Episode 193: Beebe’s Mystery Deep-Sea Fish

This week we’ll learn about five mystery fish that William Beebe spotted from his bathysphere in the early 1930s…and which have never been seen again. Thanks to Page for suggesting deep-sea fish!

Further reading:

How some superblack fish disappear into the darkness of the deep sea

The Fine Art of Exploration

Further listening:

99% Invisible “Bathysphere”

The Gulper Eel unlocked patreon episode

These two guys crammed themselves into that little bathysphere together. Sometimes they got seasick and puked in there. Also, they didn’t like each other very much:

The Pacific blackdragon is hard to photograph because it’s SUPERBLACK:

A larval blackdragon. Those eyestalks!

A painting (by Else Bostelmann) of Bathysphaera intacta (left) and an illustration from Beebe’s book Half Mile Down:

The pallid sailfish, also painted by Bostelmann:

A (dead) stoplight loosejaw. Tear your surprised eyeballs away from its weird jaws and compare its tail to the pallid sailfish’s:

A model of a loosejaw (taken from this site) to give you a better idea of what it looks like when alive. Close-up of the extraordinary jaws (seen from underneath) is on the right:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to descend metaphorically into the depths of the ocean and learn about some mystery fish spotted once from a bathysphere by famous naturalist William Beebe and never seen again. Deep-sea fish is a suggestion by Page, so thank you, Page, for a fascinating and creepy addition to monster month.

William Beebe was an American naturalist born in 1877 who lived until 1962, which is amazing considering he made repeated dives into the deep sea in the very first bathysphere in the early 1930s. We talked about bathyspheres way back in episode 27–you know, the one where I scream about them imploding and kind of freak out a little. Even today descending into the deep sea is dangerous, and a hundred years ago it was way way way more dangerous.

Beebe was an early conservationist who urged other scientists to stop shooting so many animals. Back then if you wanted to study an animal, you just went out and killed as many of them as you could find. Beebe pointed out the obvious, that this was wasteful and didn’t provide nearly as much information as careful observation of living animals in the wild. He also pioneered the study of ecosystems, how animals fit into their environment and interact with it and each other.

While Beebe mostly studied birds, he was also interested in underwater animals. Really, he seems to have been interested in everything. He studied birds all over the world, was a good taxidermist, and especially liked to study ocean life by dredging small animals up from the bottom and examining them. He survived a plane crash, was nearly killed by an erupting volcano he was observing, and fought in WWI. Once when he broke his leg during an expedition and had to remain immobilized, he had his bed carried outside every day so he could make observations of the local animals as they grew used to his presence.

In the 1920s, during an expedition to the Galapagos Islands, he started studying marine animals more closely. First he just dangled from a rope over the surface of the ocean, which was attached to a ship’s boom, but eventually he tried using a diving helmet. This was so successful that he started thinking about building a vessel that could withstand the pressures of the deep sea.

With the help of engineer Otis Barton, the world’s first bathysphere was invented and Barton and Beebe conducted dozens of descents in Bermuda, especially off the coast of Nonsuch Island. The bathysphere had two little windows and a single light that shone through one of the windows, illuminating the outside just enough to see fish and other animals. The bathysphere couldn’t descend all that deeply, although it set records repeatedly. The deepest they descended was 3,028 feet, or 923 meters, but Beebe made careful notes of all the animals he observed and published many articles and books about them. Many of these articles and books were illustrated by an artist named Else Bostelmann, who worked closely with Beebe and his team of scientists. Bostelmann even painted underwater while wearing a diving helmet, because she needed to know how colors were affected by underwater light. She used oil paints, since oil and water don’t mix so the paints wouldn’t wash away, and she tied strings to her paintbrushes so they wouldn’t float off.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in reading a really interesting article about Bostelmann or learning more about the bathysphere and William Beebe, check the show notes. I’ve included links to the article and to a 99% Invisible episode about the bathysphere.

Many of the animals Beebe saw from the bathysphere have since been identified and described by later scientists. But there are five fish that Beebe observed that have never been seen since.

Before we talk about them, let’s learn about Page’s suggestion, the Pacific blackdragon, for reasons that will shortly become clear. The Pacific blackdragon is a type of fish that lives in the Pacific, which you probably figured out without me telling you. It prefers tropical and temperate water, although since it’s a deep-sea fish the water where it lives is mostly very cold.

If you remember episode 155 about extreme sexual dimorphism, where the males and females of a species look radically different, this fish is a good example. The male never eats. He can’t eat. He doesn’t have a functioning digestive system. He survives on the yolk from the egg he develops from and never grows any larger than his larval form, about three inches long, or 8 cm. He lives long enough to mate and then he dies.

The female, however, grows up to about two feet long, or 61 cm. Her body is long and thin, and her mouth is full of sharp teeth that she uses to grab anything she can catch. She especially likes to eat fish and small crustaceans, but she’s not picky.

