Tag Archives: deep-sea animals

Episode 290: Lobsters!

Thanks to Pranav for this week’s suggestion, lobsters!

Happy birthday to Jake!!

Visit Dr. Oné R. Pagán’s site for links to his podcast and his free book Arrow: The Lucky Planarian! You can also order his other books from your favorite book store. Here’s the direct link to his interview with me!

Further reading:

Don’t Listen to the Buzz: Lobsters Aren’t Actually Immortal

An ordinary lobster:

A blue lobster!

The scampi looks more like a prawn/shrimp than a lobster, but it’s a lobster:


The rosy lobsterette is naturally red because it lives in the deep sea:

The deep-sea lobster Dinochelus ausubeli was only discovered in 2007 and described in 2010:

Show transcript:

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

As invertebrate August continues, this week we’re going to talk about lobsters. Thanks to Pranav for the suggestion!

But first, we have a birthday shout-out! A great big happy birthday this week to Jake! I hope your birthday is epic fun!

I’d also like to let you know that Dr. Oné R Pagán interviewed me recently about my book, Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World, and you can hear that interview on his podcast, the Baldscientist Podcast. Baldscientist is all one word. I’ll put a link in the show notes. While you’re at it, you should definitely buy his books, including his latest one, Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal Intoxication, which just came out this year and is a lot of fun, as well as being full of interesting science! He also has a free children’s story called Arrow, the Lucky Planarian that you can download and read. It’s completely charming and you’ll learn a lot about planarians, which are also called flatworms, which are invertebrates, so this is all coming together!

This week’s episode isn’t about planarians, though, but about lobsters. I don’t think we’ve ever discussed lobsters on the podcast before, oddly enough, but it’s been on my ideas list for a long time. When Pranav emailed me recently to suggest we do a lobster episode, I realized it was time! Time for lobsters!

The lobster is a crustacean, and while there are plenty of different lobsters in the world, we’re going to focus on the clawed lobsters this time. There are lots of them, all grouped in the family Nephropidae.

The lobster has eight legs that it walks on, and two more legs with pincers. That’s why it’s in the order Decapoda. Deca means ten and poda means feet. Ten feet. Some of which can pinch you if you’re not careful.

The lobster uses its claws to defend itself from potential predators, and uses them to grab and kill small animals. It eats pretty much anything it can find, from fish and squid to sea stars and mollusks, to dead animals and some plant material. But its claws are too big and clumsy to use to eat with, which is why it has much smaller pincers on its next pairs of legs. These pincers are equipped with chemoreceptors that allow the lobster to taste its food before it actually eats it, which is a neat trick.

The lobster uses these small claws to pull its food into smaller pieces and convey it to the mouthparts, which are under its head. Some mouthparts have sensory hairs that can taste food, some have sharp spines that act as teeth to tear food into smaller pieces, and others are small and just flutter to help keep pieces of food from floating away. The stomach is only about an inch away from the mouth, or about 2.5 cm, no matter the size of the lobster. The stomach itself, and the short esophagus leading to the stomach, are lined with chitin spines that act like teeth to grind food up while enzymes break it down to fully digest it. This seems like a really complicated way to eat, but it’s actually not all that different from the way we eat, it’s just that instead of mouthparts and stomach teeth, we do all our grinding up of food in the mouth with just one set of teeth.

The lobster’s body is protected by an exoskeleton made of chitin, but the trouble with exoskeletons is that they don’t grow. The lobster has to shed its exoskeleton every so often and grow a new one that fits better, and until the new exoskeleton has hardened, the lobster is vulnerable and will usually hide. This can take several weeks. When a lobster is young and growing rapidly, it may molt its exoskeleton every few months or even more often, while an adult lobster typically only molts once every year or two.

Molting takes energy, though, and the bigger a lobster is, the more energy it takes to molt. It’s not like taking off a shirt. The lobster has to wriggle carefully out of its exoskeleton through a split between its tail and abdomen, making sure not to hurt its soft body in the process, and it even molts its stomach teeth, more properly called a gastric mill.

It’s a long, difficult process, during which time the lobster is mostly helpless. Some studies indicate that something like 10% of all lobsters actually die during the molting process. A lobster usually eats its shed exoskeleton in order to extract calcium from it, which helps its new exoskeleton harden faster.

Unlike many animals, lobsters keep growing throughout their lives. Since they can live a long time, that means sometimes people catch really big lobsters. The biggest ever reliably measured was an American lobster caught in 1977 off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada in North America. It weighed 44 lbs, 6 oz, or 20.14 kg and was 3.5 feet long, or 106 cm. A more ordinary weight of a good-sized lobster is about 2 lbs, or 910 grams.

The lobster can definitely live at least 50 years, and some researchers suggest it can live much longer than that. But it’s really hard to tell the age of a lobster. You can’t go by size since individual lobsters grow at different rates depending on how much food they can find and other factors. A study published in September 2021 reports that a DNA test of genetic modifications that lobsters and other animals accumulate during their lives can determine a lobster’s age with a good degree of accuracy. This is important since it will help conservationists learn more about lobster populations, many of which are under increasing pressure from commercial fishing.

There’s a lot of talk online about how the lobster is actually immortal, and that if nothing kills it, it will just live forever. This rumor got started when scientists reported that lobsters express an enzyme called telomerase that repairs damage to DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes. Most adult animals lose the ability to express telomerase, but the lobster doesn’t.

But lobsters aren’t immortal. A really old lobster stops shedding its exoskeleton, which slowly becomes more and more battered. The exoskeleton is part of the lobster’s body and can contract bacterial infections when it’s injured. Sometimes the infections are bad enough that it fuses the exoskeleton to the body permanently, so if the lobster does eventually get to the point where it can molt, it gets stuck trying to and dies. Sometimes the exoskeleton just rots away, which leads to the lobster’s death.

Still, the telomerase probably helps the lobster live for such a long time. Now that scientists have a way to determine a lobster’s actual age without harming it, hopefully soon we’ll learn more about how old they really get. We might be surprised, who knows?

Most species of lobster are brown, black, or greenish, which helps them hide on the sea floor. When a lobster is cooked by boiling, chemicals in its exoskeleton react with the hot water and turn it bright red. But sometimes—like, once every 10 million lobsters—a live lobster is found that is red. Researchers aren’t sure what causes this coloration.

Sometimes lobsters can be blue too. It’s still rare but not as rare as red coloration, estimated at about one every two million lobsters. While some species of lobster are naturally dark blue or even dark purple, a blue lobster is a really pretty shade of bright blue. It’s caused by a genetic mutation that results in it producing more of a protein that reacts with the pigments in its body, turning it blue. Since blue lobsters are so striking and attractive, lobster fishers usually either throw blue lobsters back or donate them to local aquariums. People sometimes assume blue lobsters are poisonous even though they’re not, so mostly no one wants to eat them anyway.

Lobsters are closely related to crabs and shrimp, and some clawed lobsters look a lot like their close relatives. This includes the scampi, which is the pinkish and silvery-white coloration of a prawn or shrimp, and only grows about 10 inches long at most, or 25 cm. It lives in parts of the northeastern Atlantic and parts of the Mediterranean Sea, where it digs a burrow in the muddy sea floor and spends most of its time hiding. It eats worms, small fish, jellyfish, and anything else it can catch. There are other species of scampi that live in other parts of the world’s oceans too.

Another lobster that looks even more like a shrimp is the rosy lobsterette, which only grows about 5 inches long, or 13 cm, and which is naturally red. This isn’t a rare coloration but an adaptation to its habitat. Unlike most lobsters, which live in shallow coastal waters, the rosy lobsterette lives in much deeper water where there’s very little light. As we’ve talked about before, the wavelength of light that is red can’t penetrate very far into water, so a red animal in the deep sea is basically invisible. A lot of deep-sea animals can’t even perceive the color red. The rosy lobsterette lives in the Gulf of Mexico, around the Caribbean, and in the western Atlantic Ocean.

There are actually quite a few species of lobster that live in the deep sea, with more being discovered every so often. In 2010 a new species of deep-sea lobster was described, Dinochelus ausubeli, which lives near the Philippines in South Asia. It was discovered during the ten-year Census of Marine Life, which sponsored 540 expeditions by thousands of scientists all over the world. It only grows a few inches long, or about 5 cm, and is mostly transparent with some pinkish coloring. It has one really long, thin, spiny claw with a bulbous base, while the other claw is much smaller.

There are a whole lot of other clawed lobster species, some of them known from only a few specimens. The Cape lobster, for instance, lives off the coast of South Africa in rocky areas, and even though it’s been known to science since the late 18th century, we don’t know much about it. It’s small, only growing about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, and ranges in coloration from greenish to yellowish to brown, even sometimes red, and it looks like a miniature version of the European or American lobsters although it’s not very closely related. In 1992 someone found one, which was such a rare occurrence that it was reported in the news. It was only the 14th specimen ever found at the time, although the publicity it received got other people out looking for the little lobster and more have been found since.

In other words, there are undoubtedly lots more species of lobster than we know about, just waiting to be discovered.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast 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 Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 288: Mystery Invertebrates

Thanks to Joel for suggesting this week’s topic!

Happy birthday to Fern this week!

Further reading:

Small, rare crayfish thought extinct is rediscovered in cave in Huntsville city limits

Hundreds of three-eyed ‘dinosaur shrimp’ emerge after Arizona monsoon

An invertebrate mystery track in South Africa

The case of the mysterious holes in the sea floor

Contemplating the Con Rit

The Shelton Cave crayfish, rediscovered:

The three-eyed “tadpole shrimp” or “dinosaur shrimp,” triops [photo from article linked above]:

A leech track in South Africa [photo from article linked above]:

A track, or at least a series of holes, discovered in the deep seafloor [photos from article linked above]:

Show transcript:

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

Thanks to Joel who suggested we do an episode about mystery invertebrates! It took me a while, but I think you’re really going to like this episode. Some of the mysteries are solved and some are not, but they’re all fun.

Before we get to the mystery animals, though, we have a birthday shout-out! A great big happy birthday to Fern! I hope you have your favorite type of birthday cake or other treat and get to enjoy it with your loved ones.

Our first mystery starts in a cave near Huntsville, Alabama in the southern United States, which is in North America. Shelta Cave is a relatively small cave system, only about 2,500 feet long, or 760 meters. That’s about half a mile. It’s a nature preserve now but in the early 1900s it was used as an underground dance hall with a bar and everything.

Biologist John Cooper studied the cave’s aquatic ecosystem in the 1960s when he was doing his dissertation work. His wife Martha helped him since they were both active cavers. At the time, the cave ecosystem was incredibly diverse, including three species of crayfish. One was called the Shelta Cave crayfish, which was only a few inches long, or about 5 cm, mostly translucent or white since it didn’t have any pigment in its body, and with long, thin pincers.

It was rarer than the cave’s other two crayfish species, and unlike them it had only ever been found in Shelta Cave. From 1963 to 1975, only 115 individuals had been confirmed in repeated studies of the cave’s ecosystem.

Then, in the 1970s, several things happened that caused a serious decline in the diversity of life in the cave.

