“ALIEN FROM THE DEEP”: ABACO’S SCALELESS BLACK DRAGONFISH


Scaleless Black Dragonfish - Header - BMMRO Abaco

“ALIEN FROM THE DEEP”: ABACO’S SCALELESS BLACK DRAGONFISH

Prepared to be terrified. Beneath the placid turquoise waters of Abaco lurks a ruthless and implacable killer of hideous mien, armed with vicious teeth  … Yes, as the music from Jaws begins to throb round your temples I bring you… THE SCALELESS BLACK DRAGONFISH, aka the Deep Sea Dragonfish or Viperfish (of which it is one type). Oh, and it’s about 8 inches/ 20 cms long.

The specimen shown here was found off Rocky Point, Abaco during a whale and dolphin research trip by the BMMRO. This is an area where typical low waters give way to the far deeper waters of an arm of the Great Bahama Canyon. It is an excellent place for whale watching, since one effect of the canyon is to provide plentiful food of the sort that cetaceans thrive on. The chances of you ever meeting a dragonfish are very slim indeed, since they live at depths up to 1500 metres. 

MAP to be added after posting, to avoid FB’s deranged random ‘feature photo’ selection The black star at the south end of Abaco  (in the yellowish box) is where Rocky Point and Sandy Point are to be found.

BAHAMAS SEA DEPTH MAP (NEAQ)

Here is an account by BMMRO intern Luanettee Colebrooke who was lucky enough to be on the research vessel when this strange, vicious-looking creature was found. I have edited the material for present purposes, but I recommend reading the whole article which can be found on the BMMRO website HERE. You will get an excellent overview of a day’s research under the hot sun, and plenty about the collection of whale poop (a topic I have previously dwelt on HERE (“Familiar Feces“).

Scaleless Black Dragonfish - BMMRO Abaco
CREATURE by Luanettee’ Colebrooke, BMMRO intern, summer 2014
The crossing of this organism was by complete accident. It was something that none of us would have imagined finding floating along the surface of the water. For Dr Claridge, Jurique (another BMMRO summer intern from Cat Island) and I as Bahamians, who knew this creature even existed in our majestic waters? Who knew our waters were even that deep to hide this specimen? (I think Dr Claridge knew)
Our morning began as per the usual routine for a boat day. There are several research sites that we venture to regularly: Rocky Point for the coastal Bottlenose Dolphins, and an area about 2 miles south of Rocky Point for our very elusive and wary Blainville’s beaked whales, and the deep blue (a massive drop into waters that are 1500 metres deep) to listen for Sperm Whales.It is not that I do not believe that we have deep waters. The Tongue of the Ocean runs through the northern part of our country. My thought comes more from, ‘our waters are that deep’? To a point where light does not hit the bottom and organisms have to rely mainly on bioluminescence? It is a similar thought process I had when I saw a sperm whale for the first time. They are not small creatures of the sea. It is both an awe and scary thought that there are creatures out there we, as Bahamians, do not know exist in our waters.
Scaleless Black Dragonfish - BMMRO AbacoScaleless Black Dragonfish - BMMRO Abaco
“Our final activity of the day was tracking a sperm whale acoustically using a hydrophone…” There follows a graphic account of the technicalities of sperm whale poop collection and co-intern Jack’s “Faecal Dispersion Technique”. Then this: Jack stood up, Pringle in mouth and pointed to a black leather looking strap off of the port bow. “What is it?” Moving closer to the port, Jurique and I had our own thoughts. “It looks like a boxing glove strap,” he suggested. “More like an expensive underwater watch,” I mentioned. Dr. Claridge said, “It looks like a squid tentacle.” Jack added in, “More like the strap from a fin to me.” Our heads were turning with no closer answer. Taking it upon himself as the official sample collector, Jack popped back into the water to collect it. There were no sample pots large enough for it, so he had to use a large Ziplock bag to pick it up.
Scaleless Black Dragonfish - BMMRO AbacoLetting out a surprised chorus when he got back on the boat, we wondered what the heck it was. It had a mouth and a weird white patch that at first, I thought was its eye. The ventral abdominal section seemed swollen as if it had expanded from the decreasing pressure rising from the sea. As we looked at it and took photos, we determined several characteristics of the deceased specimen without having to autopsy it. The first was that it had three rows of needle like teeth that turned inward. There was what we assumed to be an angler under its ‘chin’ that had a murky transparent color. Another deduction we came to was the white dots that ran along the body all the way to its tail could be bioluminescent in nature like an angler. The pectoral fins were small and thin like a tooth pick. The final detail we took note of was the silver patch underneath its eyes.It was a type of angler fish we hypothesized. And it somehow ended up on the surface. There were several questions we voiced to each other: if it is a deep angler fish, how did it end up here? Where did it come from? Was it stunned by the sperm whale’s echolocation and pulled upwards as it surfaced? Later that night as we went through our faecal samples, photo IDs and data entry, the search began for what exactly this organism was. Jack did some image trickery and overlapped the photos with an alien from Alien. Scaleless Black Dragonfish c/w Alien - BMMRO AbacoI personally thought it looked more like Venom from Spiderman. As he did that, I took it upon myself to begin the search by looking up the most prominent feature: the angler on the anterior ventral side of the fish. By using this characteristic, I was able to narrow the organism down to a Scaleless Black Dragonfish by using several online scientific key identification guides and forums. The species we are still unsure about. The mystery continues…Scaleless Black Dragonfish - BMMRO Abaco
This creature is one of a number of dragonfish species found worldwide. This one might to be one of the genus Melanostomias (says he, hesitantly…). Like many deep sea creatures, its customary depths are pitch black, or nearly so; and so it is equipped with its own light source (bioluminescence), including the item dangling down from its lower jaw, called a barbel. The fish’s glow and no doubt the gleam of the barbel swaying around in the water act as a lure to attract prey that swim up to investigate and then.. snap! Those teeth start to do their work.
Scaleless black dragonfish (Melanostomias biseriatus) (imagesource.com)
I’ll end with an amazing short (2:28) video posted in early 2014 by ‘Indoona’. The accompanying description is the most authoritative account of the species and its little ways that I have  come across, complete with useful links. I include it before the video, noting only that the creature featured is a Pacific one from off the coast of California, and therefore not identical to the Abaco one.
                                                                       scaleless-black-dragonfish-mini-jpg          scaleless-black-dragonfish-mini-jpg          scaleless-black-dragonfish-mini-jpg