Her body is black, and not just regular black. It’s called superblack or ultrablack. In episode 186 we talked about the eyed click beetle and velvet asity who both have superblack markings that absorb most of the light that hits them. Well, the Pacific blackdragon is superblack almost all over to help hide in the darkness of the water, since it’s an ambush predator. Just under the fish’s skin, there’s a layer of closely packed pigment-containing structures called melanosomes, which can absorb up to 99.95% of light. As if that wasn’t enough, because a lot of the animals the blackdragon eats emit bioluminescent light, her stomach is also black to block any light from the prey she’s swallowed. But although she’s basically invisible to other animals, she does have several rows of light-emitting cells called photophores along her sides. Scientists think she uses the lights to attract a mate, but she only flashes the photophores occasionally and only for brief moments. She also has a barbel that hangs from her chin with a luminescent lure at the end, which she uses to attract prey.

While the Pacific blackdragon is a deep-sea fish, at night she migrates upward nearer the surface to catch more prey, although she still stays below about 1,300 feet deep, or 400 m. She has large eyes as a result to take advantage of any moonlight and starlight that shines down that far. During the day she stays deeper, up to 3,200 feet deep, or 1,000 m.

Speaking of the Pacific blackdragon’s eyes, larval blackdragons have eyes on long stalks—really long stalks, nearly half their body length. As the larva matures, it absorbs the stalks until the adult fish has ordinary fish eyes. The larvae are also mostly transparent.

There are two other blackdragon species known, both of them a little smaller than the Pacific blackdragon. But in 1932 William Beebe spotted a fish that he thought might be related to the blackdragons, except that he estimated it was six feet long, or 1.8 m.

Beebe named the fish Bathysphaera intacta, but there’s no type specimen so no one can study it and verify whether it’s a species of blackdragon or something else. Beebe said the fish he saw had large eyes, lots of teeth, and photophores along its sides that glowed blue, and had a barbel with a light under its chin just like the Pacific blackdragon and its cousins. But it also had another, smaller barbel with a light near the tail. Beebe saw two of the fish together. They circled the bathysphere a few times, probably attracted to its light.

Another of Beebe’s mystery fish is one he named the pallid sailfin, Bathyembryx istiophasma. He saw it twice on the same descent in 1934, and described it as about two feet long, or 61 cm, shaped like a cigar with triangular fins and a tiny tail. In fact, in his book Half Mile Down Beebe described the fish this way:

“The strange fish was at least two feet in length, wholly without lights or luminosity, with a small eye and good-sized mouth. Later, when it shifted a little backwards I saw a long, rather wide, but evidently filamentous pectoral fin. The two most unusual things were first, the color, which, in the light, was an unpleasant pale olivedrab, the hue of water-soaked flesh, an unhealthy buff. It was a color worthy of these black depths, like the sickly sprouts of plants in a cellar. Another strange thing was its almost tailless condition, the caudal fin being reduced to a tiny knob or button, while the vertical fins, taking its place, rose high above and stretched far beneath the body, these fins also being colorless.”

Beebe assigned the pallid sailfish into the family Stomiidae, the same family that Bathysphaera intacta is assigned to as well as the other blackdragons. As a group, the fish in this family are called barbeled dragonfish. Some species in this family do show a similar tail arrangement that Beebe noted, with a very small tail fin but enlarged anal and dorsal fins that are set well back on the body. This includes a weird fish with various names, including black hinge-head, black loosejaw, or lightless loosejaw, which maybe gives you an idea of what it looks like. It’s a deep-sea fish like all the barbeled dragonfish, and it’s black in color. It grows about 10 inches long, or almost 26 cm. It’s also sometimes called the stoplight loosejaw because it has two photophores on its head, one of which shines green, the other which shines red. Unlike most deep-sea fish, it can see in the red spectrum, so the green photophore may attract prey and the red photophore allows the loosejaw to see its prey even though the prey can’t see the loosejaw. But mainly, it has remarkable jaws.

The loosejaw’s jaws are hinged and extremely large compared to the body, which is fairly thin. The jaws are so large that they’re not even attached to its body, just to its head. They aren’t even connected to the body with skin. It’s hard to describe, but I have some good pictures of a model of the fish in the show notes. Basically, the jaws are just bones covered with a thin layer of skin, but no skin or muscle in between the bones. If you put your thumb under your chin, you can feel your chin bone, then move your thumb backwards and instead of bone, you feel skin over layers of fat and muscle and other tissues that make up the soft part of your jaw. Well, the loosejaw doesn’t have those soft parts. It just has the chin bone and there’s literally nothing between the jaws. It doesn’t have a throat or cheeks or anything like that. Its jaws aren’t big because it needs to swallow big things, its jaws are big so it has a longer reach to snag the small fish and crustaceans it eats. It has a lot of needlelike teeth that it uses to keep its prey from wriggling away while it maneuvers it into its gullet. It mostly eats very small animals, but it’s not going to let anything get away once it gets within jaw range.

While I was researching this episode, I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to find the episode where I talked about the umbrellafish, thinking it might be related to the loosejaw. It’s not, and I finally realized the umbrellafish episode was for patrons. I’ve unlocked that Patreon episode and linked to it in the show notes if you want to go listen to it. The umbrellafish, also called the gulper eel, looks superficially like the loosejaw, but it has skin over its huge hinged jaws.

