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Touchdown of the Pacific Footballfish

A rare creature of the deep continues to make appearances on the shores of the west coast

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An interesting phenomenon has been unfolding in California … 

Last week, San Diego beachgoers were startled by the appearance of a creature that looked most unusual washing up on it shores – the body of a Pacific footballfish, or Himantolophus sagamius, was gently sitting on the sand.

This event is notable for several reasons, particularly because this was the third time in 2021 that this type of fish made landfall. Normally, this fascinating being lives in deep waters of up to 3,000 feet, and sightings are so rare that only 31 specimens have been found since it was first discovered—more than a century ago!

The initial sighting took place in May 2021 and received moderate local media coverage. This was followed by a second incident on November 13 and then a third on December 10. The increase in occurrences quickly garnered media attention in major outlets, thrusting a critter that normally dwells in complete darkness into the national spotlight.

According to the California Academy of Sciences, the Pacific footballfish is most known for its distinctive bioluminescent feature. Like other anglerfish, the first spine of its dorsal fin extends away from the body and ends in a soft, glowing bulb called an esca. This modified fin, called the illicium, can be used to lure prey within the depths of the dark waters. Anglerfish were famously featured in a deep-sea showdown with Martin and Dory in Finding Nemo.

The “electric current” that powers the glow of an anglerfish’s esca comes from photobacteria, which means bacteria that emit light. They find their way into the esca through small pores; once inside, they can grow and multiply due to the protection provided by the host.

There’s a lot to appreciate about this unique organism beyond the unmistakable bulb, including its striking color, spiked body and, of course, those sharp teeth! The deep sea is a harsh environment, meaning prey can be few and far between. That means anglerfish prey consists of whatever it can get into its large mouth, including other fish, crustaceans and squid.

Ocean Conservancy’s own chief scientist, George Leonard, (a California resident himself) is cautiously thrilled with the recent sightings. “At this time, there is no evidence that this is a trend, and the Pacific footballfish is experiencing a mass casualty event. Rather, this is simply an opportunity to get an up-close glimpse of a rare and elusive species. Increased attention and interest on any type of ocean wildlife can potentially be beneficial for conservation – if utilized correctly.”

It seems that the Pacific footballfish is finding itself in the limelight time and time again!

In a recent feature in the Los Angeles Times, Bill Ludt agreed, stating that “It’s the talk of the town among us California ichthyologists.” Ludt is assistant curator of ichthyology at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.

So what does all this mean for the Pacific footballfish? Even though no one can pinpoint what exactly is causing these incidents, these beach appearances are not yet cause for worry at this time. Instead, they’re a profound reminder of how connected humans on land are to even the deepest of dwellers. You can be assured that this isn’t the last we will hear from this entrancing ocean inhabitant.

Want to learn more about weird and wonderful deep-sea critters?

Take a dive into the depths of the ocean and check out these links to read more about gulper eels, the deep-sea lizardfish and the glass octopus.

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