Rare Deep-Sea Anglerfish Washes Up on a California Beach

The finding marks the second time in three years that an elusive Pacific footballfish has been found on the sand at Crystal Cove State Park

Black fish with gaping mouth on beach
The female Pacific footballfish measured about 14 inches long. California State Parks

An elusive fish that normally lives 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface washed up on a Southern California beach this month.

The creature, known as a Pacific footballfish (Himantolophus sagamius), is a deep-sea anglerfish with prickly skin and a stalk protruding from its head. A lifeguard found the mysterious animal’s intact body on Friday, October 13, at Crystal Cove State Park’s Moro Beach, located south of Los Angeles.

Since Pacific footballfish spend their lives swimming around the darkest depths of the oceans, it’s rare for humans to see them. But this fish is the second of its species to appear at Crystal Cove in recent years: One also washed up in May 2021.

It’s unclear why or how the fish ended up on shore. But, whatever the reason, wildlife officials are excited about the unusual appearance.

“Seeing this strange and fascinating fish is a testament to the curious diversity of marine life lurking below the water’s surface,” the state park wrote in a Facebook post. “As scientists continue to learn more about these deep-sea creatures, it’s important to reflect on how much is still to be learned from our wonderful and mysterious ocean.”

The new Pacific footballfish specimen will join its May 2021 counterpart at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, where it can be “preserved and available for scientific research,” says Michelle Horeczko, an environmental scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, to the Los Angeles Times’ Andrew J. Campa.

“There are only approximately 30 or so specimens that have been collected of this species globally, which make this find valuable and may add to what is known about their life history,” she adds.

The 14-inch fish that washed up last week is a female. This was easy for wildlife officials to determine, because with this species, males and females look very different from one another.

Females, like this one, can grow up to 24 inches long and have a distinctive stalk on their heads that they use like a fishing pole. This stalk has a bioluminescent tip, called an esca, that the fish use to lure prey in the dark ocean. Its glow comes from light-emitting photobacteria that inhabit the esca. Females also have big mouths filled with sharp, pointed teeth.

In contrast, males can be up to ten times smaller than females. The tiny males are “sexual parasites” that “find and fuse themselves to females, eventually losing their eyes, internal organs and everything else but the testes,” per the California Academy of Sciences. Once they latch onto a female, they parasitically gain nutrients from her and become a source of sperm.

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More than 200 species of anglerfish live in the world’s oceans, with some dwelling as deep as 8,200 feet. Because they inhabit the so-called “midnight zone”—an area so far beneath the surface that sunlight cannot reach it—prey can be hard to come by. However, anglerfish have a clever workaround: Rather than seeking out small fish and crustaceans to eat, they conserve energy and wait for food to come to them.

Including the 2021 find at Crystal Cove State Park, three Pacific footballfish washed ashore in California that year. At the time, wildlife officials chalked it up to “serendipity.” But they noted that the rare findings of the little-known fish are valuable opportunities for scientists to learn more about life in the deep sea.

“Specimens like this, every time they wash up, can provide additional clues,” Ben Frable, a collection manager at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told the Guardian’s Gabrielle Canon in 2021.

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