Native fish tell story of Australia's less arid past

June 14, 2018, Flinders University
A male southern pygmy perch (Nannoperca australis). Credit: Michael Hammer

Despite the odds, new research has shown how a tiny fish managed to find its way across the arid Australian continent – more than once.

The perches are a group of small freshwater fish native to the temperate parts of Australia, found in the southwest of Western Australia and the southeast part of the continent.

Given their size, it's remained a mystery as to how they managed to spread across Australia through arid regions, such as the Nullarbor Plain.

Now a combination of genomic data, including several thousands of DNA markers and complex modelling techniques, has revealed how history has affected their evolution.

The research led by Finders University found that not only did the pygmy perches travel across Australia in the distant past, but that it likely happened more than once over 15 million years ago.

"It's remarkable how such small fish could travel so far," says Flinders University Molecular Ecology Lab Ph.D. candidate Sean Buckley, "but the environment of southern Australia was very different at that time.

"The Nullarbor Plain hadn't formed yet and much of the area was significantly wetter which would have allowed them to disperse," he says.

A western pygmy perch ( (Nannoperca vittata). Credit: Chris Lamin

Analysing the also provided more insights into the evolution of pygmy perches.

"Our research also found that one of pygmy perch, Nannoperca vittata, might actually be a complex group of up to three distinct species," says chief investigator Professor Luciano Beheregaray, who leads the Molecular Ecology Laboratory at the College of Science and Engineering at Flinders University.

"How many of these are true species will require further research, but this has many implications for conservation management of pygmy perches."

"Nearly all species of pygmy perch are at the very least threatened, and extensive work has already been done to conserve two species from the Murray-Darling Basin, the southern and Yarra pygmy perches," says Professor Luciano Beheregaray.

"The efforts from rural communities, universities and several government and non-government organisations have been key to their survival."

Captive breeding programs are important to restoring native fish populations to Australia’s river systems. Credit: Flinders University

The Molecular Ecology Lab has been a key player in these efforts, with their own in-house genetics-based breeding program that has successfully boosted numbers of threatened fish species.

"Without the conservation efforts for pygmy perches, this research would have been impossible," Mr Buckley adds. "Without pygmy perches we might have missed some key insights into Australia's past."

The findings have been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Explore further: DNA work saves fish from extinction

More information: Sean J. Buckley et al. Phylogenomic history of enigmatic pygmy perches: implications for biogeography, taxonomy and conservation, Royal Society Open Science (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.172125

Related Stories

DNA work saves fish from extinction

March 9, 2016

Flinders University scientists have created a model for conservation programs after helping to bring local populations of native pygmy perch back from extinction.

Researchers name new fish species

April 16, 2013

( —Researchers from Murdoch University's Freshwater Fish Group & Fish Health Unit and South Australian Museum have officially named Australia's newest freshwater fish: the Little Pygmy Perch (Nannoperca pygmaea ...

A genetic lift puts perch back in the swim

November 8, 2011

Four species of freshwater native fish brought to the brink of extinction by drought are being re-released into the lower Murray wetlands, and thanks to Flinders University research, they have an improved chance of survival.

Smallest monkey's evolutionary secret

February 27, 2018

Evolutionary biologists have now discovered that the Pygmy Marmoset – the world's smallest monkey – is not one species but two.

Rare south-west fish suffers further decline

March 31, 2015

Researchers have discovered that the range of one of Western Australia's rarest freshwater fishes, Balston's Pygmy Perch, could have declined by as much as 25 per cent.

Recommended for you

Solid-state catalysis: Fluctuations clear the way

February 18, 2019

The use of efficient catalytic agents is what makes many technical procedures feasible in the first place. Indeed, synthesis of more than 80 percent of the products generated in the chemical industry requires the input of ...

Engineered metasurfaces reflect waves in unusual directions

February 18, 2019

In our daily lives, we can find many examples of manipulation of reflected waves, such as mirrors, or reflective surfaces for sound that improve auditorium acoustics. When a wave impinges on a reflective surface with a certain ...

Design principles for peroxidase-mimicking nanozymes

February 18, 2019

Nanozymes, enzyme-like catalytic nanomaterials, are considered to be the next generation of enzyme mimics because they not only overcome natural enzymes' intrinsic limitations, but also possess unique properties in comparison ...

Sound waves let quantum systems 'talk' to one another

February 18, 2019

Researchers at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory have invented an innovative way for different types of quantum technology to "talk" to each other using sound. The study, published Feb. 11 in Nature ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.