“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.
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“).
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.
“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.
Letting 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. I 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…
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.
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.
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
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