Inspiring ancient legends of sea serpents and earthquakes, the rare and elusive oarfish (Regalecus glesne) has a lot to live up to. One of the true giants of the deep, scientists still know shockingly little about the life history and biology of these colossal creatures. Most of what we do know comes from individuals that have washed ashore, such as the one recently discovered in a salt marsh in Aramoana, New Zealand.
Measuring in at 3 meters (10 feet) long, it’s considered small for a fish that can reach a staggering 11 meters (36 feet) in length. But that didn’t stop it impressing Aramoana resident Don Gibbs, who discovered the fish lying on the beach, or Department of Conservation service manager David Agnew, who said that in the eight years he's worked in the area he had never seen anything like it.
Samples of the leviathan fish were collected by the Otago Museum, but they were unable to preserve the whole specimen due to its size. Science curator Emma Burns said that they removed the reproductive organs, liver, and took a piece of muscle for genetic analysis, before searching the gut for foreign bodies. “It looked OK,” reports Burns. “It had a big feed of krill before it died.”
Adding to the mystery that surrounds the fish, the day after its discovery it disappeared and was nowhere to be seen. Probably the result of the tide, there is the slight chance that somebody took the creature. Experts recommend that no one eat the 3-meter fillet, stating that it doesn’t make good eating as the flesh is actually quite gelatinous.
Not much is known about these fish. Whilst they are thought to frequent depths of up to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), there are suggestions that they sometimes come to the surface to feed. Rare videos of the creature alive and in the wild have shown them swimming vertically with their heads pointing up. Some think that this might be their hunting stance, and that this position allows them to spot their prey of small fish or squid silhouetted against the sky light.
The giants also have a unique, if somewhat bizarre, tendency to self-amputate. No specimen larger than 1.5 meters (5 feet) has ever been found that does not show evidence of autotomy. Apparently, this occurs multiple times during the animal’s life, and has no effect on its vital organs. They do not—as some claim—bite off their tail but rather separate the vertebrae in their tail in order to drop it, similar to some lizards.
So can they actually predict the coming of earthquakes, as some legends suggest? Well, as oceanographer H.J. Walker explains to BBC News, "There is nothing special about an oarfish that would help it predict an earthquake… if there was an enormous earthquake beneath the sea, other fish would be affected too, not just one or two oarfish.”
Top Image Credit: New Zealand Marine Studies Centre and Aquarium