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Vegetarian fish is described by scientists as ‘the new white meat’ that could help feed the world 

Monkeyface prickleback fish that can survive entirely on vegetarian foods is described by scientists as ‘the new white meat’ that could feed the world in times of climate crisis

  • The Monkeyface prickleback lives in rocky waters off the West Coast of the USA 
  • It is said to have a delicate and mild flavour meat that has become a delicacy
  • Researchers say it processes the lipids in the algae it feeds on very efficiently 
  • This means that in future when food supplies are more scarce the fish could be farmed with fewer resources than a carnivorous species 

Monkeyface prickleback fish that can survive entirely on vegetarian foods is described by scientists as ‘the new white meat’ that could help feed the world

The rocky tide pool-dwelling species is packed with protein, according to researchers from the University of California Irvine, who are studying it.

The UN has warned rising temperatures, extreme weather and land degradation due to climate change will wipe out crops and livestock – causing global shortages.

A new study into the fish found it wouldn’t require many resources if it were to be farmed as it processes lipids in the red and green algae it eats very efficiently.

The vegetarian Monkeyface prickleback fish is said to be very high in protein and efficiently processes the lipids in algae that it feeds on

The vegetarian Monkeyface prickleback fish is said to be very high in protein and efficiently processes the lipids in algae that it feeds on

The Monkeyface prickleback, scientific name Cebidichthys violaceus, lives in the rocky waters off the West Coast of the USA. 

Up to three foot in length, it has become a popular delicacy on the menu of trendy California diners with a taste described as ‘delicate and mild’. 

Weighing about 6lbs, it has two small fins hanging like floppy ears near its head, and a dorsal fin down its back – but it barely swims once it finds feeding grounds.

The fish lurks in rocky reefs and tidal pools along the Pacific shoreline and its meat costs about £11.65 ($15 US dollars) per pound.

Analysis of its complete DNA has found it offers fresh possibilities for humans to obtain dietary protein – especially as global warming imperils traditional sources.

The study, led by Donovan German of UCI, showed it has an acidic stomach and small and large intestines – and a digestive system similar to ours.

It is among just five per cent of the world’s 30,000 fish species that are veggies, relying for nourishment on unique algae in the tide pools where they live.

Professor German’s team wanted to figure out how it thrives on food containing a low amount of fats called lipids, which are essential for all organisms.

They started by sequencing and assembling a high-quality genome for the fish. 

Prof German said: ‘We found the monkeyface prickleback’s digestive system is excellent at breaking down starch, which we anticipated.

‘But we also learned it has adapted to be very efficient at breaking down lipids, even though lipids comprise just five percent of the algae’s composition. It is a compelling example of what we call ‘digestive specialisation’ in the genome.’

With climate change making the raising of livestock less sustainable, it holds promise for developing new ways of producing protein for human consumption.

The California Academy of Sciences have Monkeyface Prickleback fish in an aquarium where they are studied. The eel like species are not true eels but bony fish

The California Academy of Sciences have Monkeyface Prickleback fish in an aquarium where they are studied. The eel like species are not true eels but bony fish

One solution is to farm fish – a process called aquaculture – but still holds the problem of what to feed the livestock – or in this case the fish.  

First author Joseph Heras, based in the same lab, said: ‘Using plant based food ingredients reduces pollution and costs less. However, most aquaculture fish are carnivores and can’t handle plant lipids.

‘Sequencing this genome has provided us a better understanding of what types of genes are necessary for breaking down plant material.

‘If we scan additional fish genomes, we may find omnivorous fish with the right genes that could provide new candidates for sustainable aquaculture.’

The monkeyface prickleback can live on land for up to 37 straight hours, thanks to the ability to breathe above water as well as under.

The findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B

WHAT IS THE MONKEYFACE PRICKLEBACK AND WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT IT? 

The Monkeyface prickleback – scientific name Cebidichthys violaceus – lives in rocky waters off the West Coast of the USA.

Weighing about 6lbs, it has two small fins hanging like floppy ears near its head, and a dorsal fin down its back – but it barely swims. 

It prefers to dwell in tide pools and reefs along the rocky shoreline of the United States of America’s Pacific coast.

Up to three foot in length, it has become a popular delicacy on the menu of trendy California diners with a taste described as ‘delicate and mild’.

The fish ranges in breeding, feeding and swimming grounds ranging from Oregon down to the northern parts of Baja, California. 

The young fish feed on zooplankton and crustaceans but adults are herbivores and feed on algae that grows in tide pools.

The monkeyface prickleback can live on land for up to 37 straight hours, thanks to the ability to breathe above water as well as under.

Adults have a large fleshy lump on the top of their head similar to the nose of monkey and the body is elongated and similar to an eel. 

They move very little once they have settled into a rocky foraging site and spawn in the water – with up to 6000-8000 eggs in a ball like sticky cluster.



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