The first was development of the land around the cave into subdivisions, which meant that more pesticides were used on lawns and flower beds, which made its way into the groundwater that entered the cave. It also meant more people discovering the cave and going in to explore, which was disturbing a population of gray bats who also lived in the cave. To help the bats and keep people out, the park service put a gate over the entrance, but the initial gate’s design wasn’t a very good one. It kept people out but it also made it harder for the bats to go in and out, and eventually the bats gave up and moved out of the cave completely. This really impacted the cave’s ecosystem, since bats bring a lot of nutrients into a cave with their droppings and the occasional bat who dies and falls to the cave floor.

The gate has since been replaced with a much more bat-friendly one, but studies afterwards showed that a lot of the animals found in the cave had become rare. The Shelta Cave crayfish had disappeared completely. One was spotted in 1988 but after that, nothing, and the biologists studying the cave worried that it had gone extinct.

Then, in 2019, a team of scientists and students surveying life in the cave spotted a little white crayfish with long, thin pincers in the water. The team leader dived down and scooped it up with his net to examine more closely. The crayfish turned out to be a female Shelta Cave crayfish with eggs, which made everyone excited, and after taking a tiny tissue sample for DNA testing, and lots of photographs, they released her back into the water. The following year they found a second Shelta Cave crayfish.

The Shelta Cave crayfish is so little known that we don’t even know what it eats or how it survives in the same environment with two larger crayfish species. Biologist Dr. Matthew Niemiller is continuing Dr. Cooper’s initial studies of the cave and will hopefully be able to learn more about the crayfish and its environment.

Next let’s travel from a cool, damp, flooded cave in Alabama to northern Arizona. Arizona is in the western United States and this particular part of the state has desert-like conditions most of the year. Almost a thousand years ago, people built what is now called Wupatki Pueblo, a 100-room building with a ballcourt out front and a big community room. It was basically a really nice apartment building. Wupatki means “tall house” in the Hopi language, and while the pueblo people who built it are long gone, Wupatki is still an important place for the Hopi and other Native American tribes in the area. It’s also a national monument that has been studied and restored by archaeologists and is open to the public.

In late July 2021, torrential rain fell over the area, so much rain that it pooled into a shallow temporary lake around Wupatki, including flooding the ballcourt. The ballcourt is 105 feet across, or 32 meters, and surrounded by a low wall. One day while the ballcourt was still flooded, a tourist came up to the lead ranger, Lauren Carter. The visitor said there were tadpoles in the ballcourt.

There are toads in the area that live in burrows and only come out during the wet season when there’s rain, and Carter thought the tadpoles might be from the toads. She went to investigate, saw what looked like tadpoles swimming around, and scooped one up in her hands to take a closer look. But the tadpoles were definitely not larval toads. In fact, they kind of looked like teensy horseshoe crabs, with a rounded shield over the front of the body and a segmented abdomen and tail sticking out from behind, with two long, thin spines at the very end that are called caudal extensions. It had two pairs of antennae and lots of small legs underneath, some adapted for swimming. The largest of the creatures were about two inches long, or 5 cm.

What on earth were they, and where did they come from? This area is basically a desert. Carter stared at the weird little things and remembered hearing about something similar when she worked at the Petrified Forest National Park, also in Arizona. She looked the animal up and discovered what it was.

It’s called Triops and is in the order Notostraca. Notostracans are small crustaceans shaped sort of like tadpoles, which is why it’s sometimes called the tadpole shrimp, but it’s not a shrimp. It has two eyes on the top of its head visible through its flattened, smooth carapace. Species in the genus Triops also have a so-called third eye between the two ordinary eyes, although it’s a very simple eye that probably only detects light and dark. Many crustaceans have these third eyes in their larval forms but very few retain them into adulthood.

Notostracans have been around for about 365 million years, and haven’t changed much in the last 250 million years. It’s an omnivore that mostly lives on the bottom of freshwater pools and shallow lakes, often temporary ones like the flooded ballcourt, although some species live in brackish water and saline pools, or permanent waterways like peat bogs.

Triops eggs are able to tolerate high temperatures and dry conditions, with the eggs remaining viable for years or even decades in the sediment of dried-up ponds. When enough water collects, the eggs hatch and within 24 hours are miniature versions of the adult Triops. They grow up quickly, lay lots of eggs, and die within a few months or when the water dries up again.

Triops eggs are even sold as aquarium pets, since they’re so unusual looking and are easy to care for. They basically eat anything. They especially like mosquito larvae, so if you see some in your local pond or other waterway, give them a tiny high-five.

In 1996, some workers near Indianapolis, Indiana were servicing a tank full of chemical byproducts from making plastic auto parts when they noticed movement in the toxic goo. They investigated and saw several squid-like creatures swimming around. They were red-brown and about 8 inches long, or 20 cm, including their arms or tentacles, but were only about an inch wide, or 2.5 cm.

The workers managed to capture one and put it in a jar, which they stuck in the break room refrigerator. By the time someone in management arranged to have it examined by a scientist, the jar had been thrown out. If you’ve ever tried to keep food in a break room fridge, you’ll know that there’s always someone who will throw out everything in the fridge that isn’t theirs, no matter whether it’s labeled or brand new or not. I have had my day’s lunch thrown out that had only been in the fridge a few hours. Anyway, when the tank was cleaned out the following year, no one found any creatures in it at all.

This sounds really interesting, but there’s precious little information to go on. The story appeared in a few newspapers but we have no names of the people who reportedly saw the creatures, no follow-up information. It has all the hallmarks of a hoax or urban legend. The creatures’ size also seems quite large for extremophiles in a small, closed environment. What would they find to eat to get so big?

Next let’s talk about some mysterious tracks made by invertebrates, as far as we know. We’ll start with a track on land that was a mystery at first, but was solved. A man in the Kruger National Park in South Africa named Rudi Hulshof came across a weird track in the sandy dirt that he didn’t recognize. It was maybe 10 mm wide and kind of looked like a series of connected rectangles, as though a tiny person was moving a tiny cardboard box by rolling it over and over, but there weren’t any footprints, just the body track.

Curious, Hulshof followed the track to find what had made it, and finally discovered the culprit. It was a leech! Most leeches live in water, whether it’s the ocean, a pond or swamp, a river, or just flooded ground. Most species are parasitic worms that attach to other animals with suckers, then pierce the animal’s skin and suck its blood. The leech stays on the animal until it’s full, then drops off. Some leeches are terrestrial, but it appears that this one was a freshwater leech that had attached to an animal passing through the water, then dropped off onto land. It had crawled as far as it could trying to find a better environment, but when Hulshof found it it was dead, so it had not had a good day.

The leech moves on land by stretching the front of its body forward, then dragging its tail end up in a bunch kind of like a worm (it is a kind of worm), so that’s why its track was so unusual-looking. It’s a good thing Hulshof found the leech before something ate it, or else he’d probably still be wondering what had made that track.

We have photographs of other tracks that are still mysterious. You may have heard about one that’s been in the news lately. This one was found by a deep-sea rover in July 2022, more than a mile and a half deep, or 2500 meters, in the north Atlantic Ocean.

The track may or may not actually be a track, although it looks like one at first glance. It consists of a line of little holes in the seafloor, one after the other, although they’re not all the same distance apart. The rover saw them on two separate dives in different locations, so it wasn’t just one track, but although the scientists operating the rover remotely tried to look into the holes, they couldn’t get a good enough view. It does look like there’s sediment piled up next to the holes, so researchers think something might actually be digging the holes, either digging down from the surface to find food hidden in the sediment, or digging up from inside the sediment to find food in the water. The rover did manage to get a sample of sediment from next to one of the holes and a water sample from just above it, and eventually those samples will be tested for possible environmental DNA that might help solve the mystery.

This wasn’t the first time these holes have been seen in the area, though. An expedition in 2004 saw them and hypothesized that the holes are made by an invertebrate with a feeding appendage of some kind that it uses to dig for food. Not only that, we have similar-looking fossil holes in rocks formed from deep marine sediments millions of years ago.

Other deep-sea tracks have a known cause, and humans are responsible. In the 1970s and 1980s, ships with deep-sea dredging equipment traveled through parts of the Pacific Ocean, testing the ocean floor to see whether the minerals in and beneath the sediment were valuable for mining. A few years ago scientists revisited the same areas to see how the ecosystems impacted by test mining had responded.

The answer is, not well. Even after 40 years or so since the deep-sea mining equipment sampled the sea floor, the marks remain. The deep sea is a fragile ecosystem to start with, and any disturbance takes a long, long time to recover—possibly thousands of years. So while the holes discovered in 2022 were almost certainly made by an animal or animals, they might be quite old.

Let’s finish with a mystery animal we’ve talked about before, but a really long time ago—way back in episode 6. It’s definitely time to revisit it.

In 1883 when he was 18 years old, a Vietnamese man named Tran Van Con had seen the body of an enormous creature washed up on shore at Hongay in Vietnam. Van Con said it was probably 60 feet long, or 18 meters, but less than three wide wide, or 90 cm. It had dark brown plates on its back with long spines sticking out from them to either side, and the segment at its tail end had two more spines pointing straight back. It didn’t have a head, which had presumably already rotted off, or something bit it off before the animal washed ashore. It had been dead for a long time considering the smell. In fact, it smelled so terrible that locals finally towed it out to sea to get rid of it. It sank and that was the last anyone ever saw of it. The locals referred to it as a con rit, which means “millipede,” since the armor plates made it look like the segmented body of an immense millipede.

Lots of people have made suggestions as to what the con rit could be, but nothing really fits. It was the length of a whale, but it doesn’t sound like any kind of whale known. The armored plates supposedly rang like metal when hit with a stick. Even if this was an exaggeration, it probably meant the armor plates were really hard, not just the skin of a dead whale that had hardened in the sun. It also implies that the plates had empty space under them, allowing them to echo when hit. Zoologist Dr. Karl Shuker suggests that the plates might have been the exoskeleton of a crustacean of some kind, which makes a lot more sense than a whale, but the sheer size of the carcass is far larger than any crustacean, or even any arthropod, ever known.

There’s also some doubt that the story is accurate. It might even be a hoax. We only know about the con rit at all because the director of Indochina’s Oceanographic and Fisheries service, Dr. A. Krempf, talked to Tran Van Con about it in 1921. That was 38 years after Van Con said he saw the creature, so he might have misremembered details. Not only that, Krempf translated the story from Vietnamese, and there’s no way of knowing how accurate his translation was.

The con rit is also a monster from Vietnamese folktales, a sort of sea serpent that had lots of feet. It was supposed to attack fishing boats to eat the sailors, until a king caught it and chopped it up into pieces. A local mountain was supposedly formed from its head, and the other pieces of its body turned into the unusual stones found on a nearby island.

There’s always the possibility that Tran Van Con actually told Krempf this folktale, but that Krempf misunderstood and thought he was telling him something he actually witnessed. Then again, there are eight reports from ships in the area between 1893 and 1915 of creatures that might have been a con rit. One account from 1899 was a sighting of a creature estimated as being 135 feet long, or 41 meters, which was rowing itself along at the surface by means of multiple fins along its sides.

