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A new species of southern African triplefin

Wouter Holleman, a research associate of SAIAB, has described a new species of triplefin, Helcogramma rharhabe, from southern Africa. Triplefins have 3 dorsal fins; Helcogramma species have 3 spines in the first dorsal fin and a single lateral line that curves downwards to finish midlaterally below the 2nd dorsal fin. Helcogramma rharhabe is common in weedy tide pools and is sometimes found on shallow reefs. The species was in Smiths’ Sea Fishes as Helcogramma obtusirostre with the common name of hotlips triplefin. Helcogramma obtusirostre is now considered to be endemic to the Red Sea. This new species was called Helcogramma sp. in the Coastal Fishes of Southern Africa. Triplefins are small benthic fish that are rarely photographed, we welcome any photographs that you may send in to Fishwatch.

Most female triplefins are difficult to identify by colour alone, however, males have more distinctive colour patterns. The male hotlips triplefin is dark brown to black, the pelvic fin-rays have some crimson, pectoral fins have a crimson spot or two and the upper lip is dark in the centre, bright crimson on either side, with a neon blue line from the mouth well below the eye to the posterior edge of the preopercle. The females are drab with mottled cream and brown blotches. It has been suggested that very dark males are in full breeding dress and may have a harem of females. Helcogramma rharhabe is found along the southern African coast from East London to Bazaruto, Mozambique.

In the Eastern Cape the species is sometimes known as “hotlips” because of the crimson on the upper lip. It is, however, named “rharhabe”, after the eldest son of Phalo, paramount chief of the amaXhosa. About 1750, Rharhabe and his father quelled an uprising by Rharhabe’s half-brother, Gcaleka, and subsequently lead a break-away group which Rharhabe ruled as paramount chief from 1775 to 1787 (Owen 1994).

Hotlips triplefins, Helcogramma rharhabe, occur together with blackfin triplefins, Helcogramma fuscopinna, throughout most of their range, and with Helcogramma ememes at Bazaruto (H. ememes is known along the coast from Kenya to Bazaruto). Male hotlips triplefins have partially red lips and a blue stripe from the corner of the mouth onto the preopercle, whereas the distinctive blue stripe of male blackfin triplefins runs from near the middle of the upper lip directly below the eye and onto the opercle. Male Helcogramma ememes can be distinguished from hotlips triplefins because they lack a blue stripe from the mouth to the preopercle and have no red on the upper lip.

A 40 mm male hotlips triplefin Helcogramma rharhabe from Park Rynie (above left) and a 40 mm female hotlips triplefin (above right) from Sodwana Bay. Both photographs by Phil Heemstra.
A 40 mm SL mature male blackfin triplefin Helcogramma fuscopinna from Rodrigues. Photograph by Phil Heemstra.   A 23 mm SL male Helcogramma ememes from Seychelles. Photograph by Jack Randall.



All text, images and photographs copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 & 2006
South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity or the respective photographer. All Rights Reserved.
Last update: January 31, 2008