June 20, 2024

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Science It Works

Anglerfish are stranger than science fiction

In 1833, an almost perfectly spherical fish washed ashore in Greenland and was taken to zoologist Johannes Christopher Hagemann Reinhardt in Copenhagen, Denmark. This fish — later known as the footballfish, Himantolophus groenlandicus, or the man-gobbler — was the first anglerfish known to science, wrote Ted Pietsch, a systematist and evolutionary biologist, in his book “Oceanic Anglerfishes” (University of California Press, 2009). 

Today, there are about 170 known species in 12 families of deep-sea anglerfish, and a “huge diversity” within those families, Mackenzie Gerringer, a professor of biology at SUNY Geneseo in New York who specializes in deep-sea fish told Live Science. Common names for anglerfish hint at some of the wild forms they can take — snaggletooth sea devil, wolf trap and pugnacious dreamer (also known as the tyrannical toad), to name just a few. They sport a fantastic range of shapes and textures; some are squat and round (Melanocetus johnsonii), while others are flat and huge-snouted (Thaumatichthys binghami) or covered in whiskery filaments (Caulophryne jordani). But while these fish are found all over the world, they are fairly elusive, solitary creatures — par for the course for a fish that lives 1,000 to 16,400 feet (300 to 5,000 meters) below the surface. As a result, new species are still being discovered, each more strange than the last.