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The Wolffish is Weird-Looking and Wonderful

Wolffish have a face only true fish fanatics could love

1280px-SBNMS_-_wolf_eel_(27742260092) (1)sm
© NOAA

Think about wolves. Are you picturing fierce, powerful, majestic animals that lope gracefully through the landscape?

Wolffish are … not like that. Think less Call of the Wild and more Nightmare Before Christmas.

They might not be as classically captivating as their terrestrial namesakes, but they are still very cool critters. Today we’re taking a deeper look at these one-of-a-kind fish.

The name “wolffish” can refer to any one of five species in the family Anarhichadidae, which includes the wolf-eel and the Atlantic, spotted, Bering and northern wolffish. The scientific name for the Atlantic wolffish contains lupus, which is the Latin word for “wolf.” The largest species is the wolf-eel, which can grow to more than seven feet long.

The family name comes from the Greek word anarrhichesis, which means “to climb,” but these animals are typically pretty sluggish. That is partially because they live in cold, deep waters that slow their metabolism down and make it harder to make fast movements. Wolffish are found in the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans at depths up to 2,000 feet. They like to hide out in nooks and crannies of rocky outcrops on the ocean floor.

Wolffish have one main thing in common with wolves: they have sharp teeth and strong jaws that help them rip apart their prey. Their teeth are so prominent that some poke out their mouths (picture a vampire in need of braces). They use these chompers to dig into the sediment for food and to break apart the hard shells of clams, urchins, crabs and more. Other than their sharp teeth, you can recognize them by their long, eel-like bodies.

wolffish teeth
© Kamil Porembiński / Flickr

Wolffish have another trick up their sleeves (fins?) to survive in cold waters. They produce a special antifreeze protein that lowers the freezing point of the fluids in their bodies. These proteins bind to small ice crystals and prevent them from growing in the wolffish. One study showed that wolffish species that stay in shallower waters have five times the antifreeze proteins than their deep-sea wolffish relatives because shallow-water habitats are more likely to freeze.

If you weren’t impressed with the wolffish enough: they are dedicated parents, too! They typically live alone, but during breeding season they form bonded pairs to reproduce (some are even thought to mate for life). Females will lay thousands, or even tens of thousands, of eggs, then both the male and the female defend the eggs until they hatch. The offspring take a long time to develop, and often don’t reach sexual maturity until they are five years or older. The spotted wolffish, for example, isn’t ready to mate until they are seven!

Wolffish may not be the prettiest fish in the sea, but there is much more to them than meets the eye. Want to learn more about weird and wonderful fish? Check out the red-lipped batfish, the frogfish and the gulper eel!

wolffish
© Gaellery / Flickr

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