Two rare, ribbon-like fish that washed up on Southern California beaches last week have puzzled and excited scientists, who know little about the creature that inspired sea serpent lore.
The oarfish, deep-sea dwellers that remain largely mysterious to researchers, have only been seen underwater a handful of times. What is known comes from the few carcasses that have washed ashore.
“If all you knew about deer was road kill … how much would you actually know about deer?” said Milton Love, a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara. “That’s kind of where we are with oarfish.”
The 18-foot giant found off Catalina Island Oct. 13 was among the largest oarfish reported in nearly 20 years. A 14-foot fish that beached in Oceanside on Friday was dissected and examined by scientists Monday.
Love said he believed the deaths of the two fish were probably linked.. The most likely cause was a current that carried the weak-swimming creature from still waters into a near-shore, more turbulent area, which they aren’t adapted to surviving in.
Despite its menacing appearance, the serpentine, silver fish is toothless and heavy, with weak, flabby muscles. They glow slightly, and a ribbon-like dorsal fin waves along the length of their bodies as they hang in the water, sucking down plankton and jellyfish, said Russ Vetter, who assisted in the smaller fish’s dissection and directs the fisheries resource division at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.
The tissue will be divided and sent to research specialists around the world, who will look for clues about the creature and its habitat – its eyes, gills, heart and liver will be studied, its DNA will be sequenced for insight about the fish’s evolution, and its ear bones will be examined to determine age.
The fish’s tissue will be tested for toxins, and data that could indicate low oxygen levels in the water will be examined as it becomes available, Vetter said.
Results from the research could take years to complete, scientists said.
“People from all around the world are desperate for a piece of tissue,” Vetter said.
Staff at the Catalina Island Marine Institute considered burying their 18-foot carcass, which was too large to refrigerate. But experts at the Natural History Museum said the bones are so fine that they would be crushed by the weight of the sand, said Jeff Chace, program director at the institute.
The fish was divided and split between various research institutions because there was so much interest, he said.
The institute, which educates about 40,000 children a year, hopes to keep the skeleton on display, he said. “One of the neat things for kids is the unknown factor,” he said. “These discoveries are happening all the time, and it gets kids excited about science.”
With more people snapping cellphone photos and posting videos of strange fish to social media, the public and scientists are more aware of these occurrences, said Philip Hastings, professor and curator of the Scripps Marine Vertebrate Collection at UC San Diego.
“Everyone has a cellphone with a camera on it,” Hastings said. “Social media allows us to distribute those and get information back to scientists.”
As photos of the huge fish have made their way across the Internet, many theories have been offered as to why the fish died. One claim working its way around websites and blogs is that oarfish dying is a sign of a coming earthquake.
Experts, however, stressed they have not pinpointed a cause of death. “With a rare event like this, it is a bit troubling, but it’s a total mystery,” Vetter said.