Making Predictions

Freaky Fish


BEFORE YOU READ: Think about why certain fish species are less likely to be found washed ashore than others.

A surfer was strolling along Swami’s Beach in Southern California when he found an odd-looking fish that had washed ashore. It had a gaping mouth full of needle-sharp teeth and a tentacled stalk on its head! The creature turned out to be a Pacific footballfish (Himantolophus sagamius). It’s one of 170 species of deep-sea anglerfish.

Pacific footballfish usually live up to 916 meters (3,000 feet) below the ocean’s surface. At those depths, it’s pitch-black and cold, and food is scarce. The deep sea is called a biological desert, says Ted Pietsch, an evolutionary biologist and anglerfish expert at the University of Washington. But anglerfish have evolved a helpful survival tool: a built-in fishing rod.


RARE SIGHT: An Atlantic footballfish (Himantolophus groenlandicus) in the Atlantic Ocean

The stalk on the fish’s head is tipped with a bulb filled with glowing bioluminescent bacteria. The fish uses it to attract prey. “Anglerfish have a tremendous ability to move this lure, even wiggling it like a cat’s tail,” says Pietsch. “Little fishes will see that and come over to take a look.” Then GULP! The anglerfish opens its huge jaws and engulfs its prey. It can open wide enough to swallow fish as large as itself!

The Pacific footballfish has never been seen alive in the wild and only 31 specimens have ever been found. Weirdly, the surfer’s discovery was the third time this rare species was found washed up on a California beach in 2021. That’s probably just a coincidence, says Pietsch. “Sometimes all kinds of fish end up on shore—even deep-sea ones.”