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Invasive Damselfish Are In Gulf Of Mexico's Southern Reefs

Jan 22, 2016 01:42 PM EST

Researchers from Nova Southeastern University (NSU) have found the regal damselfish is popping up in places it doesn't belong, including coral reefs in the southern Gulf of Mexico, which has seen quite a few new visitors lately.  

"While you wouldn't immediately think of the regal damsel as a dangerous fish, the fact is they are now in places where they are not native and they're spreading, which makes them potentially an invasive species," Matthew Johnston, a marine researcher from NSU's Guy Harvey Research Institute, explained in a new release. "They may not be as impactful as say the lionfish has been, but these fish can also have a negative impact on their new habitats - it could throw the ecosystem out of natural balance."

The regal damselfish is native to the Red Sea and the Indo-Pacific. In the latest study, Johnston and a team of researchers investigated just how impactful the regal damselfish (Neopomacentrus cyanomos) could be if it establishes itself in this new habitat.

Using computer simulations, they were able to predict where this tiny fish may spread, based on where it was first found near Veracruz, Mexico. Factors such as oceanic water flow, tolerance levels of damselfish in open oceans and their reproductive strategies were all considered when making their predictions.  

Although the fish won't radiate further into the Gulf anytime soon, researchers found reefs in the southern Gulf of Mexico can expect to see a lot more of them.

There are a lot of ways that invasive fish end up in new habitats: For starters, damselfish are the focal point of many saltwater aquariums, but people often dump non-native fish into the ocean or closest body of water when they get rid of their tanks.

"The discovery of the regal damsel in Mexico highlights that we need to be very careful not to let our pets escape or release them into the wild," Johnston added in the university's release. "This fish is just one of at least 40 marine aquarium fish that have been documented in the tropical Atlantic. You don't have to be an apex predator, have huge teeth or venomous spines to be a negative force on a reef - you just have to be where you're really not supposed to be and compete for the reef's limited resources."

Another way fish easily relocate is by accidentally getting "sucked" into the ballast tanks of large ships.

Their study was recently published in the journal Marine Biology

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