The ocean is a deep and mysterious place, full of bottom dwelling creatures, like fish with large fangs, sharks considered living fossils, crabs twelve feet from claw to claw, and…walking fish? Now, I bet you weren’t expecting this last one – and neither was the family that encountered one of these on their vacation to the Bay of Island in the northern region of New Zealand. The family uncovered a small, black fish with feet in a mound of fishing bait and kelp on the boat they were traveling on. Intrigued by the fish’s leg-like protrusions, the family attempted to save the fish from the tangled pile. Unfortunately, the fish did not survive, however, the family sent it to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa to be examined.
A Species of Anglerfish Revealed
A closer looks revealed this wasn’t the first of this kind of fish to be identified. The odd creature most likely was a striped, or striated frogfish (Antennarius striatus), a member of the larger group of anglerfish. Despite this family’s finding, this type of anglerfish is incredibly rare. In fact, researchers from the New Zealand Museum said they would be lucky to see even one of these fish every two years. This particular anglerfish was especially unique because of its all black coloring. “This is the first time I’ve seen one jet black, with no body markings at all,” the museum comments. The origin of the fish is still debated. Is it a member of a highly variable species, or are there several related species? These are questions the museum is hoping to answer with DNA samples taken from the tiny black beast. Another likely explanation for the odd coloring is that the fish is a rare color morph, similar to several species of snakes and reptiles.
The other interesting piece about this sample besides its color is the location where it was found. Several years ago, David Snyder, a Florida ichthyologist, snapped a photo of a very similarly colored striped frogfish off the coast of Florida, however, striped frogfish aren’t usually found off the coast of New Zealand. They aren’t strong swimmers either, so it’s not likely that it swam from its home to this new location. The most probable explanation is that a strong storm current carried the fish to New Zealand.
Besides the intrigue of a fish with feet, the rest of the fish’s morphology is quite spectacular. This frogfish’s “feet” are actually small fins, which it uses to walk around the ocean floor, corals reefs, and other rocky surfaces. They also use these thick fins as a perch while patiently awaiting their prey. Their scientific name is derived from the latin “antenna, antemna,” meaning “appendage on the head” – which refers to the worm-like lure, known as an esca, which they use to draw in their prey. A short, thin shaft, known as the illicium, connects the esca to the top of the head. The only small bit of pattern observed on this all black specimen was found on the illicium.
Anglerfish are vicious predators, using their intensely powerful jaws, which they are able to extend out past their body to capture their meal. Despite their small size, these stealth hunters “have the fastest bite of any vertebrate, with mouths that can expand at speeds rivaling those of a bullet leaving the barrel of .22 calibre rifle – and that’s in water, which is 800 times denser than air,” explains staff at the New Zealand Museum. If that fact doesn’t knock you off you’re feet, then you must be something special. A frogfish’s diet consists of primarily crustaceans and various bottom-dwelling fish, however, they have been observed to feed on lionfish.
As of now, museum staff is currently analyzing tissue samples from the fish in the hopes of uncovering its genetic origin. The fish will be housed in the museum for years to come so that scientists can access it for research purposes. The more we learn about this fish, the better an understanding we will have on where it came from and its potential other relatives.
So next time you’re on a family vacation, be careful where you step! A new species could be sitting right below your feet.