Findings: Ugly Fish

I like ugly fish. In a marine world supposedly inhabited by the sleek and beautiful, ugly fish bring something new and perverse to the table. They are not endearing to children, like Marcus Pfister’s Rainbow Fish. They don’t mesmerize with their regalia, like the lionfish. They don’t make dazzling aquarium pets. They are not lavish, and they don’t want to be. Their lethargic attitude toward appearance is understandable since many of them don’t even have eyes. They are not prone to elegant gyrations through the Atlantic or leaps, Free Willy style, toward the heavens. Many of them don’t move. Most of them don’t even have pronounceable names.

This category of fish is so alien that it is shunted to the deepest depths of the ocean, where light is a fairy tale and appearance is a myth.
In this alternate universe of ugly fish, Caulophryne jordan*i might take the cake as the ugliest. William Beebe, the first scientist to behold the creatures of the deep, in his essay *Half Mile Down says, “It was stranger than any imagination could have conceived.” Indeed, I spent 20 minutes staring at it when I first saw its picture.

Living under the crushing weight of 3000 meters of water, Caulophryne jordani, sometimes referred to as the hairy anglerfish or fanfin seadevil, lurks in a world that would blind and kill us. Considering its countenance, that is probably a good thing.

A Google search provides exactly one image of this fish, since it is so rarely observed, but I will venture an explanation of its appearance here: Imagine a drab, frumpy handbag that folds inward at all the usual places. Remove the shoulder strap, carve out a huge mouth with menacing teeth, and decorate the whole masterpiece with 75 kebab skewers jutting out in odd places. Unfortunately, next to nothing is known about Caulophryne jordani because the inhospitable realm it populates makes it nearly impossible for scientists to observe it. This fish, like many others of the extreme deep, is also damaged by nets and changes in pressure, on the rare occasions that it is brought to the surface.

However, what is known about it is fascinating. The projections on its body are used to detect the slightest movements in the water. A single, large projection between its eyes acts as a lure. Caulophryne jordani itself stays perfectly motionless, lying in wait with its mouth wide open to catch prey. When a fish happens upon the lure, the anglerfish creates a strong inward suction that engulfs its prey in under a second. Food is scarce, so the Caulophryne jordani has a large mouth and expandable stomach that can accommodate prey many times its size.

Curiously, male anglerfish lack a lure. They are also inconsequential in size and live as parasites on the female. Anglerfish are members of the order Lophiiformes, a group of fish that are characterized by their bony appearance and conspicuous lure. Anglerfish are also known for being universally strange.

Melanocetus johnsonii — also called the common blackdevil, the deep-sea angler, and the humpback angler — is no exception. The fish, residing 2000 meters beneath the ocean’s surface, resembles a flattened basketball. Like Caulophryne jordani, it has a glowing lure to attract prey, and stretches its body to accommodate meals larger than itself. Once again, the male is tiny, lacks a lure, and hooks onto the female with his snout. Regan’s Angler is a malnourished, transparent hospital patient in the form of a fish. Anoplogaster cornuta is something out of a horror movie. All of them warrant second and third looks.

Deep-water fish are rogue creatures that lead a bleak, solitary existence. They are shapeless. They are prickly. They have eschewed beauty and elegance in order to survive the punishing blackness. Their ugliness makes no difference as no one sees them at such great depths. Ironically, once we do see them, the ocean’s ugly fish are revealed as a thing of breathtaking beauty.
For pictures of Caulophryne jordani and other ugly fish, see Claire Nouvian’s book, The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss.

Editor’s note: Sheila Prakash graduated in 2008. She now works at Seed Magazine in New York.