After my inability to properly describe the loosejaw’s amazing jaws, let’s move on to Beebe’s other mystery fish. One he named the three-starred anglerfish, Bathyceratias trilychnus, which he estimated was about six inches long, or 15 cm. It had three bioluminescent illicia on its head that it probably used as lures, since that’s something that other deep-sea anglerfish do and Beebe was pretty sure it was actually a species of anglerfish. Since there are over 200 known species of anglerfish, it’s not surprising that there are more that aren’t known.

Another was the five-lined constellation fish, Bathysidus pentagrammus, named for the five rows of photophores on its sides. Beebe thought it looked kind of like a surgeonfish, which is a flat, round fish shaped sort of like a pancake with fins and a tail. But surgeonfish are mostly found in shallow, tropical waters around coral reefs. They’re often brightly colored. Beebe didn’t assign his constellation fish to the surgeonfish’s family, and in fact didn’t assign it to any family since he didn’t know where it belonged.

The last of Beebe’s mystery fish was the rainbow gar, which he didn’t give a scientific name to since he had no idea what kind of fish it might be. He thought it was shaped like a gar, but it was so extraordinary he didn’t know what to think. He actually saw four of them swimming almost vertically, heads up and tails down, at about 2,500 feet deep, or 760 m. He named them rainbow gar because of their coloring: bright red head and jaws, a light blue body, and a yellow tail. They were about four inches long, or a little over 10 cm, with long, pointed jaws. They moved by fanning the dorsal fin, sort of like a seahorse.

Beebe wrote scientific articles about some of these fish and included them all in his book Half Mile Down. But it wasn’t long before other scientists started doubting the sightings. Some people thought he’d made up the fish to make his expeditions more exciting, some thought he was just mistaken. One irate ichthyologist wrote in 1933 that the constellation fish was probably just light reflecting off Beebe’s own breath fogging the window, because no fish had photophores like the ones he described. Because I guess in 1933 everything was known about fish that would ever be known, right?

Beebe seems to have been an honest scientist, though, and he didn’t really need to make anything up. He discovered dozens, if not hundreds, of fish new to science, many of which have either been found and properly described later, or which Beebe himself managed to later catch. Whenever he and Barton came up from a descent in the bathysphere, Beebe had his team on the boat send down nets, and sometimes they caught some of the animals he had seen. This allowed Bostelmann to add details to her paintings that Beebe wouldn’t have known about from just a look through the bathysphere’s windows.

Not only that, if Beebe wanted to make up a fish that would excite the general public and make them want to buy his books, he would have made up something huge and frightening. His mystery fish are mostly quite small. Only Bathysphaera intacta was large, and he only said they were about six feet long. That’s big for a deep-sea fish, but remember that the bathysphere never made it to the really crushing depths of the abyss. It descended into the mesopelagic zone, which is extremely dark but not completely lightless. There’s also a lot of life in this zone, and many fish that spend the day here migrate nearer the surface at night where they can find more food while still remaining hidden. The long-snouted lancetfish lives in this zone and it can grow seven feet long, or 2.15 m.

Plus, Beebe didn’t need to convince anyone to buy his books. They were already runaway bestsellers and he was quite famous, although it seems not to have gone to his head. He just wanted to have fun and do science. He actually seems to have been a good person by modern standards too, which is always refreshing. He disagreed with people who claimed to have scientific proof that women were inferior to men or that some races were inferior to others. He insisted that his team members work hard, but he worked hard too, and if he thought everyone was feeling too stressed, he’d announce that his birthday was coming up and they should take a few days off to celebrate. Some years he had several birthdays.

Beebe did spot one other mystery animal, but he didn’t get a good enough view to make a guess as to what it might be. This is what he wrote about it:

“…I saw its complete, shadow-like contour as it passed through the farthest end of the beam [of light]. Twenty feet is the least possible estimate I can give to its full length, and it was deep in proportion. The whole fish was monochrome, and I could not see even an eye or a fin. For the majority of the ‘size-conscious’ human race this marine monster would, I suppose, be the supreme sight of the expedition. In shape it was a deep oval, it swam without evident effort, and it did not return. That is all I can contribute, and while its unusual size so excited me that for several hundred feet I kept keenly on the lookout for hints of the same or other large fish, I soon forgot it in the (very literal) light of smaller, but more distinct and interesting organisms.

“What this great creature was I cannot say. A first, and most reasonable guess would be a small whale or blackfish. …[O]r, less likely, it may have been a whale shark, which is known to reach a length of forty feet. Whatever it was, it appeared and vanished so unexpectedly and showed so dimly that it was quite unidentifiable except as a large, living creature.”

Twenty feet is six meters, by the way. It might easily have been a whale, since many species of whale routinely dive much farther than the bathysphere descended at its deepest. Whatever it was, and whatever Beebe’s other five mystery fish were, hopefully one day a modern deep-sea vehicle will find them again.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway if you haven’t already, too! Details are on the website.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 155: Extreme Sexual Dimorphism

Many animals have differences between males and females, but some species have EXTREME differences!

