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Surprising History of Glowing Fish

Black Dragonfish (Idiacanthus).
Black Dragonfish (Idiacanthus).
Photograph by Matt Davis

During the Cretaceous period, while flowers and tyrant dinosaurs were spreading over the land, and pterosaurs and birds were taking over the skies, in the oceans, fish were starting to glow.

Today, some 1,500 fish species are bioluminescent—able to make their own light. They have luminous fishing lures coming out of their heads, glowing stripes on their flanks, bright goatees dangling from their chins, flashing headlamps beneath their eyes, or radiant bellies that cancel out their silhouettes to predators watching from below.

They evolved their glow in a variety of ways. Some came to generate it on their own, through chemical reactions within their own cells. Others formed partnerships with luminous bacteria, developing organs for housing these microscopic beacons.

Despite the obvious diversity of bioluminescent fish, no one knew exactly how often these animals evolved their self-made light. “We thought it might be a dozen or so just by eyeballing a list,” says Matthew Davis from St. Cloud State University, “but the actual number was considerably higher.”

Together with John Sparks and Leo Smith, Davis built a family tree of ray-finned fish—the group that includes some 99 percent of fish species. By marking out the bioluminescent lineages, they report Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE that these animals independently evolved their own light at least 27 times.

Illuminated Netdevil (Linophryne arborifera). Credit: Leo Smith
Illuminated Netdevil (Linophryne arborifera). Credit: Leo Smith

Of those 27 origins, 17 involve partnerships with glowing bacteria, which the fish took up from the surrounding water. Deep-sea anglerfishes housed the microbes in their back fins, which they transformed into complex lures. Ponyfishes kept the microbes in their throats, and controlled the light they produced by evolving muscular shutters and translucent windows.

But to Steven Haddock from the Monterery Bay Aquarium Research Institute, these partnerships are fundamentally different from cases where fish evolved their own intrinsic light. “If one species of bacteria evolves the ability to glow, then is eaten and proliferates in the guts of four different fishes, you could argue that bioluminescence evolved once in the bacterium,” he says. “To me, this is much less interesting than fishes that have their own chemical and genetic machinery.”

Those intrinsic light-producers have come to dominate the open oceans. There are around 420 species of dragonfishes, most of which have long bodies and nightmarish faces armed with sharp teeth. They include the bristlemouth, the most common back-boned animal on the planet; hundred of trillions of them lurk in the deep ocean. The lanternfishes are similarly prolific; the 250 or so species account for around 65 percent of the fish in the deep sea by weight. “They’re among the most abundant vertebrates on the planet in terms of mass, but the average person doesn’t know anything about them,” says Davis.

Silver Hatchetfish (Argyropelecus). Credit: Leo Smith
Silver Hatchetfish (Argyropelecus). Credit: Leo Smith

These groups aren’t just diverse, but unexpectedly so. In the relatively short time they’ve been around, they’ve accumulated far more species than is normal, and far more so than lineages that got together with glowing bacteria. Why?

Davis thinks it’s because they can exert greater control over their light. While ponyfishes have to rely on body parts that obscure the continuous glow of their microbes, lanternfishes and dragonfishes can turn their glows on or off, using nerves that feed into their light organs. That means they can flash and pulse. They can use their light not just to lure prey or hide from predators, but to communicate with each other.

Many scientists think that deep-sea fish could use bioluminescence as badges of identity, allowing them to recognises others of their own kind and to mate with partners of the right species. This might also explain why these fish became so extraordinarily diverse, in an open world with no obvious features like mountains or rivers to separate them.

“Biodiversity in the deep sea used to be viewed as somewhat of a paradox given the apparent lack of genetic barriers,” says Edie Widder from the Ocean Research and Conservation Association. Davis’s study hints at an answer. After evolving their own light, some fish may have effectively built luminous towers of Babel—different flashing dialects that split single communities into many factions. (Something similar may have happened among electric fish in the rivers of Africa.)

The same story applies to sharks. They’ve evolved bioluminescent at least twice, and these luminous species account for 12 percent of the 550 or so species of shark. And the groups whose light organs allow them to communicate with each other seem to be exceptionally diverse. As Julien Claes from the Catholic University of Louvain told me last year, “They’re some of the most successful groups of sharks. We discover new ones every couple of years.”

