An Inconvenient Hagfish

On the importance of intermediates.


We think of scientific progress as working like building blocks constantly being added to a growing structure, but sometimes a scientific discovery can actually lead us to realize that we know less than we thought we did. Take vision, for instance. Vertebrates (animals with backbones) have complex, highly-developed “camera” eyes, which include a lens and an image-forming retina, while our invertebrate evolutionary ancestors had only eye spots, which are comparatively very simple and can only sense changes in light level.

At some point between vertebrates and their invertebrate ancestors, primitive patches of light sensitive cells which served only to alert their owners to day/night cycles and perhaps the passing of dangerous shadows, evolved into an incredibly intricate organ capable of forming clear, sharp images; distinguishing minute movements; and detecting minor shifts in light intensity.

Schematic of how the vertebrate eye is hypothesized to have evolved, by Matticus78

In order for evolutionary biologists to fully understand when and how this massive leap in complexity was made, we need an intermediate stage. Intermediates usually come in the form of transitional fossils; that is, remains of organisms that are early examples of a new lineage, and don’t yet possess all of the features that would later evolve in that group. An intriguing and relatively recent example is Tiktaalik, a creature discovered on Ellesmere Island (Canada) in 2004, which appears to be an ancestor of all terrestrial vertebrates, and which possesses intermediate characteristics between fish and tetrapods (animals with four limbs, the earliest of which still lived in the water), such as wrist joints and primitive lungs. The discovery of this fossil has enabled biologists to see what key innovations allowed vertebrates to move onto land, and to precisely date when it happened.

There are also species which are referred to as “living fossils”, organisms which bear a striking resemblance to their ancient ancestors, and which are believed to have physically changed little since that time. (We’ve actually covered a number of interesting living fossils on this blog, including lungfish, Welwitschia, aardvarks, the platypus, and horseshoe crabs.) In the absence of the right fossil, or in the case of soft body parts that aren’t usually well-preserved in fossils, these species can sometimes answer important questions. While we can’t be certain that an ancient ancestor was similar in every respect to a living fossil, assuming so can be a good starting point until better (and possibly contradictory) evidence comes along.

So where does that leave us with the evolution of eyes? Well, eyes being made of soft tissue, they are rarely well preserved in the fossil record, so this was one case in which looking at a living fossil was both possible and made sense.

Hagfish, which look like a cross between a snake and an eel, sit at the base of the vertebrate family tree (although they are not quite vertebrates themselves), a sort of “proto-vertebrate.” Hagfish are considered to be a living fossil of their ancient, jawless fish ancestors, appearing remarkably similar to those examined from fossils. They also have primitive eyes. Assuming that contemporary hagfishes were representative of their ancient progenitors, this indicated that the first proto-vertebrates did not yet have complex eyes, and gave scientists an earliest possible date for the development of this feature. If proto-vertebrates didn’t have them, but all later, true vertebrates did, then complex eyes were no more than 530 million years old, corresponding to the time of the common ancestor of hagfish and vertebrates. Or so we believed.

The hagfish (ancestors) in question.  Taken from: Gabbott et al. (2016) Proc. R. Soc. B. 283: 20161151

This past summer, a new piece of research was published which upended our assumptions. A detailed electron microscope and spectral analysis of fossilized Mayomyzon (the hagfish ancestor) has indicated the presence of pigment-bearing organelles called melanosomes, which are themselves indicative of a retina. Previously, these melanosomes, which appear in the fossil as dark spots, had been interpreted as either microbes or a decay-resistant material such as cartilage.

This new finding suggests that the simple eyes of living hagfish are not a trait passed down unchanged through the ages, but the result of degeneration over time, perhaps due to their no longer being needed for survival (much like the sense of smell in primates). What’s more, science has now lost its anchor point for the beginning of vertebrate-type eyes. If an organism with pigmented cells and a retina existed 530 million years ago, then these structures must have begun to develop significantly earlier, although until a fossil is discovered that shows an intermediate stage between Mayomyzon and primitive invertebrate eyes, we can only speculate as to how much earlier.

This discovery is intriguing because it shows how new evidence can sometimes remove some of those already-placed building blocks of knowledge, and how something as apparently minor as tiny dark spots on a fossil can cause us to have to reevaluate long-held assumptions.


