.
Iryna K.

Mysticus

Autumn color fish

Autumn leaf fish

Mystic diva

Leslie Rogers
Leslie Rogers

 Sapphire Flighter

-when said aloud, the name sounds like fire fighter, which evokes the fiery color of the body of the fish.  The blue in the eye could be the first drop of water fighting the bright fire, and the tiny amount of blue shows how little control we have over nature

-sapphire for the blue of the eyes.  I wanted the overlap of sapphire & fire to emphasize the contrast in colors

-flighter for flighty behavior, darting away to hide in rocks

M X
M X

Lux Flabellum

This is "light fan" in Latin. However, because it is a small finish it is a "flabellum"-meaning small fan, instead a regular fan. It's a little fan like fish that seems to be radiating colorful light in the depths of the "Unfortunate" Islands.  

X C
X C

Happy Un-Lucky Fish

A play on words from Happy-Go-Lucky! It's a happy pretty fish found on the isles without luck :) And we're all happy that it was found too so it's an all around happy fish. The "un" part is partially optional with the dash, because after all, it's a pretty lucky fish to have been found by NG!

Jamie Stelly
Jamie Stelly

"Brillo Dorado" or in English "Golden Glow" 

Chester Thai
Chester Thai

Apollios Sol Fish

Combination of Apollo (Greek/Roman god of light) and Helios (Greek sun god). Sol = sun/Roman sun god

Brittney Russell
Brittney Russell

Oranyell Shy Fish

* Oranyell because of its colors: orange (mainly) and yellow

* Shy because of its behavior

Thank you for the opportunity

Francisco Padilla
Francisco Padilla

Otea Fish

Otea in the Rapa Nui language, an endangered language spoken in the Easter Island, means "Sunrise" relating to the to the colors present in the fish.

The Rapa Nui people underwent a terrible catasthrope; the one that occurs when an ever-growing population crashes into finite natural resources: Destruction.  

It could be said that their unfortunate or "Desventurada" faith of the Rapa Nui people  can be seen as a wake-up call for present time society.

And even when the Rapa Nui people that built the giant statues may be long gone, it may be redeemed with a new "Sunrise" when try to regain balance with our planet, so let Otea represent a beacon for conservation, the proof that even when we, humans, have destroying our planet for centuries there is still a lot that we don't know yet, a lot of species out there that have never been seen, a lot to discover.

We may not know what the future holds, but if we learn from the past, if we learn from the mistakes made in Easter Island we may have a new Otea tomorrow.

Paz Bernaldo de Q
Paz Bernaldo de Q

"Fortunate Fruits Fish"


(Venturado Pez Fruta in Spanish. What fruits?: orange, lemon, blueberries, papaya, grapes, etc. And fortunate cause he is quite beautiful, even though he lives in the Islas Desventuradas.)

Jill Covington
Jill Covington

Neon del Pacifico

(Spanish for Neon of the Pacific)

Lillian Vidovic
Lillian Vidovic

"GOLDEN HARP"

The fish is mostly gold and the fins look like harp

Stan Covington
Stan Covington

Misterio Pescado       (Spanish for Mystery Fish)

Holly DiClaudio
Holly DiClaudio

Unfortunate Island Darter

Spanish:  Desventuradas Isla Dardo

Latin: Infelix insulam fulminat

Jorjana Lindsay
Jorjana Lindsay

I would like to suggest the Knotts Fish after Don Knotts and his roll as "The Incredible Mr. Limpet." The fish have his big blue eyes and signature pucker that cannot be mistaken as anyone else.

Ayesha Anwer
Ayesha Anwer

The Ossui fish! Ossui would be an acronym for Orangey Snicket and a Series of Unfortunate Islands -- wordplay. Since the fish is partially orange and was found near the Unfortunate Island, I think it fits well! 

Julia Hanoman
Julia Hanoman

"Blue-eyed Sunset Fish" . I think this name would describe the fish perfectly - "Blue-eyed" - obvious, "Sunset" - because of the color of the body and I would have liked to add "winged" because of the shape of the fins when spread out but the whole name "Blue-eyed Winged Sunset Fish" may be a bit of a mouthful.

Maria DePaul
Maria DePaul

Sourgummy Fish seems like the perfect name for it because it looks just like my kids' favorite candy!

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