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 May 2024,

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 at depths to 60 m. Spotted Handfish prefer areas with features such as shallow shell-filled depressions created by large stingrays, and ripple formations, areas with stalked acsidians, 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.


An ambush predator that uses the lure to attract small benthic invertebrates including amphipods, small shrimps 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 have restricted dispersal capacity having no planktonic larval stage. The young hatch as fully formed juveniles (6–7mm in length),  and 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.

Handfish lack a swim bladder, and rather than swimming, adults use their modified fins to ‘walk’ over the sea floor. However, they may swim in short bursts to avoid predators.


  • IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
  • EPBC Act: Critically Endangered
  • State Government of Tasmania Threatened Species Protection Act: Protected and listed as Endangered
  • Historically, Spotted Handfish populations were affected by scallop dredging. More recently, the invasive North Pacific Seastar, Asterias amurensis, degraded spawning habitats by feeding on staked ascidians in particular. Additional threats include habitat loss due to increased siltation of the Derwent Estuary, and pollution from urban effluent, and historic heavy metal contamination of bottom sediments.

    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, captive breeding programs, and the deployment of boat moorings that reduce impacts on handfish habitat. 

    Commonwealth of Australia Recovery Plan for Three Handfish Species


    Spotted handfish have restricted dispersal capacity, and do not move widely between areas. The maximum recorded distance moved by a spotted handfish is approximately 570 m, with a single individual taking 585 days to move this distance (Bessell et al., 2019). 

    Similar Species

    The Australian Spotted Handfish, Brachionichthys australis, differs in having relatively longer dorsal-fin spines but shorter rays, and having dashes rather than dots or spots on the body.


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

    Bessell, T.J. 2018. Using autonomous photo-identification systems and otoliths to estimate age, growth and movement of the spotted handfish. Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies. Honours Thesis, University of Tasmania, 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

    Edgar GJ, Stuart-Smith RD, Cooper A, Jacques M, Valentine J. 2016. New opportunities for conservation of handfishes (Family Brachionichthyidae) and other inconspicuous and threatened marine species through citizen science. Biological Conservation

    Edgar, G.J., P.R. Last & M.W. Wells (1982). Coastal Fishes of Tasmania and Bass Strait.  176  pp. Tasmanian Underwater Photographic Society.

    Edgar, G., Stuart-Smith, R. & Last, P.R. 2020. Brachionichthys hirsutus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T2958A121210485. Downloaded on 2 July 2020.

    Green, M.A., Stuart-Smith, R.D., Valentine, J.P., Einoder, L.D., Barrett, N.S., Cooper, A.T. & Stalker, M.D. 2012. Spotted Handfish monitoring and recovery actions - 2011- 2012. Report for Derwent Estuary Program and Caring For Our Country. CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research/ Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies

    Hutchins, J.B. & Swainston, R. 1986. Sea Fishes of Southern Australia. Complete field guide for anglers and divers. Perth : Swainston Publishing 180 pp. 

    Kuiter, R.H. 1993. Coastal Fishes of South-eastern Australia. Bathurst : Crawford House Press 437 pp.  

    Kuiter, R.H. 1996. Guide to Sea Fishes of Australia. A comprehensive reference for divers and fishermen. Sydney, NSW, Australia : New Holland Publishers xvii, 434 pp.

    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

    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. 

    Lynch, T., Appleyard, S.A., Bessell, T., Wong, L., Martini, A., Bessell, T.,  Stuart-Smith, J., Soo, L. & Devine, C. 2020. Conservation of handfish and their habitats – annual report. Report to the National Environmental Science Program, Marine Biodiversity Hub. CSIRO. 86 pp. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.13531.59685

    Lynch, T., Bessell, T.,  Hormann, A. & Devine, C. 2019. Conservation of handfish and their habitats – annual report. Report to the National Environmental Science Programme, Marine Biodiversity Hub. CSIRO, 35 pp.

    Lynch, T., Green, M. & Davies, C. 2015. Diver towed GPS to estimate densities of a critically endangered fish. Biological Conservation 191: 700-706,

    Lynch, T.P., Wong, L. & Green, M. 2016. Direct Conservation Actions for the Critical Endangered Spotted Handfish. Final report to the Threatened Species Commissioner, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, 23 pp.

    Pietsch, T.W., Bauchot, M.-L. & Desoutter, M. 1987. Catalogue critique des types de poissons du Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle. (Suite) Ordre des Lophiiformes. Bulletin du Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Série 4: Section A: Zoologie, Biologie et Écologie Animales 8(4, supplément) (for 1986): 131-156.

    Whitley, G.P. 1949. The handfish. Australian Museum Magazine 9(12): 398-403

    Wong, L. 2015. Assessing local densities and habitat preference of spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus) for deployment of new artificial spawning habitat. Institute of Marine and Antarctic Sciences, University of Tasmania.

    Wong, L. & Lynch, T.P. 2017. Monitoring of Spotted Handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus) populations and on ground conservation actions. Report to the National Environmental Science Programme, Marine Biodiversity Hub. CSIRO. 19 pp.

    Wong, L.S.C., Lynch, T.P., Barrett, N.S., Wright, J.T., Green, M.A. & Flynn, D.J.H. 2018. Local densities and habitat preference of the critically endangered spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus): Large scale field trial of GPS parameterised underwater visual census and diver attached camera. PLoS ONE 13(8): e0201518.

    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