You might remember the scene in the movie, Finding Nemo, when Marlin and Dory, in their journey to find Nemo, drop a snorkel mask into the dark depths of the ocean. When they swim down to search for the lost mask, they encounter a single light source in the blackness which turns out to be the glowing light at the tip of an anglerfish’s antennae! Animation of course allows Marlin and Dory to escape the clapping jaws of this anglerfish, but even Disney couldn’t make this predator look any less scary.

You might ask: what life inhabits the ‘midnight zone,’ the most dark, cold, lonely place in the ocean where the sun don’t shine? Thankfully, there are marine scientists exploring these areas of the ocean finding species of life never seen before. “The deep ocean represents the single largest ecosystem on this planet and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s in there” says Edd Brooks, Deep Sea Marine Biologist.

A recent discovery in the northern Gulf of Mexico (discovered by Tracey Sutton, Ph.D. and Theodore Pietsch, Ph.D.) included three female ceratioid anglerfish, recovered at depths of nearly 5000 feet (almost 1 mile below sea level!) Each of these female fish measured less then 4 inches in length, but anglerfish can range in size from 3 inches to 3 feet.

The anglerfish is a grotesque specimen that was easily portrayed as a ravenous villain in the beloved Disney movie, Finding Nemo. It has a wide mouth full of spikey teeth resembling the menacing smile on the Joker character from Batman. It has tentacles above its nose that look like a disheveled mustache. And its most unique feature is a peculiar pole-like appendage sticking out from between its eyes.

ugly fish with spikey teeth and elongated horn on its head

photo: Theodore Pietsch, Ph.D

Anglerfish are bony carnivores named for their distinctive physical feature, the ‘fishing rod’ growing out of their head, which acts as a mechanism to attract their prey. In some species, this organ is said to be luminescent luring unsuspecting fish in the deep, dark environment. Interestingly enough, this long growth that sprouts from their head is the detached first spine of their anterior dorsal fin. In the case of the anglerfish, this soft-tissue spine protrudes above the fishes eyes and is flexible enough to move in all directions. This movement acts like a baited hook to get their prey close enough to be eaten whole. The reflex of the anglerfish is to close its jaw upon any contact with its tentacle. It can even ingest things that are twice its size!

Additionally, the lure of this appendage also acts as the odd allure for male anglerfish. The ‘fishing pole’ is a trait only of female anglerfish which not only attracts their prey, but is also used to facilitate mating. The mating ritual for these hostile looking fish is as disturbing as their looks! Scientists have found that female anglerfish tend to be larger in size. The male counterparts attach themselves to females to live their life out as a parasite! It is a male’s sole purpose to find a female anglerfish mate, and if he does not successfully become a parasite, his life will come to an early end.

Just when it couldn’t get any stranger, the process of parasitism allows the male to bite into a females skin and release an enzyme that basically melts his mouth to her body fusing the pair forever! The male becomes dependent on the female through the nutrients in their now shared circulatory system and they live and remain reproductive as long as the female lives! Now THAT’S committment!

One study suggests the anglerfish have been around for over 100 million years and the ceratioid anglerfish is one of about 200 species found throughout the world’s oceans. There is one family member of the anglerfish, commonly known as monkfish or goosefish, which is commercially fished and used in cooking in North America, Europe and Asia. The tail meat has been compared to lobster in taste and texture. In Asia, monkfish liver is said to be a delicacy.

Let us be thankful for continued exploration of our vast ocean’s to keep us engaged, educated, and entertained. But let our nightmares be spared of this deep-sea dweller, the anglerfish, where out of sight doesn’t necessarily mean out of mind!