Meet the bearded goby, a six-inch-long fish that lives in toxic mud, eats jellyfish, lasts for hours without oxygen, and has saved a coastal African ecosystem from a nightmare fate.
Over the last several decades, as other fish populations off the coast of the Namibia collapsed, jellyfish and bacteria populations exploded — a condition widely considered to be ecological an dead end, incapable of supporting rich webs of life.
But amidst this turmoil, the goby has thrived. It circulates nutrients that would otherwise be lost, feeds animals who lost their historic prey, and provides that rare thing: a happy, or at least not-so-bad, ending to an environmental disaster story.
The goby “has the ability to consume what were considered dead-end resources and convert them into bite-sized chunks for higher trophic levels,” said Mark Gibbons, a University of the Western Cape biologist. “Gobies have become anything but a dead-end resource. The gobies are now sustaining the rest of the ecosystem.”
Half a century ago, the bearded goby was just one of many species living in what’s known as the Benguela Large Marine Ecosystem, about 7,000 square miles of continental shelf off the coast of southwest Africa.