Whatever the con rit was, there haven’t been any sightings since 1915. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a population of incredibly long invertebrates living in the deep ocean in southeast Asia. If it does exist, maybe one day a deep-sea rover will spot one. Maybe it dug those little holes, who knows?

You can find Strange Animals Podcast 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 Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 235: Deep-Sea Squid

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This week we visit the weirdest squid in the deep sea!

I was a guest on Tim Mendees’s After Hours that’s now up on YouTube! It’s mostly about my writing but we talk about all kinds of stuff, including cephalopods! There is some bad language but it’s not all that bad and it’s mostly toward the end.

Further reading/watching:

Elusive Long-Tailed Squid Captured on Film for First time

See Strange Squid Filmed in the Wild for the First Time (ram’s horn squid)

Multiple observations of Bigfin Squid (Magnapinna sp.) in the Great Australian Bight reveal distribution patterns, morphological characteristics, and rarely seen behaviour

Untangling the Long-Armed Mystery of the Bigfin Squid

Drawing of a long-arm squid and an actual long-arm squid:

Asperoteuthis mangoldae, which really should be called the long-tailed squid:


Verany’s long-armed squid, with its tentacles mostly retracted (so not looking very long-armed):

Verany’s long-armed squid with tentacles extended:

Drawing of a paralarval Verany’s long-armed squid:

The ram’s horn squid, floating along doop doop doop:

Drawing of the coiled internal shell of the ram’s horn squid:

A clawed armhook squid mama with her egg cluster:

Bigfin squid!

Another bigfin squid! Good grief look at that!

Show transcript:

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

Before we get started, a quick announcement that I was a guest on a YouTube show called After Hours recently! I was there mostly to talk about my writing, but naturally animals came up too, especially cephalopods. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the show. There is a little bad language, but not too bad and it’s more toward the end.

Anyway, in a not-exactly coincidence, this week we’re going to look at some of the weirdest deep-sea squids known. Yes, weirder than the flying squid we talked about in episode 101. We don’t know much about any of them, but they’re definitely not what you expect when you think about squid.

Let’s talk first about Asperoteuthis acanthoderma, the long-arm squid. It’s also sometimes called the thorny whiplash squid because it has little pointy tubercules in its skin and long, whiplike feeding tentacles. It lives in the deep sea and has been found in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, although very rarely. Despite its name, its feeding tentacles are much longer than its arms, although its arms are pretty long too. A squid’s body is generally more or less torpedo-shaped and is called a mantle. It has eight arms and two feeding tentacles that are usually longer than the arms. Many squid species have relatively short arms compared to mantle length.

The feeding tentacles in long-arm squid are very slender and delicate, and they’re easily broken off after the animal dies and has washed around in the water for a while. One intact specimen has been found and measured, though. It had a mantle length of almost a foot and a half long, or 45 cm, but its total length, including the tentacles, was 18 feet, or 5.5 meters. The tentacles were 12 times the mantle length.

Using that ratio, one large specimen found in 2007, which was 6 1/2 feet long, or 2 meters, including both mantle and arms, is estimated to have measured up to 24 feet long when it was alive, or over 7 meters. Most of its length is due to its incredibly long, thin feeding tentacles.

So what does the long-arm squid eat with those long, delicate tentacles? We don’t know. We don’t know most things about the long-arm squid.

Another species of Asperoteuthis is Asperoteuthis mangoldae. So little is known about it that it doesn’t even have an informal name. It was only described in 2007 and has only been found around the Hawaiian islands in the Pacific Ocean. It looks similar to the closely-related long-arm squid but without the incredibly long feeding tentacles. Instead, it has a sort of tail, so I nominate it to be called the long-tailed squid. It was caught on video for the first time in 2019 by a deep-sea rover. You’re going to hear a lot about deep-sea rovers in this episode. There are lots of links in the show notes to articles with embedded video of various squids, which is really interesting to watch.

Asperoteuthis mangoldae is a long, slender squid. I couldn’t find any measurements so it could be that’s just not known right now. The species in this genus have an extension of the mantle, on the side opposite of the arms, that looks like an extra fin but that doesn’t seem to be used as a fin. In the long-tailed squid, this extra fin is as long as its mantle and arms and feeding tentacles all measured together. Most of the time the thin flaps of skin on either side of the so-called tail are extended, making it look like a really long fin, but when the squid feels threatened and needs to flee, it collapses the fin part around the middle section so that it reduces drag in the water. That way the squid can move faster. Researchers speculate that the tail section may make the squid look much larger to potential predators, and possibly may imitate an organism called a siphonophore that has stinging cells.

Another squid called Verany’s long-armed squid is Chiroteuthis veranii. It’s related to the long-arm squid we talked about at the beginning of the episode, but they’re placed in different genera. It lives throughout the world’s oceans, often in the deep sea although not as deep as some of the species we’re talking about today. Unlike most squid, whose arms are all about the same length, two of its arms are much wider and longer than the others.

Like the other long-arm squid, its feeding tentacles are incredibly long and thin. The mantle is quite small, up to 8 inches long, or 20 cm, with the legs about the same length as or a little longer than the mantle, but the total length of this squid, including the feeding tentacles, is over four feet, or 130 centimeters. Most of the time the feeding tentacles are retracted, though, so they’re no longer than the arms, and they’re protected by the two largest arms. When the squid sees a tiny fish or crab or other small animal it wants to eat, it can shoot its retracted tentacles out at high speed to catch it. It’s probable that other species of long-armed squid hunt the same way.

A squid’s eggs hatch into an initial form called a paralarva. This is actually the case for other cephalopods too, including octopuses. The paralarvae usually just look like teeny-tiny miniature versions of the adult, but with stubby little arms. In the case of Verany’s long-armed squid, though, the larval squid looks sort of like a little rod. It’s long and thin, mostly transparent, and has a gladius, also called a pen, that sticks out the end of the mantle on the opposite side from the arms. The pen of a squid is named after an ink pen, although the other name, gladius, refers to the shape of a type of ancient Roman sword. It’s a vestigial shell but located inside the squid’s body. The tail of the long-tailed squid we just talked about is given structure by the gladius, so it’s possible that its paralarvae look rod-like, like those of Verany’s long-armed squid.

Speaking of internal shells, the ram’s horn squid has a coiled internal shell. This is unique among all the squid known to be alive today, so the ram’s horn squid is the only living member of its own order and its own family and its own genus. Technically it’s not really considered a squid although it is a closely related cephalopod. It’s small, with a mantle length only about an inch and a half long, or 4.5 centimeters. Its eight arms are quite short and it has two feeding tentacles that are about the same length as its mantle. Its mantle has an outer covering that extends down almost to the squid’s eyes, and it’s big enough that the squid can pull its eyes and legs and tentacles under this covering. The spiral shell resembles that of a nautilus, but it’s inside the squid instead of the nautilus living inside the shell. The shell contains gas that the squid uses to adjust its buoyancy.

For a long time researchers were confused as to how the ram’s horn squid oriented itself in the water. The empty shells from dead squid wash ashore pretty often, and experiments with them show that they want to float with the big end of the shell pointing downward. That confused the researchers, since that would mean the squid floats around with its arms downward too, which means that the photophore on the tail end of its mantle points upward. A photophore is a light-emitting organ, which is common in deep-sea animals. Usually an animal wants its light to point downwards, which means that larger animals looking up toward the surface see a little light sparkling amid the light shining down from the surface instead of seeing a squid-shaped shadow against the surface.

Then, in late 2020, a deep-sea rover exploring the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia got a video of a ram’s horn squid in the water. It was the first time a living one had ever been observed. In the video, the squid is floating with its arms pointing upward, flapping the fins on its mantle to move along in the water. Mystery solved! There’s still a lot we don’t know about the ram’s horn squid, but at least we know it doesn’t swim around upside-down.

Another squid that has only recently been seen alive in the wild from a deep-sea rover is the clawed armhook squid. My brother Richard alerted me to this one in a Twitter thread. The clawed armhook squid lives in the northern Pacific Ocean and has a mantle length of about seven inches, or 18 cm. Its arms are about the same length as its mantle. It gets its name from the female, which has small hooks on her arms to help her keep hold of her egg cluster. She lays about 3,000 eggs in a tube-like cluster that looks sort of like a gray cloth bag that’s open at both ends. Most squid lay their eggs on the sea floor and leave them, usually dying soon after, but the clawed armhook squid holds her egg cluster until the eggs hatch. She makes sure the eggs get enough oxygenated water by pumping water through the middle of the bag. She also swims away from anything that might want to eat her eggs or her, although she can’t swim very fast since she has to use her arms to hold onto the egg cluster. She usually stays in deep water far from shore while the eggs are developing, because there are fewer predators there than in her usual habitat nearer shore. In 2001 a rover spotted a mother squid with her egg cluster at 8,200 feet below the surface, or 2500 meters. That’s more than a mile and a half down, or two and a half kilometers.

Unfortunately for the mother squid, after she lays her eggs, she can’t use her arms for anything except holding and taking care of them, and that includes eating. She just doesn’t eat once she lays her eggs, and while we’re not sure how long it takes for them to hatch, it may be as much as nine months. It’s most likely that she dies after her babies hatch. All the female squids seen with egg clusters have been missing their feeding tentacles, and researchers think the squid may actually bite off her own tentacles so they don’t get in the way of her eggs.

Finally, the family Magnapinnidae, also called bigfin squids, were mysteries for over a century. For a long time they were only known from paralarval and juvenile individuals. Five species are known but there may be more, but no scientist has ever been able to study an adult except through photographs and videos made by deep-sea rovers.

All squid have fins of some kind on the mantle to help it move around. Different species, naturally, have varying sizes and shapes of fins. In the bigfin squid, as you may have guessed, the fins are very big. They look more like wings and can be almost as large as the entire mantle. But that’s not the really weird thing about these squid, although it was the most obvious thing when all we knew about them were young specimens. The arms and tentacles of squid don’t develop to their full length until the squid is an adult. The bigfin squid’s arms and tentacles are very long and they’re also very different from all other squids.

In 2001, a deep-sea rover used by an oil company in the Gulf of Mexico caught video of a large, unusual squid. Fortunately, one of the men operating the rover remotely asked for a copy of the squid video for his girlfriend, who was interested in deep-sea animals. His girlfriend asked around, trying to find out what kind of squid it was, and eventually contacted a squid expert at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The squid expert is named Mike Vecchione and when he saw the video, he freaked out. He’d never seen anything like this squid before. He says he jumped out of his chair and started yelling in excitement.

Then, once he calmed down, he contacted all his squid expert colleagues, who also freaked out, and eventually they found more footage of the weird squid taken by other oil rig rovers. The workers operating the rovers had no idea that the squid was a scientific mystery so hadn’t thought to contact any scientists. Finally the squid was identified as an adult bigfin.

In 2015, a deep-sea rover in a scientific expedition caught video of two bigfin squid near Australia, and in 2017 it saw three more. It also spotted some juvenile bigfin squid in the same area. Even better, the rover was able to use lasers to get a much more accurate estimate of the squid’s size than ever before. All five were different sizes, so they were probably five different individuals.

