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Deep-Sea Bestiary
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.

Caulophryne polynema
football fish 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."

Lasiognathus saccostoma
Prince Axel's wonder-fish 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.

tube-eye or thread-tail
basket starfish 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 | Deep-Sea Bestiary

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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