Mysterious 'yawning fish' discovered off Indonesia

M. Snyder,
A new species of angler fish makes its debut in the pages of Copeia, the journal of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.

I had a chance to do some snorkeling in Indonesia’s portion of the “coral triangle” in December 2007. The triangle has been compared with the Amazon rain forest in terms of its biodiversity. It’s a key section of the ocean that countries in the region, environmental groups, and other international players want to protect.

This yawning fish may be one reason why.

Until January 2008, no one knew it existed, or if they did, they weren’t talking. A husband and wife team who were part owners of a dive shop in Ambon City, Indonesia, along with the shop’s dive guide, took the first known photos of the fish.

They shared the photos with Ted Pietsch, a marine scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, who said last year that the critter appeared to represent an unknown family (in the biological-classification sense) of angler fish.

Now, thanks to DNA results, he says it's a new species. And as the first to describe the fish in the scientific literature, he gets the naming rights: Histiophryne psychedelica. I can hear strains of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" now....

Folks figure these fish have been hard to find because their bodies are a bit like mush, allowing them to wriggle into and out of nooks and crannies other fish would avoid. They use their fins to help them “walk” through crevices. And unlike most fish, the eyes on these flat-faced "frogfish" appear to look forward, rather than to the sides, suggesting they may have binocular vision, like humans do.

As for the juvenile in the accompanying video? Looks as though it may need its learner's permit revoked.

Ironically, Dr. Peitsch has long had a couple of these striped wonders in a collection he curates at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. They came to him in 1992 courtesy of the Dallas Aquarium. The folks in Dallas had received them in a shipment from Bali. But by the time he got the preserved specimens, they were white. So onto the back shelves they went.

Only after he looked at them under a microscope, so the story goes, did he see faint stripes similar to those in the images of living specimens.

I’m a space geek, for sure. But it doesn’t take a trip to some far-off planet to encounter strange new life forms.

Video credit: Videos taken at Ambon Island, April 2008, by Mike Veitch,; courtesy of Andy Shorten and Maluku Divers, Ambon, Indonesia,

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