The elephant seal male and female are very different sizes:

The huia female (bottom) had a beak very different from the male (top):

The eclectus parrot male (left) looks totally different from the female (right):

The triplewart seadevil, an anglerfish. On the drawing, you can see the male labeled in very small letters:

The female argonaut, also called the paper nautilus, makes a delicate see-through shell:

The male argonaut has no shell and is much smaller than the female (photo by Ryo Minemizu):

Lamprologus callipterus males are much larger than females:

The female green spoonworm. Male not pictured because he’s only a few millimeters long:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

I still have a lot of listener suggestions to get to, and don’t worry, I’ve got them all on the list. But I have other topics I want to cover first, like this week’s subject of extreme sexual dimorphism!

Sexual dimorphism is when the male of a species looks much different from the female. Not all animals show sexual dimorphism and most that do have relatively small differences. A lot of male birds are more brightly colored than females, for instance. The peacock is probably the most spectacular example, with the males having a brightly colored, iridescent fan of a tail to show off for the hens, which are mostly brown and gray, although they do have iridescent green neck feathers too.

But eclectus parrot males and females don’t even look like the same bird. The male is mostly green while the female is mostly red and purple. In fact, the first scientists to see them thought they were different species.

Males of some species are larger than females, while females of some species are larger than males. In the case of the elephant seal, the males are much larger than females. We talked about the northern elephant seal briefly last week, but only how big the male is. A male southern elephant seal can grow up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters, and can weigh up to 8,800 pounds, or 4,000 kg. The female usually only grows to about half that length and weight. The difference in this case is because males are fiercely territorial and fight each other, so a big male has an advantage over other males and reproduces more often. But the female doesn’t fight, so her smaller size means she doesn’t need to eat as much.

Another major size difference happens in spiders, but in this case the female is far larger than the male in many species. For instance, the body of the female western black widow spider, which lives throughout western North America, is about half an inch in length, or 16 mm, although of course that doesn’t count the legs. But the male is only half this length at most. Not only that, the male is skinny where the female has a large rounded abdomen, and the male is brown with pale markings, while the female is glossy black with a red hourglass marking on her abdomen. Female western widows can be dangerous since their venom is strong enough to kill many animals, although usually their bite is only painful and not deadly to humans and other mammals. But while the male does have venom, he can only inject a tiny amount with a bite so isn’t considered very dangerous in comparison.

The reason many male spiders are so much smaller than females is that the females of some species of spider will eat the male after or even during mating if she’s hungry. The smaller the male is, the less of a meal he would be and the less likely the female will bother to eat him. In the case of the western black widow, the male prefers to mate with females who are in good condition. In other words, he doesn’t want to spend time with a hungry female.

If you remember episode 139, about skunks and other stinky animals, we talked about the woodhoopoe and mentioned the bill differences between males and females. The male woodhoopoe has a longer, more curved bill than the female because males and females eat a slightly different diet of insects so they won’t compete for the same food sources.

But a bird called the huia took beak differences to the extreme. The huia lived in New Zealand, although it officially went extinct in 1907. It was a wattlebird, which gets its name from the brightly colored patch of skin on either side of the face, called wattles. In the case of the huia, the wattles were orange, while the feathers over most of the body were glossy black. It also had a strip of white at the tip of the long tail. The male’s beak was fairly long and pointy, although it also curved down slightly. But the female’s beak was much longer and more slender, curving downward in an arc.

The huia lived in forests in New Zealand, where it ate insects, especially beetle grubs that live in rotting logs. People used to think that a mated pair worked together to get at grubs and other insects. The male would use his shorter, stouter bill to break away pieces of rotting wood until the grub’s tunnel was exposed, and then the female would use her longer, more slender bill to fish the grub out of the tunnel. But actual observations of the huia before it went extinct indicate that it actually didn’t do this. Like the woodhoopoe, males and females preyed on different kinds of insects. The male did break open rotting wood with its beak in a way that’s very different from woodpeckers, though. Instead of hammering at the wood, it would wedge its bill into a crevice of the wood and open its beak, and the muscles and other structures it used to do so were so strong that it could easily break pieces of wood off. This action is known as gaping and other birds do it too, but the huia was probably better at it than any other bird known.

The huia went extinct partly due to habitat loss as European settlers cleared forests to make way for farming, and partly due to overhunting. Museums wanted stuffed huias for display, and the feathers were in demand to decorate hats. And as a result, we don’t have any huias left.

Sometimes the size difference between males and females reaches extreme proportions. We’ve talked about the anglerfish several times in different episodes, and it’s a good example. It’s a deep-sea fish with a bioluminescent lure on its head that it uses to attract prey. Different species grow to different sizes, but let’s just talk about one this time, the triplewart seadevil.

