Invasive Damselfish Species May be Infiltrating the Gulf of Mexico

First Posted: Jan 21, 2016 04:04 PM EST

Species may be invading the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists have taken a closer look at the regal damselfish, and have found that they're popping up in a part of the ocean where they don't really belong.

"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," said Matthew Johnston, one of the researchers, in a news release. "They may not be as impactful as they 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."

In this case, the damselfish was discovered inhabiting coral reefs near Veracruz, Mexico. Since its native waters are in the Red Sea and the Indo-Pacific, it's clear that the fish is a bit out of its normal neighborhood. Because these fish are breeding in these waters, there's the risk that it could overtake existing ecosystems. The main concern is that little has been done to assess the invasion risk posed by the fish.

That's why the scientists used computer simulations to forecast the spread of the tiny fish from where they were first found near Veracruz, Mexico. In their model, the scientists factored in oceanic water flow, the tolerances known to the damselfish in the ocean environment and their reproductive strategies. All of these things have a direct impact on how fast they can spread.

So what did they find? It turns out that most of the Gulf of Mexico won't see this fish swimming in their waters any time soon. The bad news is that reefs in the southern Gulf of Mexico are likely to see a lot more of them.

"The discovery of the regal damselfish in Mexico highlights that we need to be very careful not to let our pets escape or release them into the wild," said Johnston. "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."

The findings are published in the journal Marine Biology.

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