This Little-Known Prickly-Faced Fish Might Be the Most Abundant Animal on Earth, According to Scientists

by Owen James Burke

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Above: The bristlemouth, (genus Gonostomatidae). Photo: Rudie Kuiter/OceanwideImages.com.

This strange, spiky little mouth belongs to a fingerling-sized hermaphroditic fish that occupies the least explored depths of the sea, and may be the single most abundant fish on planet earth, scientists now say.

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There are only 13 known species within the relatively small family of fishes, but there could be millions. Photo: David Wrobel.

It was previously thought that the Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) could lay claim to being the planet’s most prolific species, estimated to take up a collective biomass of somewhere along the lines of half a billion tons. The bristlemouth is estimated to have a population in the trillions, or perhaps even quadrillions, averaging about 12 per square meter of ocean, according to Peter C. Davison, a fish scientist at the Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research, in Petaluma, California.

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Legendary naturalist, marine biologist, author, explorer and honorary doctor William Beebe (left) discovered the species while diving in a bathysphere designed by Otis Barton (right) off Bermuda in the 1930s. In 1938, the fish were featured in Beebe’s documentary/horror film, “Titans of the Deep” (Sadly, it’s currently out of print). Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society.

The bristlemouth, however, is not a newly discovered species. Far from it. The first hint that they were so prolific came during an oceanographical expedition aboard the H.M.S. Challenger in the 1870s, which dropped nets down to about three miles to collect specimens. When the nets were hauled back aboard, they were chock-a-block full of the tiny but voracious beasts.

Why wasn’t their vastly greater abundance noted earlier? Mostly because fishermen and marine biologists alike spend most of their times scouring the top and bottom columns of the sea, but not so much the middle. Generally speaking, it tends to be a fairly boring, and almost certainly profitless endeavor for both parties.

Read more at The NYT. -OJB

 

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