The triplewart seadevil is found throughout much of the world’s oceans, preferably in medium deep water but sometimes in shallow water and sometimes as deep as 13,000 feet, or 4000 meters. The female grows to about a foot long, or 30 cm. It’s black in color, although young fish are brown. Its body is covered with short spines and it has a lure on its head like other anglerfish. The lure is called an illicium, and it’s a highly modified dorsal spine that the fish can move around, including extending and retracting it. At the end of the illicium is a little bulb that contains bioluminescent bacteria. Whatever animals are attracted to the glowing illicium, the fish gulps down with its great big mouth.

But that’s the female triplewart seadevil. The male is tiny, only 30 mm long at the most. The male doesn’t have an illicium; instead, his jaws and teeth are specialized for one thing: to bite onto the female and never let go. When a male finds a female, he chooses a spot on her underside to latch on, and once he does, his mouth and one side of his body actually fuse to the female’s body. Their circulatory and digestive systems fuse too. Before the male finds a female, he has great big eyes, but once he fuses with a female his eyes degenerate because he no longer needs them. He’s fully dependent on the female, and in return she always has a male around to fertilize her eggs. But this attachment is actually pretty rare, because it’s hard for deep-sea fish to find each other.

Another sea creature where the females are much larger and very different from the males is the argonaut, or paper nautilus. The argonaut is an octopus that lives in the open ocean in tropical and subtropical waters. Instead of living on the bottom of the ocean, though, the paper nautilus lives near the surface, and while the female looks superficially similar to a nautilus, it’s only distantly related.

The female argonaut generally grows to about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, although the shell she makes can be up to a foot across, or 30 cm. In contrast, males are barely half an inch long, or 13 mm. The female’s eight arms are long because she uses them to catch prey, with two of her arms being larger than the others. She grabs small animals like sea slugs, crustaceans, and small fish and bites it with her beak, and like other octopuses she can inject venom at that point too. But the male has tiny little short arms except for one, which is slightly larger.

Like other cephalopods, the male uses one of his arms to transfer sperm to the female so she can fertilize her eggs. In most cephalopods that means an actual little packet of sperm that the male places inside the female’s mantle for her to use later. But in the argonaut, the male’s larger modified arm is called a hectocotylus, and it has little grooves that hold sperm. The male inserts the hectocotylus into the female’s mantle, then detaches it and leaves the arm inside her. Then he leaves and regrows the arm, as far as researchers know. We don’t actually know for sure since it’s never been observed, but octopuses do have the ability to regenerate lost arms. The female usually keeps the hectocotylus and sometimes ends up with several.

At that point the female creates a shell by secreting calcite from the tips of her two larger arms. The shell is delicate, papery, and white, and it resembles the shell of the ammonite, which we talked about in episode 86. The female lays her eggs inside the shell, then squeezes inside too, although she can come and go as she likes.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the argonaut, but we know more than we used to. In the olden days people thought the female used her two larger arms as sails at the surface of the water. Eventually scientists figured out that was wrong, but they were still confused as to why there only seemed to be female argonauts. They didn’t know that the males were so small and so different, and in fact when early researchers found hectocotyluses inside the females, they assumed they were parasitic worms of some kind. Eventually they worked that part out too.

But still, for a very long time researchers thought the argonaut’s shell was just for protecting the eggs, but it turns out that the female uses the shell as a flotation device. She can control how much air the shell contains, which allows her to control how close to the surface she stays. In a 2010 study of argonauts rescued from fishing nets and released into a harbor, if the shell doesn’t contain enough air, the argonaut will jet to the surface and stick the top of its shell above the water. The shell has small openings at this point so air can get in, and once the argonaut decides it’s enough, she seals the holes by covering them with two of her arms. Then she jets downward again until she’s deep enough below the surface that the pressure compresses the air inside the shell and cancels out the weight of the shell. This means the argonaut won’t bob to the surface but she also won’t sink, and instead she can just swim normally by shooting water from her funnel like other octopuses.

A species of cichlid fish from Lake Tanganyika in Africa, Lamprologus callipterus, also differs in size due to a shell, but not like the argonaut. Instead, the male is much larger than the female. The male can be up to five inches long, or nearly 13 cm, while the female is less than two inches long, or 4 ½ cm. The females lay their eggs in shells, but not shells they make. The shells come from snails, so the male needs to be larger so he can pick up and carry a big empty shell. The female, though, still needs to be small enough to fit inside the shell.

A moth called the rusty tussock moth is also sexually dimorphic. Its caterpillar grows around 1 to 1.5 inches long, or 3 to 4 cm, with females being a little larger than male caterpillars but otherwise very similar. But after the caterpillars pupate, they’re much different. The male moth has orangey or reddish-brown wings and a wingspan of about 1.5 inches, or almost 4 cm. The female doesn’t have wings at all. She emerges from her cocoon and perches next to it, and releases pheromones that attract a male. After the female mates, she lays her eggs on her old cocoon and dies, as does the male.

