Archive for the ‘Fish’ Category

Teeth bigger than its stomach…

Posted: September 27, 2014 in Fish

As we have previously established on this blog, the deep sea is full of horrors, even more so than the rest of Nature. Mainly, this is because of the conditions down there. Light is scarce, so animals have to have huge eyes, to make the most of whatever light there is down there. And whilst sometimes, large eyes can be cute (see Fig. A.) , they can also serve to be incredibly creepy (see Fig. B).

Fig. A. Don’t worry, this is probably the only time you’ll ever see this picture on this blog.



Fig B. Hatchetfish (Argyropelecus aculeatus). Image from

Many animals in the deep sea are either black or red, which are generally not colours associated with happy, helpful and harmless beasts (see Fig. C.).

Fig. C. – Black widow (Ladrodectus hesperus). Admittedly, it isn’t from the deep sea, but it shows the point, and you can never have too many pictures of spiders. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

This is because most red light is absorbed by the water by the time one reaches the aptly and needlessly ominously named ‘Twilight Zone’; so any animal which is black or red, as well as proclaiming its allegiance to anarcho-syndicalism, is also pretty much invisible to predators. Finally, because food is (generally) so rare in the depths, predators have to be prepared to be able to eat almost anything; no matter how big it is – so most predators have large, gaping mouths that are best described as ‘maws’ and elastic stomachs (see Fig. D. ). What makes these animals extra-strange is their sheer weirdness, as well (see Fig. E. ).


Fig D. Angler fish (species not given). Image from

Fig. E – the Goblin Shark, Mitsukurina owstoni (Image from

So alien are these animals that many of them die as they are brought to the surface, much as an unprotected human would very swiftly die if they were sat down on the ocean floor with nothing but Scuba gear. As the pressures in the deep sea are so strong, the animals down there have adapted physiologically – and even at the molecular level, their cell membranes are more fluid than an animal living ‘higher’ up, as the enormous pressures alter the biochemical interactions within the animal. As they’re brought to the surface, however, they die – or at least become very sick – as their swim bladders (or other air filled cavities) expand, and the biochemistry within the animal changes.
After showing you enough Figs to serve up a pretty decent starter*, you may be wondering why we’ve decided to feature Anoplogaster cornuta as a Horrific Animal of the World

*We apologise for that pun; and promise that the intern responsible will undergo a thorough disciplinary procedure.

After all, in common with many deep-sea fish, and proving that Nature is not entirely without mercy, it is rather small, obtaining a maximum length of 18 cm; and its close cousin, A. brachycera, reaches barely a third of that. This is actually fairly common in the deep sea – it saves on resources.

Indeed, the real reason why we featured this fish is simply because of its name.

And its easy to see why it got that name. Look at the name. Look at the picture below. Look at the name again. Look at the picture.

Stop looking if you feel dizzy. (Image from

Isn’t that name just, somehow, entirely appropriate? The most obvious thing about that fish is its fangs. It doesn’t even matter about the rest of the fish. The first thing you notice about it is the fangs. Admittedly, ‘fangtooth’ actually makes little sense – since a fang is just a tooth. But, as ever when faced with the nightmares of the abyss, logic seems to twist, and calling a fish basically ‘tooth tooth’ makes perfect sense. These teeth are supposedly the largest teeth (proportional to the animal’s size) of any vertebrate alive on the planet today. They are so large that there are sockets on the upperside of the mouth, to accommodate the teeth when the fish closes its mouth. And, according to David Attenborough, the fish can never completely close their mouths, due to the sheer size of the teeth.