THE DEEP SEA DRAGONFISH OR VIPER FISH is an awesome looking creature from the middle depths of the ocean (this one comes from 600 metres or about 1000 feet deep). Also called the scaleless dragonfish, they are ferocious predators, with extremely large teeth compared to their body size. And they have one of nature’s most amazing tricks to give them the edge over their prey (more below).

There are several different species of dragonfish (one estimate is 67 species – all from the fish family known as Family Stomidae) and they are quite difficult to tell apart but this one is from the pacific depths of California and is likely Tactostoma macropus, the longfin dragonfish. Idiacanthus antrostomus is an Atlantic species that looks very similar – at least I think that’s the case correct me if I’m wrong.

They hunt with a bioluminescent barbel or lure. It is not glowing here but under the different lighting regimes I used – some of the darker images – you can see how much the lure stands out.

Sadly fish like this do not survive long on the surface, mainly because of temperature differences and mechanical damage in the net rather than pressure problems I think. It was caught in a cod-end trawl and filmed in a special tank (a kreisal aquarium). But is great to be able to share another wonder of the oceans on YouTube.

And their amazing trick? Unlike most other deep sea creatures which are sensitive to blue light – the dragonfish also produces a red light beam (see the organ to the rear of the eye) – it is also very sensitive to red light. Although red light does not travel very far underwater it allows them to see when other animals cannot and to sneak up on their prey – especially shrimps that glow in the red light. For more detail see: http://www.science-frontiers.com/sf10… and the work of Ron Douglas and Julian Partridge,http://blog.wellcomecollection.org/ta… (these images were filmed with the help of Julian and Ron). Oh and this dragon is not big – about 20 cm or just under a foot!

