Spotted Handfish, Brachionichthys hirsutus (Lacépède 1804)

Other Names: Prickly-skinned Handfish, Red Handfish, Tortoiseshell Fish

A Spotted Handfish, Brachionichthys hirsutus, in the Derwent Estuary, Tasmania. Source: Rick Stuart-Smith / Reef Life Survey. License: CC BY Attribution


A small anglerfish-relative found only in the Derwent Estuary, Tasmania. Rather than swim, handfishes usually crawl along the bottom on their hand-like pectoral and pelvic fins.

Spotted Handfish are white, or cream to brown, and covered in small close-set brown, orange or blackish spots (or occasionally stripes) with dark saddle-like markings sometimes present along back and and below rear of second dorsal fin. The body is covered in small spinules, the longest dorsal-fin ray is slightly longer than the longest dorsal-fin spine, and the 'fishing rod' is more than 5 times longer than the fishing lure at its tip.

Video of a Spotted Handfish up close

The BBC Natural History Unit has amazing video footage of spotted handfishes feeding, handfish courtship displays, spawning behaviour and the tiny young hatching from eggs.

CSIRO video clip with underwater footage, and an explanation of the conservation status of the Spotted Handfish.

Spotted Handfish with her eggs in the Derwent Estuary, Tasmania.

ARKive images and video clips 

Cite this page as:
Bray, D.J. 2020, Brachionichthys hirsutus in Fishes of Australia, accessed 19 Sep 2020,

Spotted Handfish, Brachionichthys hirsutus (Lacépède 1804)

More Info


Endemic to the Derwent Estuary and adjacent areas in south-eastern Tasmania. 

Inhabits shallow protected coastal bays with sandy and shelly substrates in depths to 60 metres. Spotted Handfish prefer areas with features such as shallow shell-filled depressions and ripple formations, or low relief rocks projecting from the substrate. Individuals avoid simple low sand flats, and areas dominated by ephemeral, filamentous algae. 

Historically, the species was widespread along the east coast of Tasmania. During the 1980s, researchers found the Handfish populations had declined in both distribution and number of individuals. Since then, populations have continued to decline, and the species now exists in only nine fragmented sub-populations in the Estuary.


Feeds on small benthic invertebrates including amphipods, other small crustaceans and polychaete worms.


Spotted Handfish spawn from September to October, and females attach an interconnected egg mass of 60–250 large eggs mostly onto stalked ascidians, but also on seagrass, sponges, hydroids or polychaete worm tubes. The female protects the eggs mass for 7-8 weeks until the young hatch.

Spotted Handfish lack a larval stage and the young hatch as fully formed juveniles (6–7mm in length). The hatchlings recruit directly to the sea floor and remain within a relatively small area throughout their lives. Individuals attain sexual maturity by 2-3 years of age and about 7 cm in length, with growth slowing significantly afterwards.


  • IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
  • EPBC Act: Critically Endangered
  • State Government of Tasmania Threatened Species Protection Act: Protected and listed as Endangered

  • The decline of the Spotted Handfish may be due to a number of factors including:

    Historic scallop fishery in the Derwent Estuary

    Predation on handfish egg masses by the northern Pacific Seastar Asterias amurensis, an introduced pest species;

    Habitat loss due to increased siltation of the Derwent Estuary;

    Pollution from urban effluent, and the heavy metal contamination of bottom sediments. Due to the lack of a larval stage, handfish have very limited dispersal abilities.

    Capture is totally prohibited for this federally and state-protected species, and punishment for poaching includes heavy fines and/or imprisonment.

    Conservation actions include a monitoring survey to track Spotted Handfish populations, a captive breeding project, and the deployment of boat moorings that reduce impacts on handfish habitat. 

    Commonwealth of Australia Recovery Plan for Three Handfish Species

    Similar Species

    The Australian Spotted Handfish, Brachionichthys australis, differs in having relatively longer dorsal-fin spines but shorter rays, and in colour pattern.


    The specific name is from the Latin hirsutus (= hairy) in reference to the rough skin covered in spinules.

    Species Citation

    Lophius hirsutus Lacépède, 1804, Ann. Mus. Natl. d'Hist. Nat. 4: 202, 210, pl. 55(3). Type locality: Tasmania (as 'Côtes sud de l'Australie').


    Bray, D.J. 2020


    Atlas of Living Australia

    Spotted Handfish, Brachionichthys hirsutus (Lacépède 1804)


    Barrett, N., B.D. Bruce, & P.R. Last (1996). Spotted handfish survey. Report to Endangered Species Unit, ANCA. CSIRO Div. Fisheries, Hobart.

    Bleeker, P. 1855. Over eenige visschen van Van Diemensland. Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen 2: 1-31 fig. 1

    Bruce, B. (1998). 'Progress on Spotted Handfish Recovery', On the brink!. Threatened Species and Communities  11: 9.

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

    Bruce, B.D., Green, M.A. & Last, P.R. 1999. Aspects of the biology of the endangered spotted handfish, Brachionichthys hirsutus (Lophiiformes: Brachionichthyidae) off southern Australia. pp. 369-380 in Séret B. & Sire, J.-Y. (eds). Proceedings of the 5th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference, Nouméa, 3-8 November 1997. Paris : Société Française d'Ichtyologie 888 pp.

    Bruce, B.D., Green, M.A. & Last, P.R. 1997. Developing captive husbandry techniques for spotted handfish Brachionichtys hirsutus, and monitoring the 1996 spawning season. Report to Endangered Species Unit, Environment Australia. CSIRO Division Marine Research, Hobart, 22 pp. 

    Carnevale, G. & T.W. Pietsch 2010. Eocene handfishes from Monte Bolca, with description of a new genus and species, and a phylogeny of the family Brachionichthyidae (Teleostei: Lophiiformes). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 160: 621–647

    Commonwealth Department of the Environment and the Tasmanian Government. 2016. Recovery plan for three handfish species: Spotted handfish Brachionichthys hirsutus, Red handfish Thymichthys politus and Ziebell's handfish Brachiopsilus ziebelli Commonwealth of Australia, accessed 12 November 2019

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    Last, P.R. & Gomon, M.F. 2008. Family Brachionichthyidae: Handfishes. pp. 375-376 in Gomon, M.F., Bray, D.J. & Kuiter, R.H. (eds). Fishes of Australia's Southern Coast. Sydney : Reed New Holland 928 pp.

    Last, P.R., Scott, E.O.G. & Talbot, F.H. 1983. Fishes of Tasmania. Hobart : Tasmanian Fisheries Development Authority 563 pp. figs. 

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    Quick Facts

    CAAB Code:37209002

    Conservation:IUCN Critically Endangered

    Depth:1-60 m

    Habitat:Sandy, shelly, silty areas

    Max Size:15 cm TL


    Species Maps

    CAAB distribution map