Common name: Handfishes


Small and unusual bottom-dwelling fishes restricted to inshore waters of southern and south-eastern Australia. 
Three species are listed as threatened under The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, 1999.

Cite this page as:
Dianne J. Bray, Handfishes, BRACHIONICHTHYIDAE in Fishes of Australia, accessed 27 Feb 2024,

More Info

Family Taxonomy

A small endemic Australian family with 5 genera and 14 species. Although now restricted to south-eastern Australia, handfishes are well-represented in the remarkable Eocene fossil site of Monte Bolca in Italy.

Family Distribution

Found in eastern and southern Australia from the central eastern coast to the Great Australian Bight. The group is most diverse in Tasmanian waters, and all but three species are found there. Most species have small populations with restricted distributions.

Family Description

Peculiar anglerfish relatives with arm-like pectoral fins and 3 dorsal-fin spines, last 2 forming obvious fin separate from more posterior, elongate, soft 2nd dorsal fin; head and body robust anteriorly, tapering gradually to shallow caudal peduncle; mouth small reaching to below front edge of small eye; pore-like gill opening above and behind pectoral-fin base; normal scales absent but skin sometimes covered with small spinules or warts; illicium on tip of snout, not retracting into special cavity; ventral fins jugular with one spine and 4 rays. General description and diagnostic features: First dorsal spine a fishing lure on snout, second on head united by membrane, separated from long soft dorsal fin. Pelvic and pectoral fins used in "walking" along the bottom. Scales absent, but skin - rough or spinulated.

Family Size

Reach 15 cm in length.

Family Feeding

Rather sedentary fishes feeding on small crustaceans such as amphipods, as well as small molluscs, polychaete worms and small fishes.

Family Reproduction

Much is known about the reproduction and early life history of handfishes due to monitoring and captive breeding programs for the Spotted Handfish. Fertilisation is external and Spotted Handfish and Red Handfish spawn in September and October. Females lay eggs masses (comprising 80-250 eggs) around the bases of sessile invertebrates and other structures. Spotted Handfish prefer stalked ascidians such as Sycozoa sp., whereas Red Handfish lay their eggs masses around algae (Caulerpa sp.). Handfish eggs are large, 3-4 mm in diameter and are individually housed in separate flask-like structures, connected to others by tendrils and tubules. Females protect their egg masses for 7-8 weeks until the young hatch. Handfishes lack a pelagic larval stage and the young hatch as fully-formed miniature versions of the adults, 6-7 mm in length. The young remain near the spawning site and grow rapidly into their second year. Females mature at 2-3 years of age and between 75-80 mm SL

Family Commercial

Of no interest to fisheries or aquaculture - occasionally caught in demersal trawls or scallop dredges.

Family Conservation

Three species of handfish are listed as threatened under The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act): Brachionichthys hirsutus Spotted Handfish - listed as Endangered (facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future) Brachionichthys politus Red Handfish - listed as Vulnerable (facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future) Brachiopsilus ziebelli Ziebell's Handfish - listed as Vulnerable (facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future). 
All handfish species are protected under the Tasmanian Living Marine Resources Management Act 1995, which prohibits their collection in State waters without a permit. The cause of the decline in spotted handfish is unclear. Suggested causes may include disturbance of benthic communities and predation on egg masses by the introduced northern Pacific seastar, habitat modification through increased siltation, heavy metal contamination or urban effluent. The lack of a pelagic larval stage and low rates of dispersal may be responsible for their restricted distributions and may also have an impact on handfishes ability to recolonise areas where they once occurred.

Family Remarks

Handfishes commonly 'walk' on their pelvic and hand-like pectoral fins rather than swim.


Dianne J. Bray


Bruce, B.D., M.A. Green & P.R. Last. 1997. Developing captive husbandry techniques for spotted handfish, Brachionichthys hirsutus, and monitoring the 1996 spawning season. Final report to Endangered Species Unit, Environment Australia. CSIRO Division of Marine Research Hobart.

Bruce, B.D., M.A. Green & P.R. Last. 1998. Threatened Fishes of the World: Brachionichthys hirsutus (Lacepede, 1804) (Brachionichthyidae). Environmental Biology of Fishes. 52: 418.

Bruce, B.D., M.A. Green & P.R. Last. 1999. Aspects of the biology of the endangered spotted handfish, Brachionichthys hirsutus (Lophiiformes: Brachionichthyidae) off southern Australia. In: Séret B. & Sire, J.-Y. (eds.) Proc. 5th Indo-Pac. Fish Conf., Noumea, 1997: 369-380.

CSIRO 2005. "Fish that Walk", video clip of the Spotted handfish at

Last, P.R. & B.D. Bruce. 1997. Spotted handfish. Nature Australia. 25(7): 20-21. 

Last, P.R. & Gledhill, D.C. 2009. A revision of the Australian handfishes (Lophiiformes: Brachionichthyidae), with descriptions of three new genera and nine new species. Zootaxa 2252: 1-77.

Last, P.R., Gledhill, D.C. & Holmes, B.H. 2007. A new handfish, Brachionichthys australis sp. nov. (Lophiiformes: Brachionichthyidae), with a redescription of the critically endangered spotted handfish, B. hirsutus (Lacepède). Zootaxa 1666: 53–68.

Pogonoski, J.J., D.A. Pollard & J.R. Paxton. 2002. Conservation Overview and action Plan for Australian Threatened and Potentially Threatened Marine and Estuarine Fishes. Environment Australia, Canberra.