Let’s finish up with an animal you may never have heard of, the green spoonworm. It’s a marine worm that lives throughout much of the Mediterranean and the northeastern Atlantic Ocean. It lives on the sea floor in shallow water, partly buried in gravel and sand. The female grows up to about six inches long, or 15 cm, and sort of looks like a mostly deflated dark green balloon, although it may also look kind of lumpy. It also has a feeding proboscis that it can extend several feet, or about a meter.

As a larva, the green spoonworm floats around in the water, but whether it becomes male or female depends on where it settles. If it lands on the seafloor it transforms into a female and starts secreting a toxin called bonellin. Bonellin is what gives the green spoonworm its dark green color. The bonellin is mostly concentrated in the feeding proboscis and allows the spoonworm to paralyze and kill the tiny animals it eats.

But if the larva happens to land on a female green spoonworm, contact with the bonellin causes it to become a male. And the male is only a few mm long, doesn’t produce bonellin, and can’t even survive on its own. The female sucks the male into her body through the feeding proboscis, but instead of digesting him, he lives inside her and fertilizes her eggs. In return she provides him with all the nutrients he needs. A female may have more than one male living inside her, making sure that her eggs will always be fertilized.

There are lots more animals that show extreme sexual dimorphism, of course, but that at least gives you an idea of how different animals evolve to fit different environmental pressures. Weird as they seem to us, to the animals in question, it’s just normal–and it’s our appearance and how we do things that would seem weird to them. Perspective is everything.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 038: The Canvey Island Monster

This week we’re looking at the confusing and mysterious Canvey Island Monster! Is it really a monster? Is it just a fish, and if so what kind? And who’s telling the truth about what washed up when and where?

The initial article in a Canvey Island newspaper, from CanveyIsland.org.

The photo shown on many sites, with the implication or statement that it accompanied the article above:

The photo found by Garth Haslam of Anomoly (highly recommended reading at that link!). Note the enormous difference in font between this newspaper text and the clipping above:

A monkfish:

See also the Frontiers of Zoology page (and scroll way down for the full text of the “mermaid” description).

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

We’re getting closer and closer to Halloween. Things are getting weird. This week we’re going to learn about something called the Canvey Island Monster.

Canvey is a seven square mile, or 18 ½ square km, island off the southern coast of England not far from London. It’s barely above sea level and on Jan 31, 1953, a tidal surge overtopped the sea wall in the night and drowned 58 people. Its marshes are home to lots of plants and animals, including some insects that at one point were thought extinct. It was also a fashionable vacation area in Victorian times and can claim lots of ghost, such as one story told by night fishermen who sometimes see a Viking standing on the mudflats staring out to sea. He supposedly drowned while waiting for his ship to return. But Canvey Island’s big claim to fame these days is something that happened late in the same year of the big flood, 1953.

This is the story as reported pretty much everywhere. Some time in November of 1953, a body washed ashore. We don’t know exactly what day it was or who found it. It was lying in shallow water, and its finders pulled it farther ashore and covered it with seaweed, presumably so nothing would bother it and it wouldn’t wash back out with the tide. They went for the police, but the police had no idea what they were looking at. They called “the government” who sent two zoologists to identify the body. But the zoologists didn’t know what it was either. They had the body incinerated and left without making an official report.

So what did the body look like? It measured about two and a half feet long, or about 76 centimeters. It’s described as a marine animal with thick brownish-red skin, protruding eyes in a pulpy head, sharp teeth, and gills, but it also had hind legs with no forelegs. Remarkably, its feet each had five toes that together were shaped roughly like a horseshoe. The zoologists reportedly said it looked as though it would be able to walk upright on its legs.

Then, in summer of 1954, another one washed ashore. This one was bigger, almost 4 feet long or 120 cm. It weighed about 25 pounds, or 11.3 kilograms. A short article appeared on August 13, 1954 in either the Canvey Chronicle or the Canvey News. There is a clipping on CanveyIsland.org and if you look at the show notes you can see it there too, along with a photograph of the creature.

The headline reads “Fish with feet found on beach.” I’ll read the entire article since it’s very short:

“A fish with feet was found on the beach at Canvey on Tuesday by the Rev. Joseph D. Overs. He described the fish as being over four feet long with staring eyes and a large mouth. Underneath, on its stomach, it had two feet, each with five toes. It was dead and had apparently been damaged by being washed against the rocks. A peculiar fish was found in almost the same place last year and identified as a pocket or ‘fiddler fish.’”

Under that is a subheading titled SEAL TOO and the sentence “For the first time within living memory a seal was seen in Benfleet Creek, near the bridge, on Tuesday.”

All this seems pretty straightforward, but it’s not. There’s a lot to unpack and a lot more information that sheds light on the events. But first let’s take a quick detour to find out what that November 1953 body might have been. What’s a fiddler fish?

There’s a fiddler ray, sometimes called a banjo ray, which I’m delighted to learn is a type of guitarfish. Guitarfish are only slightly guitar shaped. They mostly look like little sharks if you smooshed the shark’s head flat. The fiddler ray has a rounder flattened head than a guitarfish. It lives around Australia and likes shallow, sandy bays, where it eats mostly shellfish and crabs. It’s harmless and edible. But it’s not reddish-brown, it doesn’t have sharp teeth, and it certainly doesn’t have anything that could be called legs by any stretch of the imagination.

