Fang-tastic Creatures

Sheree Marris | VOLUME 32, ISSUE 4

Like monsters from a nightmare, scientists have recently dredged up some spectacularly scary fish from the ocean’s dark depths.

Historically, the ocean abyss has been described as a bottomless pit, or chasm that may lead to the underworld or even hell. With devils, zombie worms and beasts that will literally suck the life out of you, the dark abyss certainly has a hellish look …

Early oceanographers thought the ocean was lifeless in the dark inky depths. After all, what life forms could possibly survive in one of the planet’s most extreme environments with no light, crushing pressure and chilling temperatures? Only extreme life forms, with just as extreme features would be able to survive in these deadly depths. Think nightmarish monsters straight out of a horror movie, adorned with razor sharp deadly lures and night vision.

These dark and sinister depths are the planet’s largest habitat, yet one of the least explored. Some fascinating people have, however, been shining a light on the realm of eternal darkness – one, a scientist from Melbourne, the other a fisherman from Russia.

What they have in common is their fearless fascination for the deep sea and the beasts that call it home. Their targets are the macabre, the menacing and the nightmarish animals that have lived their lives in relative anonymity – until now …

STOP – DEAD

Beware! Stop at these lights and the only place you’re going is down … its gullet. The stoplight loosejaw is a freakish fish with ghoulish features. You could imagine it skulking around the inky depths casting spells and luring poor, innocent souls to their doom. Which isn’t too far from the truth.

This fish gets its name from two specialised red and green light organs underneath each eye. At depth, most species can’t detect red light, so the red light organ allows it to hunt with an invisible beam of light without being detected. The green light is used to attract prey.

‘Loosejaw’ is a reference to the multiple hinges that allow the jaw to open in a number of directions. It has one of the widest gapes of any fish, its lower jaw measuring a quarter of its overall length. The lack of skin on the jaw reduces water resistance, allowing it to close quicker and snare its prey in the freakish needle-sharp teeth, which continue down its throat.

BLACK DEATH

Just from its name you know the black scabbardfish is going to be some seriously demonic predator that will haunt you in your dreams. And one look will confirm it won’t disappoint.

Its pointed head and long, slender body makes it a fast and formidable predator. Large, bulbous eyes ensure nothing escapes its sight, while fearsome fang-like teeth are used to bone-crushing effect.

What is even more terrifying is that while it may live thousands of metres down on the seabed, it rises under the cloak of darkness to hundreds of metres from the surface at night to hunt, its metallic black body making it near invisible. Victims won’t see it coming until it’s too late.

ARMED TO THE TEETH

The frilled shark makes Jaws look like a cute and cuddly kitten. It’s considered a living fossil, with ancestry dating back over 80 million years. Sitting behind its lizard-like head are gill slits fashioned with a distinctive frilly edge, which meet under the throat, giving the appearance of a frilly collar. But that’s as frilly as it gets. Look into its mouth and you’re met with a world of pain.

This shark launches itself at any unfortunate souls that come within striking distance. A massive mouth lets it take prey half as long as its own eel-like body, which includes squid, octopus, fish and even other sharks. And an array of 300 torturous, backward-facing teeth provide multiple angles to snare its victims and make sure there is no escape.

FANGS BUT NO THANKS

Meet the fangtooth – no surprises where this fish gets its name from. Relative to body size, it holds the title of largest teeth of any fish in the ocean, with its disproportionately large fangs.

How large? So large there are pockets in the top jaw to house the murderous looking bottom fangs when its mouth is closed. It also has bragging rights as one of the deepest-living fish, found to depths of five kilometres.

CRYING WOLF

Wolf eels are relatives of blennies, cute little Cinderella-like fish that dance in the shallows, showing off their big, adorable eyes and pretty fringed tentacles. In fact, you could say wolf eels are the ugly sisters of the blenny. It’s as though someone slipped an ugly pill into their drink, their smiles a nightmare of scary chompers and their lives spent in caves at the bottom of the sea.

What they lack in looks, they make up for in size, measuring a mighty 1.5m and weighing a mammoth 18kg. And they’re voracious predators. The large head, powerful jaws and throat are littered with torturous, serrated teeth for crushing the life from armour-plated and hard-bodied animals, including crabs and snails.

They can also lay claim to being one of the few fish that can live in near-freezing waters, with a natural antifreeze in their blood to keep it flowing.

DEVILISH

Some of the deadliest and scariest fishing on the planet happens in the dark depths by fish that go by the names of sea devil, coffins and monks. They’re all anglerfish, a sinister bunch of fish that, well … fish for other fish. Their front dorsal fin has been transformed into a rod-like structure with a lure at the end.

Different species have different lures; some glow, some look like worms, while others look like a tasty treat. Lures are waved about to mimic food and attract gullible victims to their monstrous mouths.

But there is no such thing as a free feed, especially in the inky black depths. Anything that is foolish enough to take the bait is swallowed whole. These fish have mega mouths loaded with sharp teeth and expandable stomachs, which allow some of these anglers to devour prey twice their size.

It seems the deeper you go the more hellish the life forms. With so little known about the abyss and more efforts being put into scientific exploration, we expect even more sinister and alien-like species to be revealed. As we have learned, in the abyss, truth is stranger and even more nightmarish than fiction.

SOUL SUCKER

If you’re an arachnophobe and the thought of having a spider suck the life out of you is horrifying, then best you turn the page because your worst nightmare is a reality. Walking around on stilt-like legs thousands of metres beneath the surface of the ocean are giant sea spiders as big as your hand, matching the world’s biggest and scariest land spiders.

But if it makes you feel any better, although spider-like, they’re not a true spider, but one of the oldest arthropods on earth. A straw-like appendage called a proboscis allows them to stab their prey and suck the life out of it. Digestion, and even breathing, take place in their long legs.

THE COLLECTORS

Roman Fedortsov, a commercial fisherman from Murmansk, in far north-eastern Russia, has been capturing nightmarish and bizarre creatures – as well as 190,000-plus followers on Instagram. His work has taken him to depths over 1000m in the Atlantic Ocean, Barents, Norwegian and Greenland Seas where commercial operators fish for horse mackerel, sardine, cod and haddock.

As he puts it: “Nature is the best author for a horror movie.” And there are no greater horrors than in the darkest depths of the ocean. Web: Instagram: @Rfedortsov_official_account; Twitter: @rfedortsov.

Closer to home, a research expedition led by Chief Scientist Dr Tim O’Hara, from Museum Victoria, has just returned from an Australian-first expedition to explore the biodiversity of the abyss along the east coast of Australia. The voyage will enable Australia’s abyssal biodiversity to be compared with similar depths and environments known from other regions.

Until now, almost nothing was known about what life may exist in Australia’s abyssal extremities. Using plankton and fishing nets, bottom sleds, sediment corers and cameras, scientists were able to discover some truly bizarre life forms.

More than one third of the spineless critters and some of the fishes the team found are completely new to science.

If zombies, flesh-eating crustaceans and fish without faces interest you, then check out their fascinating blog from the trip: nespmarine.edu.au.


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