Part 3 (back to Part 2)
Caulophryne polynema translates as "stalked toad with many filaments," but with
its quill-like fin rays it looks more like some piscine porcupine. The type
specimen of this deep-sea angler was hauled up by Madeira fishermen, who found
a black, eight-inch-long fish with a belly so distended that it seemed the fish
had swallowed an orange. Poking from the fish's mouth was the tail of a
significantly larger fish, which was somehow attracted by this fearsome-looking
fish, possibly by the delicately plumed lure adorning its forehead.
With a face only a mother could love, Himantolophus groenlandicus looks like a
middle linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, which may have something to do
with how it got its common name, the "footballfish." The species holds pride of
place as the first deep-sea angler ever found. The original specimen washed
ashore in Greenland in 1833; at 22 inches long, it is still the largest one on
record. Since no females of this species have ever been found bearing parasitic
males, biologists assume they are fertilized by free-swimming mates.
Once called "a grotesque among grotesques," Lasiognathus saccostoma has an
overbite to end all overbites. Yet this three-inch-long fish has also been
called "the compleat angler of the abyss," for it comes equipped with nature's
equivalent of a fishing rod, complete with lure and three bony hooks. Though
the precise function of this contraption is unknown, the undersea explorer
William Beebe suggested in 1930 that it might be "cast swiftly ahead, when the
hooks and lights would so frighten any pursued fish that they would hesitate
long enough to be engulfed in the onrushing maw."
In the bituminous blackness of the deep sea, what an alluring sight to a fish
must be the luminescent organ dangling from the toothy jaws of Thaumatichthys
axeli, "Prince Axel's wonder-fish." The first specimen of this black, 18-inch
bottom-dweller was trawled from a depth of 11,778 feet in the Atlantic by the
Galathea expedition of 1950-52. The voyage's chronicler deemed the find
"unquestionably the strangest catch of the Galathea expedition, and altogether
one of the oddest creatures in the teeming variety of the fish world."
Its telescopic eyes and pair of elongated tail rays, which triple its overall
length to almost three feet, have gained Stylephorus chordatus two common
names, "tube-eye" and "thread-tail." Yet striking as they are, these features
hold nothing on the mouth. This balloonable cavity can expand to 38 times its
original size as the fish sucks in seawater through its tubular mouth, as if
through a straw. Once filled, the mouth closes and the fish forces the water
back out through its gills, leaving behind a meal of plankton.
Looking like an artist's conception of the tree of life, the basket starfish
Gorgonocephalus arcticus is found from the Arctic to Cape Cod at depths
reaching 4,000 feet. It belongs to the family Gorgonocephalidae
("Gorgon-headed"), which is named after the snake-haired sisters of Greek
mythology. Reaching some 20 inches across, the basket star snags plankton in
its canopy of branching arms and ushers them to its mouth on the underside of
the center disk.
Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.
Living at Extremes |
Inside a Tubeworm |
Images: All drawings by Richard Ellis from "Deep Atlantic;" (1,5,7) © 1998 Norbert Wu; (9) © 1997 Norbert Wu;
(3) © 1996 Norbert Wu; (8) © 1995 Norbert Wu; (6) © 1994 Norbert Wu.
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