For the Third Time This Year, a Deep-Ocean ‘Football’ Fish Has Washed Ashore California’s Beaches

A Pacific footballfish lays in the sand. It has a slimy, black, gelatinous body with rough spikes. It has tiny eyes and a massive mouth with needle-like teeth. An appendage growing from it's head looks like a tethered ball with legs.
When a surfer reported this fish on the beach, biologists rushed to see what it was.  Ben Frable/Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Earlier this month, a surfer stumbled upon a menacing blob with a gaping mouth full of needle-like teeth and an alien-like protrusion on its head. Biologists arrived at the scene—Swami’s Beach in Southern California—to see the terrifying critter, which they identified as a Pacific footballfish, a type of anglerfish from the deep sea.

This event is the third time that the species has washed up on California’s beaches this year, Lila Seidman reports for the Los Angeles Times. Before this fish, scientists found another Pacific footballfish on the beaches of Crystal Cove State Park—located between L.A. and San Diego—earlier in the year and a second one in late November on San Diego’s Black Beach. Prior to this year’s beachings, a footballfish hadn’t washed ashore since 2001, Christina Bravo reports for San Diego’s NBC 7.

“It is very strange, and it’s the talk of the town among us California ichthyologists,” Bill Ludt, a curator at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, tells the Times.

The Pacific footballfish is probably best known for its cameo in Pixar’s Finding Nemo as the monster that tries to lure Marlin and Dory into its terrifying mouth with the glowing orb attached to its head. But among ichthyologists—or fish researchers—it is a rare and wondrous fish to find. It lurks as deep as 3,300 feet underwater, where light cannot penetrate. As such, capturing one is no easy feat. Only 31 specimens have been found since the species was discovered more than 100 years ago, Gabrielle Canon reports for the Guardian.

“We don’t know a lot about even the basics of how they live,” Ben Frable, an ichthyologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, tells the Guardian. “The fact that a few washed up this year might just be serendipity for us.”

The footballfish found this month was sent to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to be preserved, so that “researchers all over the world can utilize it for the years to come,” Frable tells the Times. Since scientists cannot easily observe the species underwater, specimens they find provide a gold mine of information.

In this case, the fish was found with a stomach full of sand—most of the others were found with empty stomachs. This detail could be connected to its death or just a random occurrence since the fish doesn’t eat often, and scientists are currently working to figure that out. “Specimens like this, every time they wash up, can provide additional clues,” Frable tells the Guardian.

They’re also working to discern why these fish have washed ashore, but they don’t have an answer yet.

“I’m chatting with colleagues who study coastal oceanography, talking to other colleagues that work on anglerfishes and other fish, and were having a little chat trying to figure out, to come up with any ideas. But with these three data points, we can’t really draw any conclusions,” Frable tells NBC 7.

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