Credits: Luanettee Colebrooke, ‘Jack’ & BMMRO (to whom thanks as ever), imagesource.com, Indoona , and 2 sites I came across during my investigations – seasky.org & strangesounds.org

If you can’t get enough of dragonfish, check out this Tumblr site for dozens of images including photos, drawings, cartoons, and enough strange dragonfish-based characters to weird you out utterly… HERE

A BONEFISHING CHALLENGE ON ABACO: THE ‘WHICH?’ REPORT


_MG_4668_1280x853_

A BONEFISHING CHALLENGE ON ABACO

In January I posted an article called BONEFISHING ON ABACO: A CHALLENGE IS ACCEPTED. This stemmed from contact online with fisherman and fly tyer Mark Minshull, who kindly tied some flies for me to try on the Marls. In the post I showed pictures of my manky flybox and his immaculate flies. We agreed to see how things turned out while I was on Abaco in March, and  that I would report back…   

image24

Mark 1 Specimen Bonefish Flies

THE ‘WHICH?’ REPORT ON MARK 1 BONEFISHING FLIES

We set out to test the efficacy of  prototype ‘Mark 1′ bonefishing flies in the waters of the Abaco Marls. Our testers came from the US (TC & AH), Northern Ireland (AB), and England (RH). All are proficient fly fishermen with experience of several prime bonefishing destinations between them, except for the Englishman RH who was included to add balance to the trials by adding the element of incompetence. His fly box remained an object of ridicule throughout the tests, until he resorted to using a more carefully chosen small fly box containing his most successful flies, some ‘Delphi Club Approved’ flies and the test flies. 

QUALITY All our testers agreed that the Mark 1 flies were beautifully designed and tied. As flies, their quality was rated ‘superb'; ‘bloody good'; and ‘very impressive’. As potential winners for the waters of Abaco, however, there was considerable doubt about the suitability of the pattern for colouring, shape and size.

THE TEST AREA We used the huge area of prime bonefishing territory of the mangrove swamps and sand banks on the west side of Abaco known as the Marls. Our testers were familiar with the waters and all had fished them numerous times. The sea depth, depending on tide, is a few feet at most. The consistency of the bottom is of lightweight, pale coloured mud.

Bonefishing, Abaco Marls Abaco  1

It is usually easier to look out for the shadows of the fish on the light bottom than for the fish themselves, which are often difficult to see in the water. Half-close your eyes and look at this image – the fish almost disappears, but the shadow is clearly visible. It is hard to believe the wonderful colouring of the fish until it is out of the water.Bonefish, Abaco Marls Abaco 2

THE TESTS The initial reservations of the testers unfortunately proved justified in the field. The testers all found that the fish tended not to follow the flies at all, and mostly behaved as if they had not seen them, even with the most accurate casts. The few ‘follows’ observed produced refusals of the fly at the end. Disappointingly, no fly was taken by a single fish throughout the trials.

OBSERVATIONS Our testers had some useful comments. Above all, the Mark 1 flies were undoubtedly of excellent quality and design. They simply were not suited to the waters – or the bonefish – of Abaco. TC thought they might work in Belize. It was thought that larger versions might attract permit. Overall, the Mark 1s were so radically different from the tried and tested fly patterns used successfully on Abaco that the 3 competent fishermen soon forsook the experiment and caught fish using more familiar flies. The 4th tester, lacking any finesse, might have fluked a take against the odds , but even he drew a blank.

THE PROFESSIONALS The Guides in each case had been fishing the Marls since they could walk and hold a rod. They each examined the flies, shook their heads and kept their thoughts to themselves. We interpret this as indicating a tendency for the local guides to doubt the effectiveness of the Mark 1 flies.

IMG_1169

RH’s ‘Selected Specimen’ Fly Box

RESULTS ANALYSIS  The flies above show (front row) the 3 versions of the Mark 1 fly; (middle row) the highly effective Delphi Daddy and Delphi Diva patterns, with one random silver concoction of unknown origin; (back row) ; 2 browny / pale patterns plus a shocking pink one that the guides wisely forbade and, below, 3 roughly matching flies that brought great success even for RH this year (including 12 boated and 5 lost in one day), sourced from renowned tackle specialist E. Bay.