The bigfin squid has very thin arms and tentacles, referred to as vermiform. That means worm-shaped, which gives you an idea of how thin we’re talking. The largest bigfin squid measured by the rover in 2015 and 2017 had a mantle length of about 6 inches, or 15 cm, and a fin width of 5.5inches, or 14 cm, but the longest arm or tentacle length was 5.5 feet, or 1.68 meters. Measurements of other bigfin squid suggest it can grow up to 26 feet long, or 8 meters, and maybe even longer.

In the bigfin squid, the arms and tentacles are the same size. In other squids, the tentacles are usually longer and look different from the arms. The great length of the arms and tentacles of the bigfin squid comes from what’s called a distal filament that grows from the tip of the arm or tentacle. The filaments are sometimes missing, so it’s possible that they’re sometimes damaged and lost or maybe bitten off. The squid seems to use its arms and tentacles the same way instead of using its arms for some things and its tentacles for other things.

The bigfin squid holds its arms and tentacles differently from any other squid, in what’s called a crane pose or elbow pose. It’s not clear from the articles I read, but it seems to be that if you don’t count the distal filaments, the arms and tentacles are not actually all that long in comparison to its mantle. When it’s hunting, the squid holds them out from its body with the extremely long filaments hanging down. It looks like the squid has elbows that way. Squid don’t have elbows because squid, like other cephalopods like octopuses, don’t have any bones. We talked about how octopuses move without bones in episode 142 if you’re interested, and it’s the same for squid.

The bigfin squid can retract the filaments by coiling them up. One researcher said the coiled-up filaments look sort of like an old-fashioned phone cord, which will mean nothing to my younger listeners but the rest of us just thought, “Oh yeah, that makes total sense.” The filaments are sticky and trap tiny animals and particles of food drifting in the water. If you remember way way way back in episode 11 where we talked about the vampire squid, it uses its feeding tentacles the same way, including being able to retract them, but the vampire squid and the bigfin squid are not very closely related at all.

A research sub investigating a WWII shipwreck spotted a bigfin squid 3.7 miles below the surface, or 6,000 meters, which made it the deepest squid ever recorded. Imagine looking out the window of a submarine, assuming they have windows, trying to see details of a shipwreck, and suddenly there’s a massive squid with incredibly long, thin arms looking back at you.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast 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 Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 231: Fish of the Twilight Zone

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Let’s learn about some strange fish of the mesopelagic, or the twilight zone deep in the ocean! Thanks to Page, Joel, Anonymous Animal Lover, Brigham, and Fireburster for suggestions this week!

Further reading:

In Defense of the Blobfish

Further viewing:

Pacific viperfish (video embedded)

The Pacific viperfish, head-on (or rather teeth-on), still from video linked above:

Sloane’s viperfish, rocking those teeth:

The blobfish as it’s usually seen on the internet:

The blobfish as it looks when it’s cozy in its deep-sea environment:

The barreleye, which I have helpfully labeled for you:

Look at the bristlemouth’s sharp thin teeth! Good thing it’s only a few inches long:

An indignant bristlemouth (someone should take MS Paint away from me):

The bristlemouth is the most abundant vertebrate in the WORLD (photo by Paul Caiger):

Show transcript:

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

Where on earth does the time go? Suddenly we’re halfway through 2021 and I’m still vaguely thinking we’re only a few months in. I’m getting seriously behind on listener suggestions, so let’s have an episode about some weird fish that’s all listener suggestions. Thanks to Page, Joel, an animal lover who wants to remain anonymous, Brigham (whose name I hope I’m pronouncing correctly), and someone who calls themself Fireburster. Fireburster and Anonymous Animal Lover also both left us really nice reviews, so thank you! I picked all these suggestions at random, just grabbing fish suggestions that sounded interesting, but the great thing is they all turned out to live in a specific part of the deep sea.

Brigham and Fireburster both suggested the same fish, so let’s start with that one: the dragon fish. Neither of them specified which kind of dragon fish they’re talking about, though. It’s a popular name for weird fish of various kinds. We’ve even talked about a few before, the Pacific blackdragon of episode 193, which was coincidentally suggested by Page, and the barbeled dragonfish in that same episode. That’s the episode about William Beebe’s mystery fish, which happens to be my current favorite.

We only talked about the barbeled dragonfish briefly before, so let’s learn more about them now.

The barbeled dragonfish gets its name from the filament that hangs down from its chin, called a barbel. If you’ve ever wondered what the proper name for a catfish’s whiskers is, they’re also barbels. The dragonfish’s barbel has a photophore at the end that produces blue-green bioluminescent light, and the fish flashes the light to attract prey. Its head is large and its jaws are full of sharp teeth, so when an animal comes close, CHOMP! The barbeled dragonfish grabs it.

The dragonfish isn’t very big, with the blackdragon that we talked about in episode 193 being the largest at only 16 inches long, or 40 cm. Most species are about half that. So what happens when an animal the same size as or even bigger than the dragonfish happens along?

The dragonfish eats it, that’s what happens. It has large jaws that it can unhinge to swallow prey that’s bigger than it is, and its stomach can expand considerably to hold whatever it swallows. Mostly it just eats tiny animals like krill and amphipods, though.

We don’t know a whole lot about dragonfish. Various species live throughout most of the world’s oceans, especially in tropical and subtropical areas, and they don’t live in the deepest parts of the ocean. Instead, they’re found in what’s called the twilight zone, or more properly the mesopelagic. Only 1% of all light shining down from the surface makes it down this far, which is why so many animals produce their own bioluminescent light. The dragonfish also has photophores along its sides that it can flash to help attract prey or attract mates. On nights when the moon isn’t too bright, the dragonfish will migrate closer to the surface to find more food, but it makes sure to go back to the twilight zone before the sun rises.

[twilight zone music]

One genus of dragonfish is called the viperfish, and they’re a little different from other dragonfish. Instead of a barbel on the chin, viperfish have a light at the end of a long spine that’s a modified dorsal fin. This is similar to the anglerfish we’ve talked about many times before, even though dragonfish and anglerfish aren’t related. Convergent evolution, at it again!

The viperfish has teeth so long they don’t fit in its mouth. Instead, they stick out, which gives it its other name of fangfish. Sloane’s viperfish has the largest teeth of all the viperfish species, so long that they form a cage across its mouth to stop prey from escaping before the fish can swallow it. Unlike most dragonfish, Sloane’s viperfish sometimes swims toward its prey very quickly, slamming into it and wounding it with its fangs. It even has a sort of built-in shock absorber in its spine right behind its head. The Pacific viperfish can also be aggressive when hunting.

This is probably a good place to learn a little more about the twilight zone, AKA the mesopelagic. It’s measured not by depth but by how much light is available from the surface, in this case only 1% of light. There’s also not as much oxygen in the water here as at the surface. Many, if not most, animals that live in the mesopelagic migrate closer to the surface at night to find food, then retreat to the darkness below to avoid being seen as the sun rises and fills the upper layers of water with more light.

Lots and lots of animals live in the mesopelagic, from giant squid to oarfish, although most of the animals here are small. Below this layer of water is the bathypelagic, and below that is the real depths, the abyssopelagic where conditions are extreme and life gets really weird and scarce. The uppermost layer of the ocean is called epipelagic, if you were wondering. No plants live in the mesopelagic or below, because there’s not enough light. Obviously, the ocean isn’t always deep enough to have a bathypelagic layer or below, and quite often the mesopelagic ends at the sea floor.

It’s hard to study mesopelagic animals because many of them can’t survive at the surface. They’re built to withstand the increased water pressure at depths up to 3,300 feet, or 1000 meters, below the surface, and when they’re dragged up in nets they often die within minutes. Many marine animals have an organ called a swim bladder that’s filled with gases, which helps the animal stay neutrally buoyant in the water so it doesn’t float upward or sink downward when it’s not moving. The animal can adjust the amount of gas in its bladder as it swims upward, but when it’s pulled upward quickly in a net it can’t expel enough gas fast enough and the swim bladder can burst or expand so much that it squishes the rest of its insides, killing the animal before it even reaches the surface. Animals that don’t migrate vertically often don’t have a swim bladder since they don’t need it, and they’re just adapted for water pressure that’s as much as 120 times greater than pressure at the surface. This pressure difference is why blobfish look so blobby, so let’s talk about the blobfish next, Anonymous’s suggestion.

The blobfish lives on the sea floor in deep water near Australia and New Zealand. It grows about a foot long at most, or 30 cm, and is grayish with little spikes all over it. It has a gelatinous body with weak muscles and a weak skeleton, but it doesn’t need either since the intense pressure of the water presses in around the fish all the time and keeps it just the way it should be. It looks like a fish. Its gelatinous flesh is slightly less dense than the water around it, which means it can float just above the sea floor without much effort, just drifting along, giving its tail and broad fins a little flap every so often. It eats whatever detritus floats down from far above, although it’s also mostly on the lookout for small crustaceans that live on the sea floor.

The problem comes when a fishing net catches a blobfish and brings it to the surface. Suddenly there’s no nice firm water around the fish. Instead of being slightly less dense than the water around it, the blobfish is suddenly way more dense than the water, and it expands as a result. Then someone looks at this horrible dead pinkish blob that was once a happy live fish and thinks, “Gross! I’ll take a picture of that for the internet,” and that’s why the blobfish gets its name. Poor blobfish!

Fortunately, scientists have developed a compression chamber for the animals they study. When a deep-sea animal is put in the compression chamber and brought to the surface, the compression chamber keeps the water pressure where the animal needs it. The animal doesn’t die horribly, and that allows researchers to observe a live animal instead of a dead blobby one.

Next, let’s learn about Page’s suggestion, the barreleye fish. It lives in the North Pacific in deep water, and it has upward-pointing eyes that are very sensitive to light. It’s a small fish, only about six inches long, or 15 cm, and is mostly dark in color, as you would expect from a deep-sea fish. It’s chonky in shape with large fins that help it stay motionless in the water while it looks for tiny fish and jellyfish silhouetted against the water’s surface far above. Then the barreleye will move quickly to grab its prey.

It seems like there’s something I’m forgetting to tell you. Hmm. There’s something unusual about the barreleye fish, I just know it.

Oh yeah. The domed top of its head is transparent and its eyeballs are inside the dome. You can see the internal eyeballs and its brain through its transparent head, which is otherwise filled with liquid. It is really weird-looking. Its eyes are tubular, which gives it its name, and they can rotate around to focus on things or look straight ahead when it wants to. The eyes also have bright green lenses, which helps filter out the faint sunlight from above so the fish can better see the bioluminescent glow of other deep-sea animals.

It wasn’t until 2004 that researchers realized the barreleye’s eyes were covered by the transparent dome, because it’s fragile and would end up destroyed when a fish was dragged up by nets. The first photographs and video of the barreleye in its natural environment, taken by deep-sea remote vehicles, must have freaked the researchers out completely.