So forget great whites and makos, salmon and tuna, clownfish and angelfish. The most common and diverse fish in the world are the obscure ones that you probably haven’t heard about, swimming somewhere in the open ocean, basking in their own glow.


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How This Fish Survives in a Sea Cucumber’s Bum

Picture of a leopard sea cucumber excreting cuvierian organs, which look like white streamers, for defense
A leopard sea cucumber excretes its organs for defense. Photograph by WaterFrame, Alamy
Photograph by WaterFrame, Alamy

In 1975, Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow was diving off the Banda Islands in Indonesia, when he collected a leopard sea cucumber—a cylindrical relative of starfish and sea urchins. It was a large and stubby specimen, 40 centimetres long (16 inches) and 14 centimetres wide. He dropped it in a bucket of water, which he placed in a refrigerated room.

Sometime later, a slender, eel-like fish swam out of the sea cucumber’s anus.

It was a star pearlfish, and it wasn’t alone. Another wriggled out. And another. After ten hours, 14 pearlfish had evacuated the animal’s bum, each between 10 and 16 centimetres long. Another one stayed inside.

There are many species of pearlfish. Some live independently, but several make their homes in the bodies of shellfish, starfish, and other marine animals. Indeed, they got their name after one individual was found inside an oyster, dead and embedded within mother-of-pearl.

But sea cucumbers are their most infamous hosts. Having found one by following its smell, a pearlfish will dive into the anus headfirst, “propelling itself by violent strokes of the tail,” according to Eric Parmentier. If the sea cucumber objects and closes down its anus… well, it still has to breathe.

Oh yeah, sea cucumbers breathe through their anuses. By rhythmically expanding and contracting their bodies, they drive water through the anal opening and into a branching, lung-like structure called the respiratory tree. This process creates gentle currents that a pearlfish can use to find its hosts. It also creates a vulnerability, because a sea cucumber that’s clenching its butt is also holding its breath. When it exhales, as it eventually must, it dilates its anus, allowing the pearlfish to thread itself in. This time, it goes tail-first, bit by bit, breath by breath.

Some species just use the sea cucumbers as shelters. But the Encheliophis pearlfishes are full-blown parasites that devour their host’s gonads from within.

Pearlfish are typically found alone, and adults have been known to kill rivals that try to infiltrate the same host. Still, as Meyer-Rochow found, the fish can sometimes be more sociable—or at the very least, tolerant. No one knows why. It’s possible that when sea cucumbers are rare, the fish are forced to share a host. Alternatively, they could have gathered to breed. “If indeed the 15 fish entered for sexual reasons, one cannot help but think of the orgy that must have taken place inside the sea cucumber,” Meyer-Rochow says.

These anal abodes aren’t easy places to live.

These anal abodes shelter pearlfish from predators, but they aren’t easy places in which to live. Sea cucumbers produce bitter toxins called saponins that punch small holes in the membranes of cells. These chemicals ought to be especially destructive towards fish gills, whose cells come in thin, sensitive layers with a large surface area.

Pearlfish should be especially vulnerable, since they are literally swimming inside the saponin-producing structures. And yet, when Igor Eeckhaut exposed various fishes to sea cucumber saponins, the pearlfish survived 45 times longer than other species. How do they cope?

Sea cucumbers resist their own poisons because their cell membranes comprise special chemicals that interact less strongly with saponins. But Lola Brasseur from Eeckhaut’s team found that pearlfishes don’t use such fancy chemistry. Nor do they have any tricks for detoxifying the saponins.

Instead, they rely on mucus, which they secrete onto their skins. The mucus helps to lubricate them on their way into their hosts, but it also acts as a physical barrier against the toxic saponins. It’s especially effective because the pearlfishes make so much of it—six to ten times more than other fishes that have no interest in sea cucumber bums.

Of course, none of this explains why the sea cucumbers don’t use their most effective defence. When threatened, they can expel their respiratory trees at their attackers, relying on their regenerative powers to re-grow the lost organ.

Why, then, do they never evict their pearlfish lodgers in this way? No one knows.