CONCLUSION The flies that catch the bones on Abaco tend to be pale and to have ‘streamer’ tails and / or a fair amount of sparkle. A touch of pink seems to be good. Too much pink, not so. Rubbery legs can be very effective (except in the fisherman after lunch). But lovely lifelike dark shrimp imitations are of no interest to the fish of the Marls.

‘WHICH?’ RATINGS FOR THE MARK 1 FLY 

  • Design and construction *****
  • Ease of use *****
  • Effectiveness for Abaco waters *

All photos RH. Thanks to Mark for creating the challenge and for being a great sport

A Box of Bonefish Flies (Abaco)

The largely ridiculous fly box of RH (most good ones removed)

 

‘UNDERWATER BUTTERFLIES': BAHAMAS REEF FISH (8)


Spotfin Butterfly Fish

UNDERWATER BUTTERFLIES: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (8)

Butterflyfishes (Chaetodontidae) belong to a large worldwide family of small, colourful reef fishes. There are several sorts to be found in the Bahamas, of which 4 are shown below. These creatures resemble small angel fishes, and are invariably vividly coloured, strikingly patterned, or in many cases, both. Apart from that, the most interesting fact about them is that their species name  Chaetodontidae derives from a Greek compound noun meaning ‘hair tooth’. This unsettling description relates to the rows of tiny, fine filament-like teeth inside their protuberant mouths. If I ever get a photo of a butterflyfish showing its teeth while feeding or yawning, I will add it here…

FOUR-EYED BUTTERFLYFISHFour-eyed Butterflyfish ©Melinda Riger @GBS

REEF BUTTERFLYFISH

Reef Butterfly Fish ©Melinda Riger GB ScubaReef Butterflyfish ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

SPOTFIN BUTTERFLYFISHSpotfin Butterfly Fish 2

BANDED BUTTERFLYFISH

Banded Butterflyfish ©Melinda Riger @GBSPhoto Credit: Melinda Riger, Grand Bahama Scuba

QUEEN ANGELFISH (Holacanthus ciliaris) – BAHAMAS REEF FISH (2)


Queen Angelfish Holacanthus ciliaris

QUEEN ANGELFISH (Holacanthus ciliaris)  – BAHAMAS REEF FISH (2)

The Queen Angel is one of several reef fish species where the difference in colouring between juveniles and adults is marked.  They are commonly found in the waters of Florida and the Bahamas, with a range extending to the Gulf of Mexico. Adults can grow to 3.5 lbs (to mix metric with avoirdupois) and they can live up to 15 years. Like all Angelfish, they rely on their pectoral fins for propulsion as they forage on the reefs for their mixed diet of sponges, coral, plankton, algae, and even jellyfish. As the photo below shows, they have no problem swimming upside down…

QUEEN ANGELFISH (JUVENILE) Juvenile Queen Angel ©Melinda Riger GB Scuba

Evidence suggests that adult Queen Angels may form ‘monogamous’ pairings. Brief research in the factosphere suggests that the proposition is somewhat tenuous. Maybe pairs just like hanging out – possibly to gain some territorial advantage – and anthropomorphising that into lifelong partnership terms may be overstating the relationship… Whether wed for life or not, the actual mating process is remarkably efficient. The pair snuggle up close, simultaneously releasing large quantities of sperm and tens of thousands of eggs. The fertilised eggs hatch within a day. Respect!

QUEEN ANGELFISH (ADULT)Queen Angel fish ©Melinda Riger GB ScubaQueen Angelfish ©Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama ScubaQueen Angelfish (juv) ©Melinda Riger @GBS

Photo Credits for the amazing main images: ©Melinda Riger (Grand Bahama Scuba), with thanks; header image WikiPic

SPOTTED DRUM FISH – BAHAMAS REEF FISH (1)


SPOTTED DRUM FISH Equetus punctatus BAHAMAS REEF FISH (1)

This post is the first of a planned series on Bahamian reef fish. Those who follow this blog (I thank you both) may recall with horror (or worse, pity) my own efforts with reef fish, using a tiny cellphone-sized video camera.  Misty stills culled from video footage. Enthusiastically wobbly movies as I struggle to swim and breathe simultaneously in an alien element. I am more underwater CLOUSEAU than COUSTEAU. However, thanks to Melinda Riger, who with husband Fred runs GRAND BAHAMA SCUBA, I have kind permission to borrow and display images from her stock of wonderful reef fish photographs.

