Researchers at Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies (KUFOS) have discovered a new species of “snakehead fish” lurking in the subterranean waters of Kerala.

The bizarre fish has been scientifically named Aenigmachanna Gollum (Gollum Snakehead- common name) after ‘Gollum’, a character from the ‘The Lord of the Rings’, a creature that went underground and during its subterranean life changed its morphological features.

The fish is not only a new species, but also a remarkable new genus of the snakehead family channidae (which is currently represented by two other genera, Channa in Asia, and Parachanna in Africa), said Rajeev Raghavan, Asst Professor at the Dept of Fisheries Resource Management, Kufos.

Snakehead fishes ( Varaal – in Malayalam ) of the family Channidae are predatory freshwater fishes comprising 50 valid species, many of which are important food fishes. Some are also popular in the aquarium fish trade, and others have been introduced around the world with several species becoming highly invasive.

Normally subterranean fishes show many unique characters which are interestingly absent in Aenigmachanna . This suggests two possibilities – either it represents a lineage that only recently began a subterranean lifestyle and still has maintained its surface-life features, or that it lives in a habitat in which regular excursions to the surface-water still occur.

When a local youth stumbled upon this interesting fish from his rice field near Vengara in Malappuram, little did he realize that the fish will become one of the most unusual species to be described from India in recent times. The fish adds a strikingly distinct morphology from any other species found in India, said VK Anoop, a PhD student at KUFOS.

Though Kerala is one of the best-explored regions in India, with regard to freshwater biodiversity, research on subterranean animals is still at its infancy. Several weird genera and species of fish and shrimps have been discovered from the State in the recent past and it reveals more questions than answers on their evolution and bio-geographic relationships. The ongoing research at KUFOS in association with the Natural History Museum in London and IISER Pune is hopeful of solving some of these mysteries.