Of course, they have these teeth due to the shortage of food in the deep ocean – and they live very, very deep indeed, some specimens being found at 5000 metres deep (although  most are found considerably higher up, at 200-2000 metres down – which is still plenty deep). As food is so rare, the fish needs to be able to capture, kill and eat as many other animals as possible – and larger teeth means it can tackle larger prey.
What is slightly curious about these fish is that their scientific genus name, Anoplogaster, actually refers to the animal’s stomach (Wikipedia says it translates to roughly “Unarmed stomach” from the Greek, whilst Fishbase says it translates to “Up + shielded + stomach”. Either way, its a bold, or perhaps crazy, scientist, who can look at the toothy monstrosity below and think “That reminds me of an unarmed, or possibly up-shielded, stomach”.

“Yes, that definitely looks completely defenceless”. (Image from

Oh, and remember what we were saying there at the start – about deep sea organisms generally being confined to the deep sea simply because their biology is simply too specialized for the upper waters? That doesn’t exactly apply to the Fangtooth. Indeed, taking a leaf out of the Stephen King school of biology, they emerge from the darkness of the deep sea at night, and hunt in the upper waters (a behaviour called diel migration). When day comes, and the increased light means they would be more vulnerable to predators, they sink back down to the depths again. What’s more, various sources (by which we mean poorly referenced internet sites) appear to imply that they can actually survive in surface aquriaums for many months, even when those aquriums barely mimic their natural habitat. Normally, deep sea organisms die fairly swiftly in captivity, but the fangtooth is robust enough to survive the change.

‘Delicate flower’ in no way describes this fish. (Image from


On the plus side, it is very small. So, on your list of ‘things to worry about’, ‘Fangtooth fishes infesting our coastlines’ is probably somewhat below, say, “Terrorism”, “Ebola” and “the Wandering Spider that is definitely in your house right now”, and only slightly above “whether the tinfoil hat I wear to protect my head from government mind control satellites makes me look silly” .


Really, the problem is with that collar.






An important part of life is sitting back and reflecting; considering our past achievements, mulling over our failures and wincing at the embarrassments. Only by doing this can we hope to develop ourselves as people, move past our mistakes, and generally improve our characters.

Therefore, now that the dust has settled, fires have been extinguished, certain countries have been fled and certain new names used, I think it is only right to reflect on how I could have improved my  Sushi Experience.

1) Have literally any experience running any sort of catering establishment whatsoever.


This is a surprisingly important point. It turns out running a restaurant is surprisingly hard work. For a start, did you know that generally diners prefer to eat inside in March in England? Incredibly, this is the case. In addition, it turns out waiters are a pretty crucial ingredient in the whole ‘restaurant’ thing; and desperately hiring some homeless tramps fifty minutes after opening really does not help matters.


Generally, if you pay your employees in wages measured by the liter, something is wrong somewhere.


2) Do not serve poisonous food.


Again, this is one of those little tips that could have helped me had I known it before. For example, it turns out that Takifugu, a genus of pufferfish, is massively poisonous. This, it turns out, is because is contains the toxin Tetrodotoxin, which is rather astonishingly toxic. It blocks certain types of sodium ion channels, stopping action potentials from being transmitted from nerve cell to nerve cell. You only need to swallow twenty five miligrams (or twenty five thousandths of a gram) to die from it. (If it is injected, you need even less – barely .5 of a miligram; the lethal dose by injection is between 8-20 ug per kg of tissue, going by bioassays on mice. For comparison you need 10,000 ug of cyanide per kg of body tissue to be lethal).

Although the amount of toxin in each fish varies considerably, depending on the exact species, its location, and the health of the fish, it is generally considered an extremely bad idea to eat the parts of the fish that contain this toxin. Every year there are several dozen incidents of this fish poisoning people who eat it, and between 0-10 deaths. Indeed, it is actually forbidden to sell this fish inside the EU.


So really, yes, it was a bad idea to serve this, and only this, fish, from moral, practical and legal standpoints.


3) If you are going to serve potentially lethal fish make sure you take precautions.


