Scientist Discovers Tiny Fish the Size of a Pill, Names It After the Pandemic

Scientists have discovered a tiny new species of fish the size of an Aspirin pill—and they named it after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fish, dubbed the "pandemic blenny," was described in a study published in the journal Zootaxa by Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Phil Hastings.

Blennies are a group of over 900 small reef fish species, which are found around the world. The name of the new blenny species was inspired by Hastings' isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well the fish's very small range that is restricted to the waters of Costa Rica's Cocos Island.

The lands and waters of this volcanic island, which is located about 350 miles off Costa Rica's Pacific Coast, are protected as a natural reserve—one that is home to several species found nowhere else on Earth.

When Scripps Institution of Oceanography's campus closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hastings took home several fish specimens from the Scripps collection—as well as others from the Smithsonian Institution, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and the University of Costa Rica—so he could study them in an attempt to identify new species.

This research led to the documentation of the pandemic blenny, which he gave the scientific name Coralliozetus clausus.

"One of the pleasurable tasks of describing a new species is selecting a unique name for it. I originally thought about naming the fish in reference to its small size," Hastings said in a statement.

"But then, when considering its restricted distribution, I decided to give it the Latin specific name of clausus which means 'enclosed' or 'having been shut off.' As I stared at the four walls of my home office, I thought about my own and others' isolation during the pandemic, so I gave it the common name of pandemic blenny."

Hastings told Newsweek that we know very little about the new species because only 21 specimens have been collected—with the earliest dating back to 1993.

"The main distinction worth mentioning is its extremely small size—the largest one known is only 15 millimeters (0.6 inches) in length and males are sexually mature as small as 12.6 millimeters (0.5 inches.)

But despite our lack of knowledge, Hastings said the new species probably likes to occupy empty barnacle husks based on what we know about closely related species.

"Barnacles are common on shallow rocky shores where there is strong wave surge, a habitat that is difficult to observe and collect fishes in—especially on an oceanic island like Cocos where waves are large and frequent," Hastings said. "This, together with its small size, likely is the reason it has been so rarely collected and to my knowledge never observed in the wild."

In general, blennies tend to be extremely hard to detect and quantify because of the their small size, as well as the fact that they tend to dwell near the seafloor.

The pandemic blenny
An image of the new fish species—the tiny pandemic blenny. Scripps Institution of Oceanography