April 11th, 2014 by Sandy Dechert
Not again. Last year, as PlanetSave’s James Ayre reported, dead giant oarfish—-bizarre and terrifying serpents of the sea (Regalecus glesne) five and six yards long—-washed ashore at separate locations off the California coast during one week in October. Also last year, National Geographic documented video by a remotely operated undersea vehicle of a giant oarfish swimming in the deep Gulf of Mexico in 2011.
Ah yes, again: during a Shedd Adventures trip to Baja in March 2014 (Shedd Aquarium of Chicago, in partnership with Un-Cruise Adventures), beachgoers witnessed two of the rarely seen fish in shallow coastal waters of the Sea of Cortes, north of La Paz, near Isla San Francisco. They appeared to be playing in the waves.
The “sea monsters,” known to the Japanese as “ryugu no tsukai” (messenger from the sea god’s palace), are actually the world’s longest bony fish and ordinarily dwell up to half a mile down in the ocean. They are thought to occupy a broad range. Amateur video provided here shows one of these fish undulating both at the surface and underwater.
For the first time in recent memory, people saw not one, but two oarfish together at the same time. Both of the spectacular silvery-blue, red-maned, crested, and whisker-finned aquatic vertebrates were alive. National Geographic reports that Tim Binder, vice president of collection and planning for the Shedd Aquarium, recorded much of the video and called the one he photographed “one of the most stunningly beautiful fish I’ve ever seen.”
This weird species appears to feed on krill, small crustaceans, and squid. NBC News quotes Milton Love, a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute at the University of California Santa Barbara, as saying he thought the Baja fish would probably die shortly, which they did about half an hour after people discovered them.
“As far as is known all of the ones that somehow get close to shore wind up dying. Their usual haunts are in deeper, quieter waters at least somewhat offshore. Why they wind up near shore is unknown, but likely at least sometimes the fish get carried into these turbulent waters by unexpected currents.”
Apparently, oarfish most commonly beach in areas where water upwells from their deeper homes. But here’s a bizarre, though quite plausible reason for their behavior. As you may know, animals sometimes act strangely at times of natural disaster. Some examples from ancient and recent history:
During the winter of 373 B.C., ancient Roman historian Aelianus wrote, “all the mice and martens and snakes and centipedes and beetles and every other creature of that kind” left the Greek city of Helike, which was shortly inundated and sank after a tidal wave.
In February 1971, Haicheng, a Chinese city of 1 million people, was evacuated the day before a 7.3-magnitude earthquake arrived—based in part on reports of strange animal behavior like the early awakening of hibernating snakes.
As published in the Journal of Zoology, in April 2009 most Italian Bufo bufo toads suddenly disappeared from an area where they were being studied for other reasons. Five days later, the region had a strong earthquake. Following the final aftershocks, the toads returned.
Zoo animals sought shelter or made distress calls at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., minutes before a 5.8-magnitude quake struck the region on the afternoon of August 23, 2010.
Oarfish appear to have suffered similar earthquake-related alarms. Around the time a powerful 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck Chile four years ago, fishermen spotted or netted dozens of the long fish. About 20 oarfish strandings occurred just before the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck Japan and destroyed the Fukushima I nuclear power plant complex.
We have not yet encountered proof that this phenomenon accounts for the two recent oarfish fatalities, but their timing within a week or two of the 8.2 magnitude April Fool’s Day quake in Chile (and possibly some 3.5-5.1 events in southern California) does raise some questions.
Researchers have tried to link animal fright to phenomena like positive air ion release, oxidation of dissolved organic compounds, and high ozone levels associated with seismic disturbances. For now, though, as researcher Catherine Dukes told LiveScience:
“This is not a way to predict earthquakes. It’s just a way to warn that the Earth is moving and something—an earthquake, or a landslide or something else—might follow.”
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