One With The Freaks

Behold, the female anglerfish. Though a bit unsightly, she is certainly a product of her environment. Living under the extreme conditions of total darkness and desolation has set the stage for a most bizarre sexual habit beyond your wildest imagination!

Indeed, her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch

See. She is just oozing sex appeal.

As a deep-ocean fish, she lives in total darkness, which means she must use something other than vision to detect her prey and mates. You probably recognize the bioluminescent lure that dangles from her head.

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch and Christopher P. Kenaley

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch and Christopher P. Kenaley

This is but one solution to the problem of prey capture. Another solution is to sit and wait for prey to come to her. Since the enormity of this ocean zone makes encounters rare, she does not have a lot of energy to go searching for more. Instead, she sits and waits to ambush prey that are captivated by the ‘flashlight’ on her head. Great, now she’s solved the dilemma of her next meal. But what about finding and attracting mates when she’s ready to get freaky?

For a moment, let’s think about the life of a male anglerfish. His one goal in life is to find a female – a mere sprinkle that never moves in a landscape of dark nothingness. How will he accomplish this feat?

There are almost 320 species of anglerfish, and almost half of all families feature extreme sexual dimorphism – females are much bigger in size than their suitors. The largest anglerfish species is over 6 feet long. This specimen was likely a female, as are most individuals photographed. In other species, the dwarf males may be as tiny as 6.2mm in length!

Why so tiny?

Instead of wasting time growing larger, some male anglerfish opt to mature quickly so they can race to find a female as soon as possible. Once he begins the race, he presumably hones in on long-range pheromones emitted by the female.

Sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, FEMALE!!!!!! Let the sexual parasitism begin.

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch

See that wee little bump up there on the female’s back? That’s a male that has fused to her for life by biting onto her flesh. Biting her releases an enzyme that digests both his mouth and her skin, allowing full-on fusion of their bodies. Now that’s a commitment! Why would he give her up after he won the lottery by finding her? Imagine the despair of trying to find another mate in the vast, dark bathypelagic zone. Instead, he concedes to the ultimate form of monogamy.

But not from her perspective.

In some species, a female can have anywhere from two to eight males attached to her at once! Once attached, these males degenerate into little more than a pair of testes that may be used at her whim! He gets a mate, and she gets a personal sperm bank!

The reason these males are referred to as sexual parasites is because in some species, the males’ fusion with the female also entails him fusing with her circulatory system for his own life support. Though he doesn’t require much since he is small, the female must sustain the male throughout his life. Still, a small price to pay for an immediate source of sperm in desperate times.

Sadly, parasitic males may never mature and will die unless they find a female. If only Shakespeare had known of this age-old love story! I suppose this cartoonish-version of such a weird reproductive strategy will have to suffice instead. Enjoy!