If you’re wondering why the barreleye has its eyeballs hidden inside a transparent dome, researchers have wondered that too. The best guess is that the dome protects the large, sensitive eyes from jellyfish stings, since barreleyes love to eat jellyfish.

Finally, Joel suggested the bristlemouth fish. The bristlemouth is a small, slender fish that generally grows no longer than a person’s finger, although one species grows up to 14 inches long, or 36 cm. Males are smaller than females. It lives throughout the world’s oceans and is black or dark brown to hide it in the twilight zone where it lives. Like the barbeled dragonfish, which by the way really likes to eat it, it migrates closer to the surface at night to find food, then goes deeper again in the daytime to hide in the darkness.

The bristlemouth gets its name from its teeth, as you may have guessed. It has a large mouth lined with lots of short, thin teeth. It mostly eats small crustaceans, especially copepods, but will also grab tiny fish and other animals. Its lower jaw is longer than its upper jaw and can open wide to grab animals larger than it is. Unlike the other fish we’ve talked about today, its eyes are small and it doesn’t use them to find prey. Instead, it uses its lateral line system, which allows it to detect tiny movements in the water. The male bristlemouth also has a good sense of smell to help it find a female. All bristlemouths start out life as male, but some males metamorphose into females as they age.

The bristlemouth also has rows of light-emitting photophores on its underside to help hide it from predators. Its photophores glow to match the amount of light shining down from far above, which means its silhouette is much harder to see by fish or other animals below it.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the bristlemouth, but we do know one thing. It’s the most abundant fish in the ocean. Literally there are more bristlemouths in the world than any other vertebrate, estimated at hundreds of trillions of them, possibly as many as a quadrillion, which is a million billion. That’s a lot of fish. There are so many that Navy sonar bounces off them and looks like a false bottom of the ocean. The United States Navy calls it the Deep Scattering Layer and wasn’t sure what was causing it, but the mystery was solved in 2010 when a research vessel with fine-mesh nets kept bringing up unbelievable numbers of the tiny fish. Specifically, the abundant ones are bristlemouth fish in the genus Cyclothone, which mostly lives in tropical areas.

The first person to see a bristlemouth in its natural habitat was William Beebe in the 1930s, during a bathysphere descent into the twilight zone, which brings us right back to where we started this episode.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast 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 Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way, and don’t forget to join our mailing list. There’s a link in the show notes.

Thanks for listening!

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 130: Strangest Small Fish

This week we’re going to revisit a suggestion from Damian and follow up on episode 96, our strangest big fish episode. This time let’s find out about some weird small fish!

The teeny, newly-discovered American pocket shark:

The brownsnout spookfish wears its mirror sunglasses on the INSIDE:

The goblinfish with a dangerous head and basically a dangerous everything else too:

Two teeny pygmy seahorses. Can you spot them? Hint: they’re the ones with eyes.

The razorfish. Just another sea urchin spine, no fish to see here:

The much-maligned candiru:

The red-lipped batfish:

Gimme kiss:

Show transcript:

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

Ages ago, Damian suggested an episode about weird fish. We covered some weird big fish in episode 96, but now it’s time for some weird little fish.

So, think about sharks for a second. Big, scary, sharp teeth, fast swimmers, black eyes of a pitiless killer of the deep.

But have you perhaps considered that maybe the world needs a very small shark? One that actually kind of looks like a tiny whale? Like, a tiny shark, only about 5 ½ inches long, or 14 cm. Almost, you know, pocket sized. Oh, and it should glow in the dark.

That’s the American pocket shark, a real animal that was only discovered in 2010! It’s called a pocket shark not because it’s pocket sized, although it is, but because it has a sort of pocket on each side near its gills that produces luminous fluid. Researchers aren’t sure whether the shark uses the fluid for attracting prey or avoiding predators. Maybe both. Its head is bulbous and rounded, which kind of makes it look like a tiny whale.

The American pocket shark was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico while scientists were observing sperm whales and tracking them with sonar. When a whale surfaced from a dive, the research team dropped nets to the depth the whale had dived to, hoping to catch the same kind of prey the whales were eating. And one of the things they found in the net was a tiny shark new to science, found at a depth of 3,000 feet, or 914 meters.

In 2013 the tiny shark, which had been frozen for later study, was finally examined. The expert who looked at it had only seen one other shark like it before, a shark discovered in the eastern Pacific in 1979. But this tiny shark had some differences from that tiny shark, and after examining both specimens carefully, they’ve been classified as different species.

So that’s a cute start, but it’s still just a rare little shark that glows. Not really that unusual, right? Let’s look at a really weird fish next. Like, seriously weird.

It’s called the brownsnout spookfish, which is a really terrible name, but it’s not a terrible fish. I mean, it couldn’t hurt you. It grows about 7 inches long, or 18 cm, and eats copepods and other tiny crustaceans. Its snout is long and kind of pointy, its body is slender, and it has elongated pelvic fins. Because it lives in the deep sea, it has eyes that point upward, which help it see predators and prey that might be silhouetted against the far-distant surface of the ocean. But it also has something only one other fish is known to have, an extra structure to the side of the eyeball. It’s called a diverticulum and it does two things. First, it allows the fish to see downward in addition to upward, and second, it allows it to see across a really wide angle. The diverticulum does this because it contains a mirror that reflects light from the main eyeball onto the retina of the diverticulum. A MIRROR IN ITS EYEBALLS. The mirror is made up of tiny crystalline plates.

Some invertebrates like clams and crustaceans contain reflectors in their eyes, but except for the brownsnout spookfish, the only other vertebrate known to have mirrored eyeballs is the glasshead barreleye. Also a terrible name. The glasshead barreleye is a little smaller than the brownsnout spookfish, and not surprisingly, they’re related. But surprisingly, they’re not that closely related and the mirrored diverticulum appears to have evolved independently in each species.

Although the fish has been known to science for over a century, no one realized it had mirrors in its eyes until 2008 when a live one was caught by a deep-sea scientific expedition off the island of Tonga in the Pacific Ocean. Researchers took pictures of the brownsnout spookfish and got a shock when they looked at the photos. The upward-pointing parts of the eye reflected light normally, the typical eyeshine you get when you use a flash to photograph most animals. But the lower parts of the eyes reflected bright light. Researchers think the fish uses its downward-pointing eyes to see the faint bioluminescent flashes of its prey, while the upward-pointing eyes watch for predators approaching from above.

Oh, and I forgot to mention. The brownsnout spookfish is mostly transparent. You can see right through it. Yeah.

After that, the goblinfish that lives around reefs off the southern coast of Australia seems practically normal. It grows up to 8 inches long, or 20 cm, and spends most of its time resting among rocks on the seabed. It hunts at night, eating small crustaceans, and instead of swimming it usually walks along the sea floor with its large pectoral fins.

The goblinfish gets its name from its appearance, which is frankly ugly unless you are another goblinfish. Its head looks sort of turtle-like, including a dip in its body behind its eyes and in front of its dorsal fin that looks like a turtle’s neck. Its eyes are large and orange in color. Its dorsal fin is spiny and runs most of the length of its back. It also has broad pectoral fins that it sometimes spreads like fans. It can change color to blend in with the rocks around it, which makes it hard for divers to see, which is too bad because it’s also venomous.

It’s a type of waspfish, related to scorpionfish and stonefish, all of which are venomous. Like many of those other fish, the goblinfish has venomous spines on its fins, but it also has a spine on each side of its head, underneath its eyes. Only these spines are hidden inside the fish’s head. The spine is called a lachrymal saber, and it acts like a switchblade that the fish can extend with its cheek muscles. The lachrymal saber isn’t venomous, but if you’ve just picked one up by the head and those switchblades come out, you probably aren’t going to be happy anyway. Also, why did you just pick that fish up by its head? What is wrong with you?

Next, let’s talk about the seahorse. It’s a fish although it doesn’t look like an ordinary fish. And in fact nothing about the seahorse is ordinary.

Unlike most fish, the seahorse has a flexible neck. Also unlike almost all other fish it swims vertically, with its head up and its tail down. It has a prehensile tail made up of 36 bony segments, and each segments is made of four pieces connected by tiny joints. The joints make the segments incredibly strong and able to withstand considerable pressure without breaking. The seahorse uses its tail to hold onto seaweed or other items to keep from being swept away in currents, since it isn’t a strong swimmer. It propels itself through the water by fluttering its dorsal fin, using its pectoral fins to steer. Males also fight each other by tail-wrestling and bopping their heads together. The seahorse’s body is protected with an external skeleton of bony plates, which take the place of ribs. The seahorse doesn’t have ribs. It also doesn’t have scales, just the bony plates with thin skin over them.

The seahorse lives in warm, shallow oceans throughout the world, especially in coral reefs and seagrass beds where there’s plenty of cover. The largest seahorse species grow to about 14 inches long, or 35 cm. The smallest species are barely more than half an inch long, or 15 mm. The smallest species are mostly new to science since they’re so hard to find and identify. Seahorses are well camouflaged to blend in with the plants and coral they live in.

The seahorse’s mouth is at the end of a long, tubelike snout, and it actually sucks its prey into its snout like a straw. It eats small crustaceans, larval fish, and other small animals. Oh, and its eyes can move independently of each other.

Seahorses don’t mate for life, but they do form bonds that last throughout the breeding season, and it has a long courtship period while the female develops her eggs. The pair participate in courtship dances and spend most of their time together. When the eggs are ready, the female deposits them in a special brood pouch in the male’s belly, where he fertilizes them. They then embed themselves in the spongy wall of the brood pouch and are nourished not only by the yolk sacs in the eggs, but by the male, who secretes nutrients in the brood pouch. So basically the male is pregnant. The female visits him every day to check on him, usually in the mornings. When the eggs hatch after a few weeks, the male expels the babies from his pouch and they swim away, because when they hatch they are perfectly formed teeny-tiny miniature seahorses.

If you’re wondering why I said the seahorse is almost the only fish that swims vertically, there’s some evidence that the oarfish does this too. We talked about the oarfish way back in episode 6, about sea monsters. But there’s another fish that swims vertically, the razorfish—but it swims with its head pointed down and its tail pointed up. It’s a slender fish that grows about six inches long, or 15 cm, with a pointy nose and tiny fins. Its back is protected by bony plates that extend past the tail fin in a spine. It eats tiny animals, including brine shrimp, AKA sea monkeys. When it feels threatened, the razorfish swims to the nearest sea urchin and hides among its spines, blending in with them. Schools of razorfish will swim around together, all of them head-down, because that’s just what they do.

Not all weird fish live in the ocean. A lot of freshwater fish are weird too. For instance, the candiru [kan-DEE-roo]. You’ve probably heard of this one although you may not know what it’s called. It’s native to the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers in South America and it’s actually a type of catfish. Some species grow over a foot long, or around 40 cm, but the species we’re talking about today, Vandellia cirrhosa, grows less than two inches long, or 5 cm. Like the brownsnout spookfish, it’s mostly translucent so it’s hard to see in the water. It has short spines on its gill covers that point backwards.

