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Strange Luminous Fish Light Up the Ocean's Depths

Henry Compton's watercolor paintings capture the bizarre, eerie and awe-inspiring qualities of our planet's deep-sea inhabitants. 

May 8, 2014 4:00 PMNov 20, 2019 9:58 PM


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Photo Credits: Henry Compton

The cold, black environment in the depths of the sea is home to some of the planet's strangest creatures. Not only do these ocean dwellers survive in extreme conditions, but many also light up the dark void with bioluminescent organs. 

Marine biologist Henry Compton was present on many of the early cruises in the Gulf of Mexico where these fish were collected for the first time. Compton spent hours in a darkroom he constructed beneath a stairwell at his laboratory photographing these amazing specimens. 

Compton was also a talented artist, and he painted watercolors based on his photographs. He called the series of paintings "Fire in the Sea." The following are several paintings chosen from his collection. 

Photo Credits: Henry Compton

The pineconefish, Monocentris japonica, is as tough as its name implies. Its body is covered in yellow, armor-like scales that are outlined in black.

It’s the only fish in the world with a five-spine dorsal fin, which resembles a “drunken picket fence,” as Compton describes it. 

Photo Credits: Henry Compton

Unlike the lantern-mouth angler, the longbarb scaly dragonfish, Macrostomias longibarbatus, catches its prey with a light-producing bulb at the end of a long, whip-like chin barbel. The creature's prey-luring appendage can grow up to 11 times the length of the head. The setup allows the fish to encircle its distracted prey and sneak up from behind.

"The night belonged to him. The night belonged to him. He hung it from a long whip on his chin," Compton writes. 

Photo Credits: Henry Compton

The spotlight loosejaw, Malacosteus niger, has a smile that can kill.

The lower jaw of this toothy fish houses around 30 teeth arranged in groups consisting of a single tooth followed by several smaller teeth. Its mouth is bottomless and free of cartilage, which allows it to swallow fish four times its size.

Photo Credits: Henry Compton

Members of the genus Searsia are found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. These fish have one-of-a-kind glands behind their gills that spray a bioluminescent stream into the water: what Compton calls "a stream of yeller from his shoulder pouch... [that] busts loose into sparklers." 

It isn't clear if the fish pull this stunt to attract prey, locate a mate or evade a predator. 

Photo Credits: Henry Compton

The bearded angler’s scientific name, Linophryne arborifera, means “tree-bearing flax-toad” in Greek. The females in this species grow a bioluminescent lure on their heads, as well as a long, branchlike barbel on their lower jaw. 

The males and females of this species are further proof that opposites attract. Females grow to a length of up to 225 millimeters, but males are full grown at about 30 millimeters. Males lack the eerie plumage sported by females, and they are also parasitic in nature, attaching themselves upside-down to females for a ride and to mate. 

Photo Credits: Henry Compton

Black swallowers, Chiasmodon niger, are characterized by their three canine teeth on either jaw. The second and third canines are depressible, with the third canine pointed toward the inside of its mouth.

The black swallower’s unique jaws and massive stomach allow it to swallow meals that are much larger than its own body. The fish is seen here with a full belly, but as Compton writes, it's only temporary: "[He] spit up undigested jawbones, cheekbones and backbones... [and] he surveyed the world with hunger again." 

Photo Credits: Henry Compton

The lantern-mouth angler, Thaumatichthys axeli, has an innovative method to luring its prey. While many creatures at these depths, roughly 3,600 meters below the surface, use a glowing appendage to lure a meal a little closer, the lantern-mouth angler’s lure actually dangles inside its mouth. If an unsuspecting creature takes the bait, it’s already too late. 

The creature's advanced hunting skills weren't lost on Compton. "Street light no longer gathers moths outside to be snapped at, but has brought them inside to be swatted," he wrote of the fish.

Photo Credits: Henry Compton

The elongated bristlemouth, Gonostoma elongatum, has a long, slender body and a large mouth with fang-like teeth. With glowing, bioluminescent scales, Compton described the fish as "4-inch replica strips of The Strip at Las Vegas." 

The species is even more notable for its gender-bending life cycle. All bristlemouths are born as males, but they eventually transform into females later in their lives.

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