Despite this, eating food made from pufferfish (known as fugu in Japan) is quite common and can be safe, so long as the chef knows what he is doing. ‘Knows what he is doing’ in this case means completing a seven year training course, in which he learns which parts of the fish are edible and which are deadly, concluding with a terminal (potentially in multiple meanings of the word) exam in which he must prepare and eat fugu himself. Fugu itself, when served raw (sashimi) is said to have a very subtle, light texture and a slightly chewy consistency, although it can also be served deep fried, in a soup, or even in sake. Apparently, eating it often gives a slight tingling on the lips, which is caused by a very small amount of the toxins (although there does seem to be some dispute around this; with some saying that this an urban myth). Because nothing completes a dining experience like a near death experience, I guess.


Sadly, all the time spent arranging this meant less time getting rid of the toxic bits, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Actually, we just can’t make omelettes full stop.


Anyway, whilst fugu prepared by an experienced chef is pretty much perfectly safe, fugu prepared by a drunkard I hired off the street and trained in less than seven minutes, most of which were spent watching the below Youtube video, is slightly less so.


Know what to do if something goes wrong.

As you will have guessed from the above, a customer, incredibly, did get poisoned by our meal. It turns out there are several schools of thought regarding what to do at this juncture.

For example, what I did was the following.

I) Panic

II) Panic some more

III) Figure out who to blame for this whole fiasco, and settling on the waiter who a) thought he was Jesus and b) couldn’t speak English

IV) Restart panicking.

V) Stop panicking.

VI) Start panicking again

VII) Fake my own death in a needlessly elaborate strategy, move to [CENSORED] and start a new life as a hermit.

This is, to my mind, a valid course of action. However, a more conventional approach might be to 

I) Re-assure the patient (sorry, ‘customer’)

II) Call the Emergency Services

III) Cease service and refund all customers 

IV) Ensure that the patient is fed activated charcoal (which binds to the toxin) and kept on life support whilst the poison breaks down.

V)Accept responsibility for my actions.

Know what the symptoms are.

Again, a useful step in either dodging or taking responsibility is knowing when to dodge or take said responsibility. If a customer complains of a heavy numbness around the lips, that’s usually a bad sign; . Nausea, abdominal pain and vomiting are even worse signs; as they generally are in restaurants. If symptoms persist to difficulty in breathing, paralysis, and a sense of numbness so acute that the victim feels that they are floating, it is probably time to call 999 or, alternatively, root around for the fake passport you keep for this sort of eventuality. Eerily, consciousness can be maintained until near-death, meaning that they will have plenty of time to consider all the many, many, many, many ways they’ll break up with their idiotic boyfriend who took them to this suspiciously cheap restaurant. 

On a romantic date, choose dishes that cost more than a chocolate bar. Also, choose dishes not prepared by myself or anyone I’ve trained.

Know what not to say.

Examples of bad things to say include:

“I am the owner and operator of this establishment, with all of the attendant legal responsibilities and liabilities.”

“Hey, hot stuff. Notice your boyfriend was so cheap he took you here. Hey about you ditch him?”

“Okay, customers. Remember, if the police visit, this is technically a theatrical production and not a restaurant.”

“Did you know it is not actually the fish that is toxic, but symbiotic bacteria that produce the toxin? Examples of this include bacteria in the genus Pseudomonas, Vibrio (which of course, also includes the bacterium which causes cholera) and Pseudoalteromas tetraodonis.”


In fact, avoid mentioning the word ‘cholera’ to any customer of your restaurant as a matter of course.









Ah, another delayed blog post, and I’m afraid this one will be rather short. Recently I’ve a) been offered a PhD place and b) had to do a lot more work on my final year project. So that’s the reason posting has been a bit light. Both the PhD and the project are actually all about food security, which I know will be a relief to all of those of you who actually know me.

Pic unrelated. Honestly. There’s only like a 12% chance I will accidentally end civilization.


But anyway, on with the show!