Unlike other catfish, the candiru eats blood, which gives it its other name of the vampire fish. It parasitizes other fish by lodging itself in their gills and sucking their blood. But the candiru is supposed to do something else, something that happens by accident. The story goes that if someone pees while in the water and a candiru is around, it’ll swim up the stream of urine, attracted by the smell, and lodge itself in the urethra of the person peeing. It’s supposed to do this thinking it’s entering the gills of a fish. Its spines keep it locked in place, causing intense pain to the person, followed by infection and, if the fish isn’t surgically removed, death.

At least, that’s the story. There’s even a 1997 video of a man who had to have a candiru removed from his penis after he peed while wading in a river in Brazil. The doctor filmed the surgery and even kept the fish he removed, preserved in formaldehyde. So it must be true, right?

Maybe not. One study determined that the candiru isn’t interested in the chemicals present in urine and in fact it hunts by sight, not smell. And a study of medical reports throughout South America only found a single instance of anyone reporting a candiru attack. That instance is the same one from 1997 where the surgery to remove the fish was filmed.

But a further study of the surgery, photos, and preserved candiru specimen tell a different story. The human urethra is extremely narrow and the preserved fish was much too large to enter without squishing itself to death, not to mention that the candiru is just not strong enough to muscle its way into anything but a larger fish’s gills. The doctor also said he’d had to cut off the candiru’s spines before removing it, but the specimen is fully intact, spines and all. It sounds like the video may be a hoax of some kind.

Reports of candiru attacks are common in parts of South America today and have been common as far back as recorded history, but they seem to be more of a legend than something that happens a lot or maybe even at all. Still, probably better not to pee into the Amazon River, just in case.

Let’s finish with the red-lipped batfish, a type of anglerfish only found around the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It lives on the ocean floor where the water is fairly shallow, and it grows about 8 inches long, or 20 cm. It’s usually a mottled brown, green, or grey with a white stomach, but its mouth is bright red. It looks like it’s wearing lipstick. It eats fish and other small animals, which it attracts using a lure on its head, a highly modified dorsal fin called an illicium.

The weirdest thing about the red-lipped batfish is actually its fins. It prefers to walk on the bottom of the ocean instead of swim, and it has modified pectoral fins called pseudolegs. The pseudolegs make it look a little bit like a weird frog with a tail, a unicorn horn, and lipstick. It’s like something out of a fever dream, honestly.

Researchers think the red lips may be a way to attract potential mates, presumably ones who are hoping for a big smooch.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 041: Comb Jellies and Sea Sponges THE CONTROVERSY

We’re learning about comb jellies this week, along with the sea sponge, and the MASSIVE CONTROVERSY ABOUT THE TWO THAT IS PITTING SCIENTIST AGAINST SCIENTIST I might be overstating it just a bit

The lovely Arctic comb jelly:

The lovely Venus’s girdle comb jelly:

A fossil comb jelly. Probably lovely when it was alive:

A sea sponge (most are not this Muppet-like):

Show transcript:

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

For this week’s episode, we’re revisiting jellyfish, more properly known as jellies. The first jelly episode is far and away our most popular and I can’t figure out why. I mean, I’m glad people like it. This time, we’re going to learn all about comb jellies, which are not really as exciting as true jellies. There is no ship-sinkingly enormous comb jelly lurking in the oceans of the world. But they are really interesting.

When you think of a jelly, you probably picture a roughly bell-shaped thing with long stinging tentacles. But most comb jellies are more like egg-shaped blobs, and either don’t have tentacles at all or only have relatively small tentacles that don’t sting. Although they look alike superficially, comb jellies and true jellies are so different that scientists don’t think they’re very closely related at all. Comb jellies are officially called ctenophores (TEN-oh-fours), spelled with a c-t at the beginning if you were wondering. I looked up the pronunciation. Yeah, I know, I pronounced Pliny wrong all through episode 12, but come on, it looks like it should be pronounced Pliny and not Plinny. It’s not like anyone ever came up to me and said, “Hey, what about that Plinny, what a guy.” I just read the name.

But I digress, inexplicably.

Instead of pulsing its bell to maneuver in the water, a comb jelly has rows of tiny compact filaments called cilia, fused together in combs that help it swim. The combs are also called swimming plates.

There are two main types of comb jellies, those with tentacles and those without tentacles. The ones without are called Nuda, or Beroids, and while they don’t have tentacles, they do have combs of extra-large cilia, called macrocilia, that sever prey into pieces small enough to swallow. Mostly they eat other comb jellies. Beroids also have big mouths, but a beroid can actually seal its mouth shut while it’s moving so it’s more streamlined.

Comb jellies with tentacles are divided into eight orders roughly based on body shape. The most common order, the cydippida, are egg-shaped with a pair of thin tentacles that they use sort of like fishing lines. The tentacles are long and sticky, trapping tiny organisms or particles of food. Some species have branched tentacles but none have more than two. The tentacles can retract—when you see a picture of a comb jelly with a weird spring-like thing sticking out from its bottom, that’s a retracted tentacle, not anything gross like a poop. The tentacles contain cells called colloblasts. When an organism touches a tentacle, the colloblast cells rupture and basically release glue that keeps the prey from escaping.

A cydippid comb jelly also has eight combs that run from the top of the body to the bottom, which makes it look sort of like a fancy decorated egg. Comb jelly cilia are iridescent, by the way, so they reflect light in rainbow patterns. Basically what I’m saying is, these little guys are actually really pretty.

All comb jellies are predators, but most eat plankton and other tiny food, because most comb jellies are really small—only a few inches long at most. Bigger species may eat krill and small crustaceans. The biggest comb jelly, Cestum veneris, more often called Venus’s girdle, can grow some five feet long, or 1.5 meters, but only some two inches, or 5 cm, wide. It looks like a nearly transparent or purplish ribbon and lives in tropical and subtropical seas. I wouldn’t want to touch it, but it’s not exactly dangerous. In fact, it’s so delicate that a diver attempting to touch one may accidentally destroy it instead. A lot of comb jellies are that delicate, making them hard to study, so we still don’t know a whole lot about them.

Comb jellies only have one body opening, called a mouth for convenience sake although the jelly uses it for anything that requires a body opening. Until recently, researchers thought that included pooping. Yeah, now you see why it’s not exactly a mouth. But it turns out that a comb jelly has pores on the opposite end of its body from its mouth opening that it uses to release at least some particles of indigestible food. This is interesting since it helps scientists understand how the anus evolved.

There aren’t that many species of comb jellies, maybe 100 or so. But new ones are discovered occasionally, especially deep-sea comb jellies. While comb jellies that live near the surface of the ocean are usually transparent, many deep-sea species are red, since it’s a color most deep-sea animals can’t see. Most are also bioluminescent, and when threatened some species will secrete a luminescent goo. The predator may get confused and attack the goo while the comb jelly swims away as fast as its frantically waving cilia can take it.

If you’ve listened to episode 15, about the hammerhead shark and megalodon, you’ll remember that we don’t have a lot of shark fossils because shark skeletons are made of cartilage, not bone. We just have a lot of shark teeth, mostly. Now think about how big and solid sharks are, then think about how smooshy jellies are. Then try to imagine what a jelly fossil might look like. Yeah.

We do have some comb jelly fossils, though. But we don’t have many. Like, five. We have five. The oldest are from the mid-Cambrian, some 500 million years ago, but they were very different from the comb jellies living today. They had lots more combs, for one thing—between 24 and 80 instead of 8. Researchers have found other fossils that may be of comb jellies. There’s a good possibility that they were widespread throughout the oceans back then—but from genetic testing and other molecular analysis, it appears that the comb jellies alive today are all descended from a common ancestor that survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction around 65 million years ago. So it’s possible that in addition to so many dinosaurs dying off, almost all comb jellies went extinct then too.

Just think, if that one species hadn’t survived and evolved into the comb jellies we have today, researchers might not have a clue what animal those comb jelly fossils represented. If you know about the Burgess shale fossils that have baffled and fascinated paleontologists for decades now, because so many of the fossils don’t resemble anything living today, then it’ll make sense to learn that a few of those five comb jelly fossils were actually found in the Burgess shale.

There are some other comb jelly fossils discovered in China and dated to 520 million years ago. But they don’t resemble the comb jellies living today at all because they had skeletons and spines. Pretty much every fossil found from the Cambrian had supportive or armored structures, even ones like comb jellies that don’t have those things today. I’ll probably do a whole episode eventually about the Cambrian period and the Burgess shale discoveries.

Anyway, there’s some controversy going on right now regarding whether comb jellies or sponges were the species that gave rise ultimately to all other animals, so let’s take a quick side trip and learn about sponges.

The sponge is a very simple animal, still around today. They don’t have any specialized structures like nerves or a digestive system or a circulatory system or organs. They’re just a sponge, basically. And if you were wondering, the sponge you use to clean your kitchen is named after the sea sponge, not vice versa, and you can still get actual dried sea sponges to use for cleaning. They’ve been used that way for millennia. It wasn’t until 1866 that scientists even realized sponges were animals and not plants.

Living sponges just hang out in the ocean or freshwater, stuck to a rock or something. Water flows through them and washes food and oxygen in and waste out. That’s it. That’s all a sponge does is let water flow through it. I feel like there’s a life lesson to be learned there, but I’m too busy doing ten things at once to figure it out.

Mostly sponges eat bacteria and other tiny food particles, although some eat small crustaceans and a few have developed a symbiotic relationship with plantlike microorganisms, which live safely in the sponge and produce enough food for both it and the sponge. Every so often a sponge will release eggs or sperm into the water. If the conditions around a sponge deteriorate, some species will create bundles of unspecialized cells called gemmules. When conditions improve, the gemmules will either grow into new sponges or, if the sponge that created them has died, it will recolonize the original sponge’s skeleton.

A sponge’s skeleton is a sponge, by the way. If you’ve got a natural sea sponge in your house, that’s what you’re cleaning your kitchen counters with, the skeleton of a sea sponge. Different sponges use different minerals to create their skeletons and most are pretty hard, but the ones sold as natural sponges are softer and throughout history have been used for everything from padding armor, applying paint, and filtering water. Loofah sponges aren’t actually made from sea sponges, though. They’re actually from the dried insides of the sponge gourd. I did not actually know that until just now.

Oh, and guess what else I just learned? There’s a small population of bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia that use sponges. The dolphins frequently hunt close to the bottom of the bay. To keep from scraping its rostrum, or bill, in the sand, a dolphin will sometimes stick a sponge under its chin. Researchers think that one especially smart dolphin figured this out and has been teaching her children how to do it ever since.

So that’s the sea sponge. Useful for many things, not much of a party animal. Compared to sea sponges, comb jellies are intellectual masterminds. Even though comb jellies don’t have brains.

Instead, comb jellies have a nerve net. The nerves are concentrated around its mouth and on its tentacles. It does also contain an organ that helps the jelly sense its orientation, basically so it knows which way is up. It usually swims with its mouth pointing upward, incidentally. But while the comb jelly’s nervous system is pretty sophisticated for such a simple animal, it’s also very different from other animals’ nervous systems. Like, super different. Its nerves are constructed from different molecules and use different neurotransmitters.