  • Gabbott et al. (2016) Proc. R. Soc. B. 283: 20161151
  • Lamb et al. (2007) Nature Rev. Neuroscience 8: 960-975

*The image at the top of the page is of Pacific hagfish at 150 m depth, California, Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, taken and placed in the public domain by Linda Snook.

Anglerfish: Absorbing Ladies and their Freeloading Mates

(Via: Inglestic)

Common Name: Anglerfish

A.K.A.: Order Lophiiformes

Vital Stats:

  • Comprised of 322 species in 18 different families
  • Most range in size from that of a ping pong ball to that of a football
  • Some can reach over a metre in length and weigh 27kg (59lbs.)

Found: Throughout the world’s oceans, mostly in deeper regions

It Does What?!

The more dissimilar a creature’s habitat is to our own, the more dissimilar we have to expect its lifestyle to be, so when we plumb the pitch black, cold, high pressure depths of the ocean, we’re counting on some serious weirdness. The anglerfish goes above and beyond in this department.

First off, have you seen these things? They’re essentially a set of mobile fangs. And what’s with that thing hanging down off their heads? It’s all part of an efficient setup that allows the anglerfish to survive in an environment with minimal light and sparse prey. These fish are what biologists call “sit and wait” predators. In order to avoid expending precious energy, they hang motionless in the water, waiting for something edible and foolish to approach. The dangly piece is actually a lure, filled with bioluminescent (glowing) bacteria. Seeing the glow and thinking it might be food, curious creatures draw near and are quickly gobbled up by the anglerfish. That enormous mouth, combined with a flexible bone structure, allows the fish to swallow very large prey, relative to its own size.

Really… how unobservant must their prey be?
(Via: National Geographic)

Amazingly, the anglerfish’s horrifying appearance isn’t its most notably odd trait. Not even close. You see, all these characteristics we’ve discussed so far are only present in the female of the species. The male is a different creature entirely. Many times smaller than the female, you’d be hard pressed to immediately recognise a male anglerfish as even being part of the same species. In fact, researchers initially thought they were babies. Their adult form is only 6-10mm (0.24-0.39”) long in some species, placing male anglerfish among the smallest vertebrates on earth.

What’s more, they don’t have a functional digestive system… they literally don’t ever eat. Sustained only by the energy in his own tissues, the young male must find a female and mate before he starves to death. To aid in his quest, he has very well-developed eyes and huge nostrils, which allow him to follow the pheromone trail of a potential mate.

The somewhat less intimidating male anglerfish.
(Via: Anglerfish Info)

Now it gets weird. Upon locating a female, the male swims up and latches on to her with his teeth, usually on the lower side of her body. He then starts to release an enzyme which dissolves both his mouth and her skin, right down to their respective blood supplies. Soon, their bodies actually fuse together, and blood from the female begins to nourish the now-parasitic male. In some species, this fusion goes all the way to the base of the male’s skull, giving him the appearance of having his entire head absorbed into his mate’s body. Once fused, the male undergoes a growth spurt, thanks to his new food source, but his internal organs, as well as his eyes and nostrils, degenerate and atrophy. The exception, of course, being his testicles, which grow along with the rest of his outer body.

A female anglerfish and her clingy boyfriend.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Her mate degenerated down to a mere sperm-producing external organ, the female anglerfish is now essentially a self-fertilizing hermaphrodite. With anywhere between one and eight males attached to her, she has an abundant supply of sperm available whenever she has ripe eggs to be fertilized. As for the males, they will “live” for as long as the female lives, and continue to reproduce indefinitely.

[Fun Fact: the species Ceratias holboelli has the most extreme size difference between the sexes. Females are more than 60 times the length and about half a million times heavier than the males.]

[And if you like your science lessons in cartoon form, be sure to check out this out.]

Says Who?

Come to Mama!

How to Stay Cool the Lungfish Way

Via: Science News for Kids

Common Name: The Lungfish

A.K.A.: Subclass Dipnoi

Vital Stats:

  • 6 species; 4 in Africa, 1 in South America, 1 in Australia
  • Some species can reach up to 2m (6.6’) long and weigh 43kg (95lbs.)
  • Omnivorous, eating plants, insects, crustaceans, worms, fish, and frogs
  • Largest genome of all terrestrial vertebrates at ~133 billion base pairs

Found: Slow-moving freshwater bodies in South America, Africa, and Australia

It Does What?!

