Where sharks learned to walk

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Dozens of new species, including nocturnal sharks that walk on their fins, flasher wrasse and many previously unknown forms of reef-building coral, have been discovered off the Indonesian province of Papua.

Scientists say the discovery confirms the reefs off the Bird’s Head peninsula as the “bullseye” within Asia’s species-rich Coral Triangle and the place with the most diverse marine life on Earth.

The area, which is currently sparsely populated, faces an immediate threat from the planned expansion of commercial fishing, which scientists say could wipe out its riches within five years.

Scientists from Conservation International, an American conservation body, found more than 52 new species, including fish, coral and mantis shrimp in the submerged reefs around the Bird’s Head peninsula, in an area of 38,000 sq kms (14,671 sq miles) that includes 2,500 islands.

The area, which scientists say is “stunningly beautiful” above and below water, also boasts the largest Pacific leatherback turtle nesting area in the world and migratory populations of sperm, Bryde’s and killer whales and several dolphin species.

Last year, another team of scientists led by Conservation International and the Indonesian Institute of Science, found a “lost world” of birds, butterflies, frogs and other wildlife in the remote Foja mountains a few hundred miles inland.

The four fish species scientists have now discovered include “epaulette” sharks that “walk” across the reefs at night on their pectoral fins and “flasher” wrasse, which rise up and down in the water column changing colour into brilliant yellows and pinks as part of their mating display. These bring the number of fish species in the area to 1,200.

The 20 new species of reef-building coral bring the number of corals found in what scientists are now calling the Bird’s Head Seascape to nearly 600, or 75 per cent of the world’s total. The Great Barrier Reef, off eastern Australia, has 405.

Six of the survey sites