I couldn’t find any other marine animals called fiddler fish. As for pocket fish, Google helpfully offered me an urban dictionary entry, gadgets used when fishing, stock photos of plastic fish in shirt pockets, a cookbook, and some miscellaneous entries about video games and songs I’ve never heard of. I couldn’t find an actual fish called a pocket fish.

So we’ll go with the fiddler ray as mentioned in the article. But I just can’t connect a fiddler ray with the thing that supposedly washed up onshore in 1953.

It also seems odd that the newspaper article doesn’t mention the two zoologists supposedly sent by “the government” who couldn’t identify the 1953 monster. For that matter, it doesn’t say that the 1954 fish was the same type of thing found in 1953. It just says “a peculiar fish was found in almost the same place last year”. Not the same kind of fish. The same place. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

As it happens, I didn’t have to look too hard to find out how this got so scrambled. I discovered an excellent website called Anomalies that really digs into the topic. A link is in the show notes if you want to read more.

In 1959–only about five years after the weird thing washed ashore on Canvey Island–writer and radio personality Frank Edwards published a book called Stranger Than Science. It’s since been reprinted many times and I have clear memories of reading it as a kid, although I don’t remember anything about the Canvey Island monster. It was a popular book and full of…less than stellar research.

Edwards’ book is the main source used for subsequent accounts of the Canvey Island monster, including the Wikipedia page. It’s Edwards who claims there were two such monsters, Edwards who describes the feet as having toes arranged in a U shape, Edwards who introduces us to the mysterious government-sent zoologists who tell everyone the monster is a bipedal marine animal but it’s okay, it’s harmless, hey, let’s just burn this body and tell no one.

It appears that Edwards made a lot of this up. For instance, there were no baffled zoologists. Why would you even send a pair of zoologists to look at a fish? You’d send an ichthyologist or marine biologist of some kind. Just because someone is trained in the study of animals doesn’t mean they’re good at identifying fish.

The 1954 newspaper story was picked up by the Associated Press, but the full text of the AP article is even shorter than the original, although slightly more sensational, as follows: “A grotesque sea creature four feet long and with two five-toed feet was found on the beach here Tuesday by Reverend Joseph D. Overs. He described the thing, which was dead, as ‘a sort of fish with staring eyes and a large mouth underneath. It has two perfect feet, each with five pink toes.’”

The original 1954 article says that Reverend Joseph D. Overs found the body. According to the CanveyIsland.org page, while Overs was a reverend, he wasn’t the local vicar or anything like that. Apparently he was a reverend of the Old Roman Catholic Church of Great Britain, with a handful of parishioners who met for services at his lodging house. But he was better known as the island’s photographer, and was popular and well-liked. He took the photo of the fish himself, although he may not actually have been the one to find it. The webpage suggests that the reporter included Overs’ title of reverend to give the article more zing and that Overs didn’t usually use his title.

The CanveyIsland.org site is for residents, with a chatty tone, and many of the comments are from people who knew Overs. One 2011 comment about the mystery fish monster, left by a Colin Day, reads: “I was THERE. I was a young lad of nine at the time. I noticed a group of peers in a crowd on the beach. Kids were prodding it with their spades. I ACTUALLY TOUCHED IT! I thought it was a person at first as I could only see part of it through the crowd. Its flesh was NOT fish-like scales. It was a pinkish color and looked like wobbly human flesh with cellulite, orange peel texture. I remember shouting to the other kids ‘It’s a mermaid’ over and over.”

While the fish itself is long gone–no one’s sure what happened to it, but a deep hole in the sand was probably involved, because I bet it stank–we do have that single black and white photograph. What does it show?

It’s a wide-bodied fish with a huge gaping mouth, fins or projections of some kind to either side, and a long, tapering tail. Since it’s a face-on photo, it’s hard to get a good idea of where the fins are situated. They seem to be near the massive head but might be farther back. The fish appears pale, at least in comparison to the dark ground, and we have the eyewitness description of at least one little boy that it was pink, although Edwards claims it was reddish-brown.

Locals are convinced it was an angler fish, and ichthyologists have suggested an anglerfish species known as a monkfish or a related species called a frogfish. Let’s take a look at both.

The monkfish is broad and flattish, with a tapering tail, a big wide mouth with sharp teeth, and two roughly triangular fins jutting out from its sides. It lives in the ocean around England, as well as in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. It hunts among seaweed near the ocean floor, sometimes using its muscular fins to walk itself along instead of swimming. Its skin does not have scales but it is bumpy. Like other angler fish, it has a lure on its head, modified from a dorsal fin spine, that it can move around to attract small fish and other prey. When something touches the lure, YOMP, the monkfish gulps it down. Like the sabertooth fish we talked about in episode 34, the monkfish has an expandable stomach and can swallow prey as big as it is. And it can get big–almost seven feet long for a big female, or over 2 meters.