Its nerve cells are so different from other animals’ that some researchers think it actually evolved separately. Specifically, neuroscientist Leonid Moroz thinks so. He thinks that the first ancestor of comb jellies split off from the sea sponges some three quarters of a billion years ago and evolved separately from all other animals.

Since comb jellies use a different set of chemicals as other animals to accomplish the same tasks, a couple of articles I read make a big deal about how evolution must therefore follow a prescribed path—that animals must have certain traits to survive. But assuming comb jellies did split off from sponges that early and did evolve separately from other animals, they were still competing against those other animals. It’s not like they had an ocean to themselves, although that would be awesome if they did, because who knows what they might have evolved into?

The controversy about whether sea sponges or comb jellies were basically the trunk of the tree of animal life started in 2008, when a study in the journal Nature compared DNA sequences across a number of animal species and suggested that the comb jellies were evolutionarily first. A 2013 paper published in Science by another team of researchers made the same conclusion based on the genome of a species of comb jelly called the sea walnut. That is such a cute name. Don’t you just want to cuddle the little sea walnut and make little hats for it?

All this ignited what some articles call a firestorm of controversy. I like to imagine researchers reading the articles and FREAKING OUT. Moroz’s studies of the comb jelly’s nervous system, and the complete genome of a different comb jelly, the sea gooseberry, appeared in Nature in 2014. Moroz now thinks that nervous systems have developed independently at least nine times in various different groups.

The controversy at this point appears to have several factions. Moroz’s group thinks comb jellies split off from sponges, and that everything else split off from comb jellies but developed separately in the neurological sense. Another group thinks comb jellies split off from sponges and everything evolved from comb jellies, and that comb jellies aren’t all that weird neurologically. Another group thinks comb jellies and sponges split off from a common ancestor of both that had a simple nervous system, which comb jellies retained but sponges lost, and that everything else evolved from comb jellies. But then there’s the other side, the ones who think sure, comb jellies split off from sponges, but so did everything else ultimately, and comb jellies are no more the base of all animal life than the man in the moon.

One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that we still don’t know enough about comb jellies. And they are really pretty.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and 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!]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 033: Dunkleosteus, Helicoprion, and their weird-toothed friends

This week we’ll learn about some terrifying extinct fish, the armored dunkleosteus and the spiral-toothed helicoprion, plus a few friends of theirs who could TEAR YOU UP.

Dunkleosteus did not even need teeth:

Helicoprion had teeth like crazy in a buzzsaw-like tooth whorl:

Helicoprion’s living relatives, chimaeras (or ghost sharks) are a lot less impressive than they sound:

Helicoprion probably looked something like this:

But helicoprion has been described in all sorts of wacky ways over the years:

So what are the odds this rendition of edestus is correct? hmm

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve got a listener suggestion! Will B. suggested placoderms, which were armored fish that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. He especially recommended Dunkleosteus. I looked it up and went, “Oh holy crap,” so you bet we’re going to learn about it today. I’m also pairing that terrifying fish with a really weird shark relation called Helicoprion. And we might even take a look at a few other fishes while we’re at it. Creepy extinct fish for everyone! Oh, and Will asked that I include more metric conversions. [heavy sigh] okay I guess

If you had happened to live around 350 million years ago when Dunkleosteus was alive, you would be a fish. Well, you would probably be a fish. I don’t know for sure. That was during the Late Devonian period, and the Devonian is remembered as the “age of fish” by undergraduate geology and palaeo students everywhere. While land plants were evolving like crazy, developing true roots and seeds, fish were even crazier. Ray-finned fish evolved during the Devonian and so did lobe-finned fish like coelacanths. The first amphibious critters developed in shallow lakes and started to spend time on land, and in the ocean there were early sharks, lots of trilobites, and a whole lot of armored fish. Including, eventually, dunkleosteus.

Dunkleosteus terrelli was the biggest species of placoderm. It probably grew over 30 feet long OR TEN METERS, WILL, which made it bigger than a great white shark. But dunkleosteus didn’t have teeth. And before you think, oh, it must have been a filter feeder or something, oh no. It didn’t need teeth. Instead it had bony plates like a gigantic beak. It could open and close its jaws incredibly fast—something like one 50th of a second—and could bite through armor and bone no problem. One article referred to its jaws as sheet-metal cutters. Scientists think its bite was as powerful as that of a T rex, although it didn’t quite match that of megalodon, but since T rex and megalodon both lived many millions of years later than Dunkleosteus, it’s useless to speculate who would win in a fight. But my money’s on Dunkleosteus.

Dunkleosteus wasn’t a fast swimmer. Its head was covered in heavy armor that probably served two main purposes. One, the armor plates gave its massive jaw muscles something substantial to attach to, and two, it kept its head safe from the bites of other placoderms. That’s right. Dunkleosteus was a cannibal.

We actually don’t know exactly how long Dunkleosteus was or what most of its body looked like. The only fossils we’ve found were of the head armor. We do have complete fossils and body impressions of other, much smaller placoderms, so since all placoderms seemed to have the same body plan we can make good guesses as to what Dunkleosteus looked like.

One surprising thing we do have associated with Dunkleosteus fossils are some remains of its meals. These are called fish boluses, and they’re basically just wads of partially-digested pieces of fish that either get horked up by whatever ate them or pass through the digestive tract without being fully digested. From the fish boluses, we know that Dunkleosteus probably preferred the soft parts of its prey and didn’t digest bones very well.

In 2013, a fossil fish over 400 million years old was described that combines features of a placoderm skeleton with the jaw structure that most bony fishes and four-footed animals share. Some other early bony fishes discovered recently also show some features of placoderm skeletons. What does that mean? Well, until these discoveries, researchers had thought bony fishes weren’t very closely related to placoderms. Now it looks like they were. And that means that placoderm jaws, those fearsome cutting machines, were actually the basis of our own jaws and those of most animals alive today. Only, in our case they’re no longer designed to shear through armor and bone. Maybe through Nutter Butters and ham sandwiches instead.

So what happened to dunkleosteus? Around 375 million years ago something happened in the oceans—not precisely an extinction event, but from our perspective it looks like one. Even without human help species do go extinct naturally every so often, and when that happens other species evolve to fill their ecological niches. But during the late Devonian, when species went extinct in the ocean… nothing took their place.

We don’t know what exactly was going on, but researchers have theories. One suggestion is that, since sea levels were rising, marine environments that were once separated by land got joined together. Species that had evolved in one area suddenly had access to a much bigger area. They acted like invasive species do today, driving native species to extinction and breeding prolifically. They kept new species from developing, and caused a breakdown in the biodiversity of their new territories. This only happened in the oceans, not on land, which adds credence to the theory.

It took a long, long time for the oceans to fully recover. For example, coral reefs disappeared from the fossil record for 100 million years as corals almost died out completely. But the animals that had already started evolving to take advantage of life on land survived and thrived—and that led to us, eventually. Us and our little unarmored jaws.

From Dunkleosteus and its sheet-metal cutter beak let’s go to another fish that looked like a shark but had teeth that are so bizarre I can’t even understand it. Helicoprion and its tooth whorl have baffled scientists for over a century.

The various species of Helicoprion lived around 290 million years ago. Like sharks, only its teeth are bony. The rest of its skeleton is made of cartilage, which doesn’t preserve very well.

So what’s a tooth whorl? It resembles a spiral shell, like a snail’s, only made of teeth. I’m not even making this up. Originally people actually thought they were some kind of weird spiky ammonite shell, in fact. Then someone pointed out that they were made of teeth, but no one could figure out what earthly use a circular saw would be if you were a fish and just wanted to eat other fish. Where would you even keep a circular saw of teeth?

Various suggestions included putting the tooth whorl at the very end of the lower jaw, just sort of stuck out there doing nothing; putting the tooth whorl way in the back of the throat where I guess it would cut up fish as they went down; on the snout, on the back, or even on the tail, which are not places where teeth typically do much good. Originally researchers thought the tooth whorl was probably a defensive trait, but now it’s accepted that it was used the way the rest of us use our teeth, which is to eat things with.

The smallest teeth in a tooth whorl are on the inside curls and the biggest are on the outside. Eventually researchers realized the small teeth were from when the individual was a baby fish and had little teeth. Like sharks, helicoprion kept growing teeth throughout its life. Unlike sharks, it didn’t lose its old teeth when the new ones grew in. The older, smaller teeth were just pushed forward along the curve of the whorl and eventually were buried within the animal’s jaw, with only the biggest, newest teeth actually being used.

In 1950 a crushed tooth whorl was found with some cranial cartilage, so scientists knew that the whorl was associated with the head and wasn’t, for instance, on the dorsal fin. That fossil was found in Idaho and consisted of 117 teeth. The whorl was 23 cm in diameter, or about 9 inches across, although slightly larger ones have been found. In 2011 the fossil was examined with a state-of-the-art CT scanner and a 3D computer model generated of the animal’s skull.

Researchers think they have a pretty good idea of what a living helicoprion’s head and jaws looked like. The tooth whorl was fused with and extended the full length of the lower jaw. It grew inside the mouth roughly where the tongue would be if it had a tongue, which it did not. Helicoprion didn’t have teeth in its upper jaw, so the tooth whorl acted less like chompers than like a meat slicing machine. When it closed its mouth, the tooth whorl was pushed back a little and would therefore slice through any soft-bodied prey in the mouth and also force its prey deeper into its mouth. Helicoprion probably ate small fish, cephalopods, and other soft-bodied organisms.

Since we don’t have any fossils or impressions of helicoprion’s body, we don’t know for sure what it looked like, but researchers estimate it probably grew to around 13 feet or 4 meters, but may have possibly exceeded 24 feet or 7.5 meters.

For a long time researchers thought helicoprion was a shark, but it’s now classified as a type of chimaera, which are small weird-looking shark-like fish known also as ghost sharks, spookfish, ratfish, and rabbit fish. I’m going to call them ghost sharks because that’s awesome. They’re not that closely related to sharks although they do have cartilaginous skeletons, and most species like the ocean depths. Ghost sharks have been spotted at depths of 8,500 feet, or 2,600 meters. The longest any species grows is around 5 feet, or 150 cm. Unlike helicoprion, they don’t have exciting teeth. They don’t really have teeth at all, just three pairs of tooth plates that grind together. Some species have a venomous spine in front of the dorsal fin.

While we’re talking about shark-like fish with weird teeth, let’s discuss Edestus, a genus of shark-like fish with weird teeth that lived around 300 million years ago, around the same time as dunkleosteus. It was related to helicoprion but it didn’t have a tooth whorl. Instead it had one curved bracket of teeth on the lower jaw and one on the upper jaw that meshed together like pinking shears. You know what pinking shears are even if you don’t recognize the name. Pinking shears are scissors that have a zigzag pattern instead of a straight edge, so you can cut a zigzag into cloth but not paper because do not dare use my pinking shears for anything but cloth. It dulls them.