Well, they’re not much to look at, but in the “quietly carrying on while everything drops dead around you” department, the lungfishes are tops. These large, eel-looking creatures are what biologists refer to as “living fossils”, species which have existed in more or less their present form for a very, very long time. In the case of the lungfishes, around 400 million years. For the sake of comparison, this was around the same period that plants developed roots and leaves. That long ago. In fact, researchers believe that the lungfishes are the closest living relatives of the terrestrial vertebrates (that is, anything with a spinal column that lives on land).

These will probably outlast humanity.
Via: One More Generation

So what makes these things so interesting, besides being old? First off, they breathe air, as you might have guessed from their name. Australian lungfishes have a single lung, and, while they normally breathe through their gills, are able to supplement their oxygen intake with air during times of high exertion or when their water gets stale (Fun side note: During mating, Australian lungfishes make loud burping noises at the surface of the water which are thought to be part of the courtship ritual. I’ll refrain from making any Aussie jokes here… ). African and South American lungfishes, on the other hand, have two lungs and breathe nothing but air. Their gills are completely atrophied, such that they could actually drown if kept under for much longer than their usual 5-8 minutes between breaths.

“Hey! I’m trying to aestivate in here!”
Photo by: Tobias Musschoot

This ability to breathe without water results in the other fantastic ability of subclass Dipnoi. South American and African lungfish live in habitats which often dry up completely during the hottest part of the year. The fishes’ gross but brilliant answer to this is to burrow up to half a metre down into the soft mud and excrete a huge amount of mucous. As the surrounding mud dries up, the mucous forms a hard shell which keeps the curled up lungfish moist and cool. A small hole at the top of this snot-cocoon allows the fish to breathe. It’s metabolism slowed to only a small fraction of the normal rate, the creature will aestivate (like ‘hibernate’, but without the cold) like this for several months until the rains return. Laboratory experiments have shown that an African lungfish can remain alive under these conditions for as long as six years.

“Granddad”: probably older than your Granddad
Via: Shedd Aquarium

Aside from their amazing survival abilities, these fish have unusual lives, as fish go. They are extraordinarily long-lived. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago holds an Australian lungfish known as “Granddad” which arrived there as an adult in 1933, making him at least 80 years old. Females of this species don’t even mate until they’re at least 22 years old (or so they tell their parents). What’s more, some species actually care for their young. The mother and father build an underwater nest for their offspring, which can only breathe via their semi-atrophied gills for the first seven weeks, and the father uses his body to release additional oxygen into the surrounding water, helping them to breathe. So, dual childcare: not such a new idea after all.

[Extra Credit –  Here’s a short video of a lungfish being stalked by a pelican. Spoiler: It ends badly for the lungfish.]

Says Who?

  • Brinkmann et al. (2004) Journal of Molecular Evolution 59: 834-848
  • Fishman et al. (1992) Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 136(1): 61-72
  • Glass (2008) Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology 160: 18-20
  • Joss (2006) General and Comparative Endocrinology 148: 285-289
  • Lee et al. (2006) General and Comparative Endocrinology 148: 306-314

What’s the matter, louse got your tongue? (Cymothoa exigua)

Via: Parasite of the Day

Common Name: The Tongue-Eating Louse

A.K.A.: Cymothoa exigua

Vital Stats:

  • Females are 8-29mm long by 4-14mm wide (0.3”-1.1” x 0.16”-0.55”)
  • Males are 7.5-15mm long by 3-7mm wide (0.3-0.6” x 0.12”-0.28”)
  • Preys on 8 species of fish from 4 different families

Found: In the Eastern Pacific, between the Southern U.S. and Ecuador

It Does What?!

With a name like “Tongue-Eating Louse”, you know this is going to be viscerally horrible, but bear with me… it’s also pretty neat. Despite the name, these aren’t actually lice, but parasitic crustaceans known as isopods. While there are dozens of species in the genus Cymothoa, most are parasites which live in the gills of fish and are, relatively speaking, unremarkable. But Cymothoa exigua is something special. While the male of the species (and this is a slippery term, as they can change sex when necessary) lives in fish gills, the female has developed an altogether original strategy.

Try to enjoy a tuna sandwich now.

Entering through the gills, the female takes up a position at the back of the fish’s mouth and attaches herself to the base of its tongue. She then pierces the tongue with her front appendages and begins to consume the blood inside it. Over time, the lack of bloodflow causes the tongue to slowly wither up and fall off. What’s left is a stump consisting of about 10% of the original tongue (yes, someone measured this). The parasite can now attach herself to the stump using her seven pairs of hook-like pereopods (read: ‘feet’) and actually begin to function as the fish’s tongue.

