Beachcombers Discover Rare, Deep-Sea Anglerfish Washed Up on Oregon Coast

Most humans will never see a Pacific footballfish, as the creatures live at depths of 2,000 to 3,300 feet below the ocean’s surface

Large black fish with stalk sticking out of forehead on the sand
Beachcombers stumbled upon the fish south of Cannon Beach, a small coastal town in northwest Oregon. Seaside Aquarium via Facebook

Beachcombers walking along the coast of Oregon were in for a surprise when they stumbled upon the body of a rare Pacific footballfish on the sand.

The deep-sea anglerfish (Himantolophus sagamius) was found south of Cannon Beach, a small coastal town in northwest Oregon, according to a May 18 Facebook post by the Seaside Aquarium.

In photos shared by the aquarium, the dark grayish-black fish is lying on its side. Its large mouth is agape, revealing dozens of tiny, sharp teeth. The fish has spiky white protuberances dotting its skin, as well as the species’ signature bioluminescent-tipped stalk coming out of its forehead.

“This is the first one reported on the Oregon coast to our knowledge,” according to the aquarium. Only about 31 individuals of this species have ever been found.

The Pacific footballfish will be left on the beach, per the finders’ wishes that it remain in the natural environment, reports the Oregonian’s Lizzy Acker.

“The person who found it didn’t want to let us have it to preserve it,” Keith Chandler, the aquarium’s general manager, tells USA Today’s Julia Gomez.

Most humans will never see a Pacific footballfish. These creatures live between 2,000 and 3,300 feet below the ocean’s surface in near-total darkness, where they use the light at the end of their stalks to attract unsuspecting prey—similar to the way a human angler uses a fishing rod.

“Food at the depths that these guys peruse can be very sparse, so football fish are not picky eaters,” according to the aquarium. “They eat anything that can fit into their mouths.”

The bioluminescent bulb at the tip of the fish’s stalk is called an esca. It’s filled with photobacteria that produce light, which gives the bulb its irresistible glow.

This clever adaptation is not unique to Pacific footballfish. It’s also used by the more than 200 species of anglerfish that live deep underwater throughout the world’s oceans, including some that dwell as far below the surface as 8,200 feet.

The Pacific footballfish that recently washed up in Oregon is a female. Among anglerfish, males and females look and act very differently: Only females have the distinctive lure protruding from their heads. They’re also much larger than males, reaching lengths of up to 24 inches.

Males, on the other hand, are usually ten times smaller. As they swim around in the dark, they search for a female to attach onto like a parasite. Once they do, they shed their internal organs, eyes and other body parts until all that remain are the testes. In this arrangement, the male provides sperm to the female, and the female provides nutrients to the male.

“How the males find the females in the pitch dark is still unknown,” according to the Seaside Aquarium.

It’s not clear why this Pacific footballfish washed up on the sand in Oregon or what caused its death. However, the bodies of these deep-sea dwellers occasionally surface and get pushed to shore.

In October, a lifeguard found a female Pacific footballfish on Moro Beach at Crystal Cove State Park, south of Los Angeles. Another had recently washed ashore at the same park in May 2021. Both specimens are now housed at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles for preservation and scientific research.

Two other Pacific footballfish also washed ashore in Southern California in 2021—one at Black Beach in San Diego in November and one at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas in December.

Already, the creatures that appeared in California in recent years are helping researchers make new scientific discoveries. For example, when scientists looked at the May 2021 Pacific footballfish under blue fluorescent light, they discovered small green glowing spots on the esca—the first documentation of biofluorescence in a deep-sea anglerfish.

Scientists already knew that the glow of the Pacific footballfish’s lure comes from bioluminescent bacteria. But they didn’t know it was also biofluorescent.

Bioluminescence creates a glow from a chemical reaction. Biofluorescence, on the other hand, is a separate phenomenon that occurs when an animal absorbs light at one wavelength, then re-emits that light at another wavelength.

Lots of fish are biofluorescent, but it’s an unusual trait for a species that lives in pitch-black waters without any light. Researchers’ best theory is that the Pacific footballfish can use the light from its own esca to produce biofluorescence.

It’s not clear why the Pacific footballfish evolved both bioluminescence and biofluorescence, but scientists believe it may give the creature a “more enticing and complex lure” for attracting prey or mates, said William Ludt, ichthyology curator at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles and co-author of a 2022 paper on the fish, in a statement at the time.

“The combination of bioluminescence and biofluorescence in deep-sea animals is extremely rare, as it has only been documented in a few species,” he added. “However, this finding suggests that it may be more common than we think, and that it simply isn’t examined because researchers assume fluorescence isn’t occurring due to the lack of light in the deep oceans.”

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