In the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, all you needed to do was to walk into a bit of wilderness, fire a weapon several times into the jungle, and then sort through the piles of animals you’d killed until you came across one which had not previously been known about. Then, you’d go back home with the carcass in tow, and you’d be renowned as the person who discovered a new type of animal. And not just a slightly different variety of insect, either. Gorillas, which you may recognise as been ‘fairly large’ animals, were only formerly described in 1847, and the first ones in the wild were by a Westerner were observed by Paul du Chaillu in the late 1850s. This is perhaps an appropriate point to mention that he also shot several of them , which was what all the cool biologists were doing in the nineteenth century. This style of fieldwork is somewhat frowned upon nowadays, to the relief of conservationists and the dismay of manufacturers of ‘laboratory grade’ firearms everywhere.

Now, biology is rather more sedate, specialised and involves rather less shooting things. Its now thought more important to work out how animals fit into their environment, how they interact with it, and how their adaptations allow them to thrive in their habitats. After all, its not as if there are any more giant, impressive animals lurking out there for us to discover, is it?  Well, probably not that many, at any rate, although what lurks in the deep sea is still in many ways a mystery – although we can predict that any animals newly discovered down there will be repulsive, consist mainly of eyes and teeth, and harbour nothing but a dark thirst for our souls.

Sometimes, the old methods of fieldwork may actually be the best (Photo is of a viperfish (Chauliodus spp) and is from Wikimedia Commons)


However, that doesn’t mean that animals we thought we thought we knew a lot about can’t harbour some surprising – and since they’re featured on this blog, disturbing – features. And that, neatly enough, brings us on to Moray eels. There are around two hundred species of these snakelike, wriggly fish (to use a very scientific term) and they are found all over the oceans, and sometimes into bays, estuaries and rivers ( . The longest,  Strophidon sathete can reach around four metres in length, and some species can give a nasty nip if provoked (although many attacks are actually due to divers feeding them, and the near-sighted eels mistaking fingers for food).

“Yeah, sure. ‘Mistaking’” (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And also, there’s the small matter of that whole Alien-style second pair of jaws they have in their throat, which somewhat unbelievably was only really discovered in 2007 (

Now, before you get all excited, lots of fish actually have second pairs of jaws hidden in their throats; these jaws are called ‘pharyngeal jaws’ and are often used for grinding up hard food before it is swallowed completely. So the Moray Eels aren’t exactly alone in this regard.

Where they are alone is that they can actually move these jaws forward. In most fish, these jaws just stay there, grinding up whatever food is sent their way. These eels, however, can move these jaws to just behind their regularly set of jaws, grab hold of their still living prey, and then drag it back down towards the oesophagus. They are, in short, the only animals to actually use these jaws to assist in the actual capture of prey. This is because, unlike most fish, Morays cannot produce the negative pressure which most fish use to assist in swallowing their prey. Whilst most fish basically use suction to assist in prey-capture, the Moray eels just use a second pair of jaws; and it is this adaption that could be the reason why Moray eels are so widespread (Mehta and Wainwright 2007).

How the jaws of the Moray Eel work – they spring forward inside to help grasp the prey. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).


The really remarkable thing about this is that this mechanism was only discovered in 2007, when the authors of the above paper used high speed video to observe Muraena retifera feeding, curious as to how it fed given that it couldn’t use suction. It was only at this point that scientists realised that yes, it had a set of these pharyngeal jaws, found nowhere else in the animal kingdom, despite the fact that throughout the years several dozen dissections, at least, must have been carried out on these animals, not to mention hundreds of photographs, observations and experiments.

Kind of makes you wonder what else we’ve missed.


“Yeah, sometimes they shoot fire out of their eyes and feast upon the innards of still living children. We never really noticed it before, I guess.” (Photo credit Wikimedia Commons)

Like most well-adjusted, completely normal people with no signs of any mental illness whatsoever, I spend most of my time in a seething cauldron of rage, constantly seeking horrific vengeance upon people who have even slightly inconvenienced me. An inevitable component of this is that I spend a surprisingly high amount of mental energy plotting needlessly complex revenge, like any good Bond villain. But, until recently, I felt I did not have a suitable instrument of loosely defined ‘justice’ at hand, and so I had to resort to writing passive-aggressive letters of complaint, like most heroes thwarted in their pursuit of redress throughout history.