What’s really amazing is how well this seems to work. The parasite has evolved a body shape which closely matches the curves of the inside of the host’s mouth. Unlike our tongues, a fish tongue has no real musculature or flexibility; its only real function is to hold food against the fish’s teeth. With the parasite in place, the host is able to use its body to do exactly that. While the isopod is thought to feed on the fish’s blood, researchers have found that infected hosts have normal body weights and typical amounts of food in their digestive tract when caught. This is, to date, the only known case of a parasite functionally replacing an organ in its animal host.

Once it’s in there, this thing’s not coming out without a fight.
Via: This Site

Because edible snapper fish are amongst the host species of C. exigua, there have been cases of the parasite showing up in people’s supermarket purchases, including one person who thought they had been poisoned after eating one. So are they dangerous? Not to eat, no, but researchers tell us they can give a nasty little bite, given the opportunity. So the moral of this story is: if you bring home a fish for dinner and see an evil-looking parasite posing as its tongue… don’t stick your finger in its mouth.


Says Who?

  • Brusca & Gilligan (1983) Copeia 3: 813-816
  • Brusca (1981) Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 73(2): 117-199
  • Williams & Bunkly-Williams (2003) Noticias de Galapagos 62: 21-23
See you in your nightmares.

If the Eyes are the Window to the Soul, this Fish has a Sunroof

Things are lookin’ up

Common Name: Barreleye Fish

A.K.A.: Macropinna microstoma  (and related species)

Vital Stats:

  • Size: 15cm (6″) long
  • Depth: 600-800m (2000′-2600′) below sea level
  • Discovered: 1939
  • First Photographed: 2008

Found: Subarctic and Temperate regions of the North Pacific

It Does What?!

As you have likely already noticed, fish don’t have necks. At least not in the sense that they are able to look upward. So for a bottom-dweller lurking about in the cold depths of the ocean, being able to see that tasty bit of food floating by above is something of a problem. Some species get around this issue by floating vertically in the water so their whole bodies are pointing upwards. Simple enough. But in the spirit of meeting every challenge with an impossibly bizarre solution, nature has also produced a fish with eyes directly on the top of its head. After all, why re-orient the entire fish when you can just shift a couple of parts?

Those things on the front that look like eye sockets?
That would be its nose.

But the strangeness of the Barreleye Fish goes a little further than that. These aren’t just normal fish eyes in an unusual location. This species’ main prey are jellyfish and their relatives, which frequently come equipped with stingers that could damage the eyes of most predators. So rather than a normal spherical eye perched on top of its head, Macropinna has a tubular structure with the lens buried deep within its head (the dark green areas in the images). Overlying the tubular eyes is a tough, fluid-filled, transparent shield which the fish can look through. That’s right, it looks through the top of its own head. This way, stings from jellyfish will never damage the delicate ocular tissue.

What’s more, the fish’s unique tubular eyes are supremely adapted for the dark depths of the ocean. They allow unusually accurate depth perception (due to a large overlap of the two visual fields) and enhanced light gathering compared the spheroid eyes. In an environment up to 2600 feet (800m) down, where little daylight penetrates and everything appears in monochrome, these adaptations enable the barreleye to distinguish even faint shadows and silhouettes moving above it, and to precisely gauge how far up they are.

The Barreleye Fish, failing to look at the camera.

Researchers had long been puzzled as to how the barreleye eats, since, with its eyes on top of its head, its visual field didn’t include the area around its mouth. The species has been known since 1939, but only as small mangled bodies caught up in deep-sea fishing nets (adults are only about six inches long). In each case, the transparent casing of the fish’s head had been destroyed by the nets and the rapid changes in pressure as the nets were pulled up, making its anatomy difficult to study. In 2008, however, scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute sent remote operated vehicles with cameras down to try, for the very first time, to snap some photos of these oddballs in action. What they learned was that, when it spots prey, the barreleye can actually rotate its entire tubular eye downward, like moving the telescope in an observatory. This way, it can turn and look at its target straight on as it pursues. Most of the time, though, the fish was seen to use its large, flat fins to hold itself nearly motionless, looking up through its personal sunroof, just waiting for some unlucky jellyfish to float on by.

Says Who?

  • Robison & Reisenbichler (2008) Copeia 4: 780-784.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

All images taken by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)