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Published: Tuesday November 5, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday November 5, 2013 MYT 8:31:47 AM

An unusual giant

Dead oarfish found to have hosted parasites, giving scientists insight into the rare creatures.

RESEARCHERS have discovered that the massive oarfish hosts several types of parasites, revealing clues about the serpentlike fish’s habitat, the University of California, Santa Barbara, announced.

Parasitologists at the university obtained small tissue samples – gills, intestine, stomach, spleen and gallbladder – from the creature that was found dead in shallow water just off Catalina Island on Oct 13.

They discovered larval tapeworms and pieces of a spiny-headed worm embedded in the intestine dissected at the university.

Parasites found in the animal provide insight into what the fish eats and what its predators are because the organisms spend stages of their life-cycles in various hosts, said Armand Kuris, professor of zoo- logy in the university’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology.

The tapeworms, usually found in sharks in their adult form, will remain larva until the oarfish is eaten and they mature into their next stage, he said, which suggests large sharks prey on the bony fish.

The spiny-headed worm found in the fish was an adult, suggesting the oarfish ate its host, likely krill or another deep-water crustacean.

“This thing had all sorts of stuff in it, even when we had almost no actual tissue to work with,” Kuris said.

Little is known about the world’s largest bony fish, which live in deep waters and are not often seen alive.

What is known comes from the few carcasses that have washed ashore.

Parasites in the oarfish haven’t been examined for years – the last substantial publications about them are 50 years old, Kuris said.

Researchers will send the parasites for further examination and possibly molecular DNA analysis next.

“If all you knew about deer was roadkill ... how much would you actually know about deer?” said Milton Love, a research biologist at the university’s Marine Science Institute. “That’s kind of where we are with oarfish.”

The 5.5m giant found off Santa Catalina Island was among the largest oarfish reported in nearly 20 years. A 4.3m fish was beached in Oceanside on Oct 18.

What killed the two oarfish hasn’t been determined, but Love said he believes that the deaths are probably linked.

The most likely cause was a current that carried the weak-swimming creature from still waters into a near-shore, more turbulent area, which they aren’t adapted to surviving in.

Despite its menacing appearance, the serpentine, silver fish is toothless and heavy, with weak, flabby muscles.

It glows slightly, and a ribbonlike dorsal fin waves along the length of its body as it hangs in the water, sucking down plankton and jellyfish, said Russ Vetter.

Vetter assisted in the smaller fish’s dissection and directs the fisheries resource division at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

The tissue was divided and sent to research specialists around the world, who will look for clues about the creature and its habitat.

The fish’s tissue will be tested for toxins, and data that could indicate low oxygen levels in the water will be examined as they become available, Vetter said.

“People from all around the world are desperate for a piece of tissue,” he added. – Los Angeles Times/ McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Tags / Keywords: Science & Technology, Science, biology, oarfish, parasites

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