However, with the stonefish, I feel that at last, I have found the perfect weapon for someone who is both irrationally obsessed with getting back at someone, but also incredibly nervous about even the smallest social contact. Like, I would imagine, the entire readership of this blog.

The genus Synanceia contains five species of stonefish; although some references seem to suggest that there could be as many as thirty – this is probably due to the fact that the genus (Synanceia), subfamily (Synanceiinae) and family (Synanceiidae) names all sound pretty much identical. Besides, as we will discover later, five species of stonefish are five too many, unless of course you are some sort of unbalanced sociopath seeking fish-based revenge, which the blog stats imply you probably are.  They are found throughout shallow tropical seas, from the Red Sea to Singapore to Australia; the latter should come as zilch surprise to anyone who actually knows Australia. Furthermore, one of the species we are talking about has the name S. horrida. I’m going to take a massive guess here that this name is not a reference to the pleasant, safe and tasty nature of this fish. The species most widely discussed, however, is S. verrucosa, which sounds like an unpleasant skin condition. Which, ironically, is what these animals look like.

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but in the case of Stonefish you might as well go ahead, as their horrific outer appearances merely a pale reflection of just how awful these animals are. Seriously, if they weren’t so necessary for my unnecessarily convoluted vengeance stratagem, I would not touch these things with a barge pole. (In fact, I am actually not touching them at all; as we will see later such a move would be incredibly stupid and leading to my revenge ironically backfiring on me). In fairness, though, you probably wouldn’t look much better if you adopted the lifestyle of the stonefish, which basically involves lying in mud, and occasionally opening your massive mouth wide open, which causes a current to sweep smaller fish right into you.

“Hi! I’m Sally the Stonefish! Incredibly, I am even worse than I look!” (Pic. Credit

You can kind of see the problem, can’t you…a fish, brilliantly camouflaged, that lurks just offshore (or occasion, on the shore – the things have been known to survive being outside of water for more than twenty hours) and, and I should probably stress this point, is incredibly dangerous. Because what the stonefish has are little dorsal spines on its back, that act as a defence against predators.  And what these little dorsal spines do is inject a little bit of poison, which is said to cause the worst pain in the entire world. (How do they figure that out, anyway? Is there an incredibly luckless intern who travels the world getting attacked by various animals?).

This venom contains a whole host of ingredients (Garnier et al 1994) which altogether induce intense, agonising pain, vomiting, nausea, swelling of the affected area and a fall in arterial blood pressure, which in turn can lead to heart failure in some cases (Garnier et al 1996, ). People who have experienced this sting have compared it too, amongst other things,  having sledgehammer hammered down repeatedly on the affected area ( . Others have talked of an intense burning sensation, sometimes so bad that they lose consciousness, or beg to have the limb amputated. The pain can last for weeks after the sting, and sometimes affects the rest of the body as well – not just the stung bit. Finally, even a traditional treatment – immersing the affected area in hot water, which helps to break down the venom – has its risks, as it can promote the growth of infectious bacteria ( .  Also, wearing shoes may not help you, as there are reports of the spines piercing the souls and still envenomating the foot. Interestingly, some have claimed that their arthritis got better after a stonefish sting; this is almost certainly because after that you’d have to have your arm sawed off by a rusty hacksaw before you even complained about pain again. However, despite all this, deaths from the stonefish are actually rather rare, which makes it even more suitable as a revenge weapon.

After all, you want people to know you went to all that trouble of locating, buying, keeping and feeding a stonefish, then transporting it to right outside their front door, all because they brought the last Mars bar in the shop.