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A Jet-Black, Bioluminescent ‘Football Fish’ Washed Up on a California Beach

The sea creature typically lives in depths of 3,000 feet and rarely shows on shore in one piece

Based on the size of the football fish and the protruding appendage on the top of its head, State Park officials said that the fish is female. Female football fish are the only ones that have the long bio-luminescent appendage used to lure and entice other fish towards their mouth. (Ben Estes)
smithsonianmag.com

A rare deep-sea fish with teeth resembling tiny shards of glass, a football-shaped body, and a long bioluminescent stalk on the top of its head washed ashore in California this week. The sea creature was later identified as a female Pacific football fish (Himantolophus sagamius), reports Faith E. Pinho for the Los Angeles Times.

Beachgoer Ben Estes stumbled upon the rare find on the shores of Crystal Cove State Park's Marine Protected Area in Newport Beach. The species is one of more than 200 species of anglerfish on the planet found at depths of 3,000 feet, reports Amanda Jackson for CNN.

"I don't know if he understood the implications of what he found," says Jessica Roame, an education coordinator at Davey's Locker Sportfishing & Whale Watching, to the Los Angeles Times. "It happens when you're walking along — you find dead things here and there that just shouldn't be on the beach. The thing about this was that it was almost perfectly intact. Where did it come from that deep below?"

Light can't penetrate through the water at those depths, and these fish live in total darkness. Encounters with other fish and prey are infrequent, so the football fish evolved to feed on whatever fits in their 18-inch mouths. To lure prey in the dark, the anglerfish uses an extended fin that resembles a fishing rod with a glowing bulb called an esca at the end. The esca gets its glow from tiny bacteria called, Photobacterium, which live within the pores of the anglerfish's esca.

Based on the size of the football fish and the protruding appendage on the top of its head, Crystal Cove State Park officials say the fish is female. Only female football fish have the long bio-luminescent appendage used to lure and entice other fish towards their mouth. Females can also reach a maximum size of 24 inches, while males grow only to be one inch long, Crystal Cove State Park officials explain in a Facebook post. Males are "sexual parasites" that will latch onto a female and eventually fuse until there is nothing left of their bodies except their testes for reproduction.

How the anglerfish ended up washing ashore on the California beach is unknown. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife took the Pacific football fish while it's sorted out where the fish will go, reports Samantha Lock for Newsweek. California State Park officials connected with Los Angeles County's Natural History Museum in hopes that the fish can be added to their collection of ocean species. The museum already has three others anglerfish in their collection, but only one is from California. None are in pristine condition like the one recently washed ashore, explains John Ugoretz of the California Department of Fish and Game to the Guardian's Gabrielle Canon.

"Seeing this strange and fascinating fish is a testament to the diversity of marine life lurking below the water's surface in California's MPAs and 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 ocean," Crystal Cove State Park write in their Facebook post.

About Elizabeth Gamillo
Elizabeth Gamillo

Elizabeth Gamillo is a science journalist based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has written for Science magazine as their 2018 AAAS Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Intern.

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