The spotted drum fish (or Jack-knife fish) belongs to a large worldwide family, the Sciaenidae. Besides other drum varieties, the family includes ‘croakers’. These species are all named for the repetitive throbbing or drumming sounds they make. This involves the fish beating its abdominal muscles against its swim bladder. If I find out the reason for this (Species communication? Food call? Alarm? Warning? A piscine ‘advance’? Happiness?) I will add it here in due course. Here an example of an atlantic croaker from the excellent DOSITS site (Discovery of Sounds in the Sea)

The spotted drum is one of the few fish of the species to inhabit coral reefs – most are bottom-dwellers (often in estuaries), avoiding clear water. These fish tend to be nocturnal feeders, feeding on small crabs, shrimp and small invertebrates. As far as I can make out they are solely (or primarily) carnivore, and do not graze on algae of other reef plant life.

Drumfish

Drumfish

The photos above are of adult spotted drums. The ones below are of juveniles, and show the remarkable growth-pattern of these fish, from the fragile slender creature in the top image, through the intermediate phase of the one below it (with the amazing brain coral), to the striking adult versions above. People like to keep these pretty fish in aquariums; fine, I’m sure there are plenty to go round, but these ones look pretty happy to me in their natural reef environment…

Juvenile Drum Fish (pre-school)Juvenile Drumfish 2 ©Melinda Riger GB Scuba

Juvenile drum fish (school-age)

Juvenile Drumfish ©Melinda Riger GB Scuba(Header image credit: Wiki-Cheers)

Finally, I’ve just come across this short video from a “Florida Aquarium”, showing how these fish swim. It rather looks as though it has been fin-clipped for some reason… or just damaged, maybe

“GLIMPSES OF LIFE ALONG A CORAL REEF” A c19 NATURALIST VISITS ABACO


GLIMPSES OF LIFE ALONG A CORAL REEF by F. H. HERRICK

This post is aimed at those with a particular interest in the flora and fauna – especially avifauna – of Abaco and its Cays. It is a naturalist’s account from 1886 of an expedition to Abaco, interspersed with a few line drawings. It’s an easy read if you are interested in Abaco, its history, and the state of natural life on the islands 125 years ago. Those who have come to this site for the photos and / or even the occasional jest are warned to expect neither. However, to tempt waverers I’ll highlight below (by way of a quiz) some intriguing aspects of the 9-page article. I have had to edit it to correct the many ‘literals’ in the open-source material; however the c19 spellings are retained. I’ve also added coloured subject-matter codes as follows: PLACE NAMES; BIRDS; PLANTS; FISH; CREATURES

In 1886, Herrick visited Abaco with a party of naturalists. This trip predated by 3 years the publication of Charles Cory’s groundbreaking ‘Birds of the West Indies‘. There would have been scant readily-available published material about the natural history of the Bahamas, let alone of Abaco itself. Herrick and a friend left the main party and went on their own wider explorations of Abaco with two local guides. Herrick recorded their findings, which were subsequently published in ‘Popular Science Monthly‘ in 1888. In Herrick’s wide-ranging account of the adventure you will find the answers to the following 15 questions. If any one of them whets your appetite to read this historic account, press the link below the quiz!

  • What fruit might you have found growing in fields on Abaco in 1886?
  • What was the local name for the perforated rock at Hole-in-the-Wall?
  • What is an “egg-bird”?
  • What was causing “the gradual extermination” of flamingos?
  • What were “shanks” and “strikers”?
  • To what human use were Wilson’s Terns put?
  • How many eggs does a tropic-bird lay?
  • What law prevented the shooting of tropic-birds, and indeed any other bird, by naturalists?
  • What sort of creature is a “sennet”?
  • Which was rated the better for eating – grouper or ‘barracouta’ (sic)?
  • Who or what is or are “grains”?
  • What common creature had a burning touch like a sharp needle?
  • What bird was reckoned to have the call ‘loarhle-ee’ ?
  • What – or indeed who – was described as a “pilepedick”?
  • What creature laid 139 eggs?

ABACO NATURAL HISTORY Popular Science Monthly Volume 32 January 1888

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