The frogfish prefers tropical and subtropical oceans, although it does live in the Mediterranean. It’s smaller than the monkfish, barely more than a foot long or around 35 centimeters, and it’s rounded rather than flattened. Some species of frogfish have elaborate filaments called spinules all over their bodies that help them blend in with seaweed and other plants. The frogfish frankly doesn’t look much like the fish in the picture, and is too small to fit the description, but it does have one thing in the plus column that the monkfish doesn’t. Many species are orange, yellow, or pink in color. The monkfish is dark.

But there are more than 200 species of anglerfish known. Many are seldom seen because they live so far down on the bottom of the ocean. In fact, the deep sea anglerfish is the one you’ve probably heard of, the one where the male bites the much bigger female and actually fuses to her body. He remains with her the rest of her life, basically just acting as a built-in egg fertilizer.

In July 1833, six men on a deep-sea fishing vessel caught a three-foot long or just under one meter long fish they claimed was a mermaid. In their sworn statement later they described it carefully, and it’s clear from the description that they had actually caught some species of anglerfish. I won’t quote the entire description here because it’s long, but I’ll link to the Frontiers of Zoology website where I found it. Its back was light gray and its front, as they said–actually the underparts of the fish–were white. They even described its lure, which they thought was some sort of hearing apparatus. So nine-year-old Colin Day was right, in a way. He’d seen a mermaid. And I’m happy to report that the fishermen who’d caught the mermaid in 1833 carefully released it back into the ocean. Because it’s bad luck to harm a mermaid.

So it’s entirely possible that the Canvey Island monster is a species of anglerfish that’s closely related to the monkfish but is pink like a frogfish. Or maybe it was just a variant color or albino. It’s too bad no one kept the fish, but at least we have a photo.

Or do we? We don’t actually know that that photo accompanied the 1954 article. The Anomalist researcher, Garth Haslam, has tried repeatedly to contact a librarian, reporter, or the author of the CanveyIsland.org site to verify the photo’s presence with the original newspaper article, but no one has replied. The Canvey Island library does have archives of one of the two newspapers from that era…but the 1954 papers are missing. Haslam is understandably frustrated and points out that the original description of the fish doesn’t mention its tail, which is quite long and would have been notable. He suggests the picture may actually accompany a different article entirely. He has managed to track down a bigger clip of the fish photo which includes part of a different article’s text next to it…and you know what? The font type is completely different from the font used in the 1954 article. I think Haslam’s right. I don’t think that photo is of the Canvey Island Monster at all.

This was where I was going to laugh like a vampire and wish you a happy Halloween. But then I went and found an article from the Londonderry Sentinel from August 12, 1954. I used up one of my free introductory British Newspaper Archive page accesses to read it, so you’re going to hear the entire thing even though most of it is identical to the Canvey Island newspaper article. But there is one very important addition at the end.

The headline reads ‘Clergyman Finds Fish with Feet’ and the article reads:

“A large fish with feet was found washed up on the beach at Canvey Island, Essex, on Tuesday, by Reverend Joseph D. Overs, a local clergyman. ‘It was over four feet long with staring eyes and a large mouth. Underneath it had two perfect feet, each with five toes. It was dead and had been damaged by being washed against rocks,’ said Mr. Overs. A similar fish was found almost in the same spot at Canvey last November. Mr. Overs said later that the fish had been identified as a pocket fish.

“The fish, which is also known as angler, sea devil, frog or toad fish, and fishing frog, is a British fish, and the name Angler is said to have been derived from its preying on small fish, which it attacts by moving worm-like filaments attached to the head and mouth.”

Now we know that Frank Edwards didn’t completely invent that November 1953 fish. But even if the newspaper picture didn’t come from the 1954 article—and I’m pretty sure it didn’t—it seems clear from this article that we’re talking about anglerfish anyway. Even the 1953 fish’s identification as a fiddler fish isn’t too surprising, since the fiddler ray does superficially resemble an anglerfish in that it has a large head but a much slenderer body that tapers in a long tail. The angler fish’s fins are strong and thick, and if the body was damaged as Overs reported, the ends of the fins may have been frayed to resemble toes.

But I do have one last thing to add. Remember how in Stranger Than Science, Frank Edwards describes the fish as having five toes arranged in a U shape? Where on earth did that come from? Well, for some reason Edwards was convinced that the Canvey Island Monster was the same thing that left hoofmarks in the snow all over Devonshire in February of 1855. No one else has made that connection and I have no idea why Edwards decided to link them. Devon and Canvey are over 200 miles apart, or about 360 kilometers. But if Edwards wanted to use the Canvey Island Monster to solve the mystery of the devil’s footprints, he had to make people believe not only that the fish was bipedal but that it had feet whose prints would resemble hooves.

I don’t think the Canvey Island monster was out cavorting in the snow in 1855, leaving hundreds of miles of hoofmarks on roofs and in walled gardens. But something left those hoofmarks. But to learn more about the devil’s footprints, you’re going to have to wait for next week.

[thunder crash muahaha!]

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