Colorful Hawaiian Fish Named in Honor of President Obama

Barack Obama fish
Sylvia Earle, a deep ocean explorer, gives President Barack Obama a photograph of Tosanoides obama on Midway Atoll, from the film "Sea of Hope: America's Underwater Treasures" premiering on National Geographic Channel on Jan. 15, 2017. (Image credit: Brian Skerry | National Geographic)

Next time he's vacationing in Hawaii, President Barack Obama might just bump into his new namesake: a pink, yellow and blue coral-reef fish that researchers have named in the president's honor.

Researchers discovered the previously unknown fish species, now dubbed Tosanoides obama, during a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expedition to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in June 2016.

"We decided to name this fish after President Obama to recognize his efforts to protect and preserve the natural environment, including the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea," the study's lead author, Richard Pyle, a scientist at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, said in a statement. "This expansion adds a layer of protection to one of the last great wilderness areas on Earth." [In Photos: Spooky Deep-Sea Creatures]

Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument on Aug. 26 after Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), along with conservationists and marine scientists, urged the president to protect the region's waters and marine life. The monument is now 582,578 square miles (1.5 million square kilometers), an area more than twice the size of Texas, that holds the title for largest permanent protected marine area on the planet. (The 598,000-squaremile, or 1.55 million square km, marine reserve in Antarctica's Ross Sea is larger, but that area is protected for only a 35-year period, Live Science reported in October.)

During a September trip to Midway Atoll, an island within the monument, Obama met with legendary scientist, conservationist and deep-ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, who gave the president a photograph of T. obama. The footage of the visit will be shown on the National Geographic global broadcast special, "Sea Of Hope," which will air Jan. 15, 2017.

Fishy find

T. obama is small, just 2.4 inches (6.1 centimeters) long, and it lives deep underwater, about 300 feet (90 meters) under the surface. Deep coral reefs grow at this depth, but despite the diversity of animals that live there, this so-called "twilight zone" isn't well-explored by marine biologists, the researchers said.

The closest known relative to the new species is Tosanoides flavofasciatus, a fish that lives in the Palau islands. (Image credit: Richard L. Pyle Bishop Museum)

When scientists first spotted the small pink fish, they thought it was a Pseudanthias thompsoni (another tropical fish species), but a prominent red spot on the end of the animal's dorsal fin indicated that the fish was a previously unidentified species, the researchers wrote in the study.

A later analysis found that the fish belongs to the basslet group, which includes colorful reef fishes often seen in the aquarium fish trade. The fish's distinctive spot, seen on males, is blue around the edge (although it looks purple in the photo) with red and yellow stripes in the center.   

"The spot on the males is reminiscent of President Obama's campaign logo," said Pyle. "It seemed especially appropriate for a fish named in honor of the president."

The two other species in the genus Tosanoides live in the tropical northwestern Pacific Ocean, far away from the monument. [StarStruck: Species Named After Celebrities]

"The new fish is special because it is the only known species of coral-reef fish endemic to the monument [meaning that the species is found nowhere else on Earth]," said study co-author Randall Kosaki, a NOAA scientist and chief scientist of the research cruise. "Our research has documented the highest rate of fish endemism in the world — 100 percent — living on the deep reefs where we found this new species."

Kosaki added, "With the onslaught of climate change, we are at risk of losing some of these undiscovered species before we even know they exist."

The first documented Tosanoides obama on record, alive in a holding tank aboard the NOAA ship Hi’ialakai. (Image credit: Richard L. Pyle Bishop Museum)

T. obama is the second new fish species discovered in Papahānaumokuākea this year. In August, Pyle and Kosaki published a study in the journal ZooKeys describing a new species of butterflyfish (Prognathodes basabei).

T. obama is also the latest of a long line of new species named for the 44th president of the United States. For instance, there's a new species of lichen named after him (Caloplaca obamae) and a trapdoor spider (Aptostichus barackobamai). But Obama isn't the only politician to be honored in this way. In 2005, researchers named newfound species of slime-mold beetles after President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Agathidium bushiA. cheneyi and A. rumsfeldi), and an extinct giant sloth (Megalonyx jeffersonii) is named in honor of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president.  

The study was published online today (Dec. 21) in the journal ZooKeys.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.