Anyway, like helicoprion Edestus didn’t shed its teeth but it did grow new ones throughout its life, so like helicoprion it had a bunch of teeth it no longer needed. In Edestus’s case we don’t have any bits of skull or jaw cartilage to give us a clue as to how its teeth sat in its jaw. A lot of scientific art of Edestus shows a shark with a pointy mouth, where the upper point curves upward and the lower point curves downward with teeth sticking out from the middle. Sort of like an open zipper, if the zipper part was teeth and the non-zipper side was a shark’s mouth. To me that looks sort of ridiculous, and I suspect in reality Edestus looked a lot more like helicoprion. The downward and upward curved parts of the tooth arc was probably buried within its jaw, not sticking out. But that’s just a guess based on about 30 minutes of research.

Researchers estimate that the largest species of Edestus probably grew to about 20 feet long, or 6 meters. No one’s sure how or what it ate, but one suggestion is that if its teeth did project out of its mouth, it might have slashed at prey with its teeth sort of like a swordfish slashes prey with its elongated beak. Hopefully scientists will find a well preserved specimen one day that will give us some clues as to what Edestus looked like, at which point I bet the drawings we have now will look as silly as helicoprion with a tooth whorl perched on its nose.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 027: Creatures of the Deeps

This week is our six-month anniversary! To celebrate, we’ll learn about some of the creatures that live at the bottom of the Mariana Trench’s deepest section, Challenger Deep, as well as other animals who live in deep caves on land. We also learn what I will and will not do for a million dollars (hint: I will not implode in a bathysphere).

A xenophyophore IN THE GRIP OF A ROBOT

A snailfish from five miles down in the Mariana trench:

The Hades centipede. It’s not as big as it looks, honest.

The tiny but marvelous olm.

Show transcript:

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

For this week’s episode, we’re going to find out what lives in the deepest, darkest places of the earth—places humans have barely glimpsed. We’re not just talking deep sea, we’re talking the abyssal depths.

Like onions and parfaits, the earth is made up of many layers. The core of the earth is a ball of nickel and iron surrounded by more nickel and iron. The outer core is molten metal, but the inner core, even though it’s even hotter than the outer core—as hot as the surface of the sun—has gone through the other side of liquid and is solid again. Surrounding the core, the earth’s mantle is a thick layer of rocks and minerals some 1900 miles deep, and on top of that is the crust of the earth, which doesn’t actually sound very appealing but that’s where we live and we know it’s really pretty, with trees and oceans and stuff on top of it. The upper part of the mantle is broken up into tectonic plates, which move around very slowly as the molten metals and rocks beneath them swirl around and get pushed up through cracks in the mantle.

Under the oceans, the crust of the earth is only around 3 miles thick. And in a few places, there are crevices that actually break entirely through the crust into the mantle below. The deepest crack in the sea floor is the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. At its deepest part, a narrow valley called Challenger Deep, the crack extends seven miles into the earth.

The pressure at that depth is immense, over 1,000 times that at sea level. Animals down there can’t have calcium carbonate shells because the pressure dissolves the mineral. It’s almost completely dark except for bioluminescent animals, and the water is very cold, just above freezing.

The trench is crescent shaped and sits roughly between Japan to the north and Papua New Guinea to the south, and the Philippines to the west. It’s caused by the huge Pacific plate, which is pushing its way underneath the smaller Mariana plate, a process called subduction. But near that activity, another small plate, the Caroline plate, is subducting beneath the Pacific plate. Subduction around the edges of the Pacific plate is the source of the earthquakes, tsunamis, and active volcanos known as the Ring of Fire. Some researchers think there’s a more complicated reason for Mariana Trench and other especially deep trenches nearby, though. There seems to be a tear in the Caroline plate, which is deforming the Pacific Plate above it.

Challenger Deep is such a deep part of the ocean that we’ve barely seen any of it. The first expedition that got all the way down was in 1960, when the bathyscape Trieste reached the bottom of Challenger Deep. This wasn’t an unmanned probe, either. There were two guys in that thing, Jacque Piccard and Don Walsh, almost ten years before the moon landing, on a trip that was nearly as dangerous. They could see out through one tiny thick window with a light outside. The trip down took almost five hours, and when they were nearly at the bottom, one of the outer window panes cracked. They stayed on the bottom only about 20 minutes before releasing the weights and rising back to the surface.

The next expedition didn’t take place until 1995 and it was unmanned. The Kaiko could collect samples as well as record what was around it, and it made repeated descents into Challenger Deep until it was lost at sea in 2003. But it not only filmed and collected lots of fascinating deep-sea creatures, it also located a couple of wrecks and some new hydrothermal vents in shallower areas.

Another unmanned expedition, this one using a remotely operated vehicle called the Nereus, was designed specifically to explore Challenger Deep. It made its first descent in 2009, but in 2014 it imploded while diving in the Kermadec Trench off New Zealand. It imploded. It imploded. This thing that was built to withstand immense pressures imploded.

In 2012, rich movie-maker James Cameron reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger. He spent nearly three hours on the bottom. Admittedly this was before the Nereus imploded but you could not get me into a bathysphere if you paid me a million dollars okay well maybe a million but I wouldn’t do it for a thousand. Maybe ten thousand. Anyway, the Deepsea Challenger is currently undergoing repairs after being damaged in a fire that broke out while it was being transported in a truck, which is just the most ridiculous thing to happen it’s almost sad. But it’s still better than imploding.

In addition to these expeditions, tethered cameras and microphones have been dropped into the trench over the years too. So what’s down there that deep? What have these expeditions found?

The first expedition didn’t see much, as it happens. As the bathyscape settled into the ooze at the bottom of the trench, sediment swirled up and just hung in the water around them, unmoving. The guys had to have been bitterly disappointed. But they did report seeing a foot-long flatfish and some shrimp, although the flatfish was more likely a sea cucumber.

There’s actually a lot of life down there in the depths, including amphipods a foot long, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, various kinds of worms, and bacterial mats that look like carpets. Mostly, though, there are Xenophyophores. They make big delicate shells on the ocean bottom, called tests, made from glued-together sand grains, minerals like lead and uranium, and anything else they can find, including their own poops. We don’t know a lot about them although they’re common in the deep sea all over the world. While they’re unicellular, they also appear to have multiple nuclei.

For the most part, organisms living at the bottom of the Challenger Deep are small, no more than a few inches long. This makes sense considering the immense water pressure and the nutrient-poor environment. There aren’t any fish living that deep, either. In 2014 a new species of snailfish was spotted swimming about five miles below the surface, a new record; it was white with broad fins and an eel-like tail. Snailfish are shaped sort of like tadpoles and depending on species, can be as small as two inches long or as long as two and a half feet. A shoal of Hadal snailfish were seen at nearly that depth in 2008 in the Japan Trench.

While there are a number of trenches in the Pacific, there aren’t very many deeps like Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep—at least, not that we know of. The Sirena Deep was only discovered in 1997. It’s not far from Challenger Deep and is not much shallower. There are other deeps and trenches in the Pacific too. But like Challenger Deep, there aren’t any big animals found in the abyssal depths, although the other deeps haven’t been explored as much yet.

In 2016 and early 2017, NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Oregon State University dropped a titanium-encased ceramic hydrophone into Challenger Deep. To their surprise, it was noisy as heck down there. The hydrophone picked up the sounds of earthquakes, a typhoon passing over, ships, and whalesong—including the call of a whale researchers can’t identify. They think it’s a type of minke whale, but no one knows yet if it’s a known species we just haven’t heard before or a species completely new to science. For now the call is referred to as the biotwang, and this is what it sounds like.

[biotwang whale call]

But what about animals that live in deep places that aren’t underwater? It’s actually harder to explore land fissures than ocean trenches. Cave systems are hard to navigate, frequently extremely dangerous, and we don’t always know how deep the big ones go. The deepest cave in the world is Krubera Cave, also called Voronya Cave, in Georgia—and I mean the country of Georgia, not the American state. Georgia is a small country on the black sea between Turkey and Russia. So far it’s been measured as a mile and a third deep, but it’s certainly not fully explored. Cave divers keep pushing the explored depth farther and farther, although I do hope they’re careful.

We’ve found some interesting animals living far beneath the earth in caves. The deepest living animal ever found is a primitive insect called a springtail, which lives in Krubera cave and which was discovered in 2010. It’s pale, with no wings, six legs, long antennae, and no eyes. There are a whole lot of springtail species, from snow fleas to those tee-tiny gray bouncy bugs that live around the sink in my bathroom no matter how carefully I clean. All springtails like damp places, so it makes sense that Krubera cave has four different species including the deepest living one. They eat fungi and decomposing organic matter of all kinds. Other creatures new to science have been discovered in Krubera cave, including a new cave beetle and a transparent fish.

A new species of centipede was described in 2015 after it was discovered three-fourths of a mile deep in three different caves in Croatia. It’s called the Hades centipede. It has long antennae, leg claws, and a poisonous bite, but it’s only about an inch long so don’t panic. Also it lives its entire life in the depths of Croatian caves so you’re probably safe. There are only two centipedes that live exclusively in caves and the other one is named after Persephone, Hades’ bride. It was discovered in 1999.

A cave salamander called an olm, which in local folklore was once considered a baby dragon, was recently discovered 370 feet below ground in a subterranean lake, also in Croatia. It’s a fully aquatic salamander that only grows a few inches long. Its body is pale with pink gills. It has eyes, but they’re not fully developed and as it grows, they become covered with layers of skin. It can sense light but can’t otherwise see, but it does have well-developed electroreceptor skills, hearing, smell, and can also sense magnetic fields. It eats snails, insects, and small crustaceans and has very few natural predators.

In 1952 researchers created an artificial riverbed in a cave in France that recreates the olm’s natural habitat as closely as possible. The olms are fed and protected but not otherwise interacted with by humans. There are now over 400 olms in the cave, which is a good thing because in the wild, olms are increasingly threatened by pollution, habitat loss, and unscrupulous collectors who sell them on the pet trade black market.

Olms live a long, long time—probably 100 years or longer. Some individuals in the artificial riverbed are 60 years old and show no signs of old age. Researchers aren’t sure why the olm lives so long. We don’t really know a whole lot about the olm in general, really. They and the caves where they live are protected in Croatia.

There are a few places in the world where people have drilled down into the earth, usually by geologists checking for pockets of gas or water before mining operations start. In several South African gold mines, researchers found four new species of tiny bacteria-eating worms, called nematodes, living in water in boreholes a mile or more deep. After carefully checking to make sure the nematodes hadn’t been introduced into the water from mining operations, the researchers theorized the nematodes already lived in the rocks but that the boreholes created a perfect environment for them. Nematodes are well-known extremophiles, living everywhere from hot springs to the bellies of whales. They can withstand drought, freezing, and other extreme conditions by reverting to what’s called the dauer stage, where they basically put themselves in suspended animation until conditions improve.

The boreholes also turned up some other interesting creatures, including flatworms, segmented worms, and a type of crustacean. They’re all impossibly tiny, nearly microscopic.

If you go any deeper, though, the only living creatures you’ll find are bacteria and other microbes. In a way, though, that’s reassuring. The last thing we want to find when we’re poking around in the world’s deepest cracks is something huge that wants to eat us.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!