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When to reproduce? It is necessary to literally merge with the couple.
There are loves that kill and then there are those that enslave you for the rest of your existence. And no, we are not paraphrasing the sombre verses of some poet with the devastated myocardium or the desperate letter of one of many musicians drunk with pain, but referring to what could be the most extreme case of sadomasochism in the animal kingdom. Or if you prefer the most heartrending and sublime sacrifice demanded by nature in order to satisfy the drive of fertility and perpetuate the species: the only true and total fusion with the beloved to form a single entity that takes place among the inhabitants of the depths of the ocean.
For the organisms that celebrate this singular (not to say absolutely deranged) way of mating the commitment does last “until the death separates them”, or well, no, being strict not even the expiration of life has the faculty to dissolve such sacred union because the tissues of both spouses are amalgamated in the same anatomical framework. Now that the fact that these fish have one of the most unusual appearances that can be conceived and if it were not yet enough also dominate the wonders of bioluminescence, and can only be qualified as an evolutionary caprice. It is as if in the thousand-year raffle of coincidences favoured by natural selection these creatures had touched only the most extravagant adaptations.
Perhaps before proceeding with the disturbing sexual behaviour of the lanternfish and their peers, it is worth first introducing the consorts; establish a link with them, get them to want. Let’s begin then with its heart-rending physiognomy. His atrocious and demented facial expressions cause immediate shock, anguish and consternation. However, we must recognize that at the same time generate perplexity and extreme fascination (it may even be a glimpse of happiness for the mere fact that they are marine predators and not terrestrial).
It is a reaction similar to that experienced in the microscope when a dive is done to extend the mite like texture of the mites, the anxious proboscis of the ticks or the indefatigable and almost metallic chelicerae of the arthropods. It is as if the rejection produced by their abject factions and the implicit outburst in corroborating that something like this can even come to exist were of exactly the same intensity. Azor oppressive comparable only to the spell gestated by those reduced heads with sutured eyes and mouth in which the Amazon jíbaros convert their enemies, the sepultoid amulets and obtuse idols of voodoo or the leather masks and fetish latex emanating from underground cellars of the world and corrupt our ingenuity.
They are like fevered delusions turned into flesh; tortuous visions typical of the literary machinations of Mircea Cărtărescu or the cursed paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński; mythological chimeras with beastly jaws that disrupt sanity, challenge perceptions and at the same time force you to want to keep looking. In a way analogous to what happens with those repetitive nightmares of childhood (in which with each new episode the curiosity to go deeper into the enigma of dreaming is superimposed on terror and agony), these aquatic portents have the virtue of unleashing in the witness an unstoppable desire to find out how far the possibilities of zoology can go; until asymptotic limits rise the possible permutations of the foundational equation of life:
It may be that the only thing that is somewhat comforting of the bloody anatomy under scrutiny is that its size, at least in relation to ours, is rather small. The dimensions of these beasts, except for a few instances, usually do not exceed thirty centimetres in length and in many cases is much smaller than that. Trait that we would definitely have to thank the current geological history: allow monsters like these to exist in nature but endow them with proportions that make them almost tender; evolutionary gesture that more resembles them with the pantheon of fantastic beings of Guillermo del Toro or Tim Burtianos universes that with the true Dantesque beasts of the sea: the giant squids.
Some 200 species have been described within the order of the Lophiiformes, some as the monkfish or the fabulous frogfish roam the sands at medium depth, from 20 to 1000 meters below the waves, but most of their lineage alone It can be found below the border where light has never penetrated: the overwhelming and enormous kingdom of the blind waters. Frozen place and completely wrapped in darkness that the limited Homo sapiens usually glimpse as if it were a remote and strange horizon, a site whose conditions are definitely inhospitable and that in the best of cases is considered as little representative of geography. But make no mistake: the truth is that this medium constitutes the most extensive surface of the planet.
Not to be tricked by the common mirage to our understanding and to become aware of the reality that reigns on the planet, we must take into account that the average depth of the ocean is about 3,900 meters and that approximately 71 percent of the globe is covered by water; that is to say that this is the dominant environment, not the reefs, the coasts, pelagic zones or for practical purposes the bluish fraction of the great aquatic mass (and much less the timid forests, steppes or terrestrial deserts that, if anything, hardly and appear ), but the perpetual shadows of the abyssal plains, an ecosystem with which we almost never interact and of which we do not know everything.
As Captain Scott of NASA said: “If we had to choose a single stamp to communicate to an alien entelechy what life on Earth is like, or at least what is the most abundant landscape that this planet has, such an image would have to portray the liquid abyss of the deep sea. ”
But going back to our protagonists. Possibly one of the most distinctive features presented by these fish is the elongated appendage called anther that shoots from the front of his face and that is topped by different variables of modified structures-duster-like puppies, whitish semilombrices or suggestive carnations, with each one of the species surpassing the others in the degree of specialization and taking the matter to the terrain of surrealism-which they use as a decoy to attract and ambush their prey: in the case of monkfish and their peers, rocking it as if it was of a fishing rod, and of the most abyssal varieties, such luminous bait thanks to the extraordinary bio-luminance properties that confers the symbiosis that they have established with certain bacteria.
Although it might seem somewhat counterintuitive, the infinite night of the deep waters is constantly interrupted by phosphorescent flashes. Stroboscopic rays that desecrate the icy blackness; Emerald sparks throbbing over the liquid firmament as if it were thousands of underwater fireflies. Electric glares, whitish tinkles, implosions as colourful as fireworks only of biological origin; zoomorphic pyrotechnics. And that is the rule in these parts: the fauna of the marine abyss has the amazing possibility of radiating its own light. Here the sparks encoded as in binary code are the preferred means of communication, the psychedelic innuendo acts as a distraction trap to save the skin, and the bluish and sudden combustions that dazzle the unwary.
Having thus established some remarkable aspects of the abyssal domains and gained some intimacy with the outlandish attributes of the lineage of the Lophiiformes, we can now devote ourselves to revealing their disconcerting sexual practices. To begin with, it should be emphasized that everything said up to this moment corresponds only to the females of the group. Indeed, the physiognomic descriptions and images shown (as well as the vast majority of those you can find on your own) portray almost exclusively the guild maidens. The reason for this is not due to a biased approach towards feminism, but rather to the fact that these fish register one of the most marked and frankly outlandish sexual dimorphisms of the animal kingdom.
And this is when the issue becomes even more bizarre and the assumptions that we usually have regarding the functioning of the couple begin to delude. It happens that for these organisms the consortium between individuals is completely obligatory and definitive because the males are not only tiny in comparison with the females but in many cases, they do not even have a developed digestive system or mouth. Or good, being strict they do have a kind of rudimentary mouthpiece, but it is closed by a layer of tissue. The fact is that the only possibility of survival for the young suitors is to find a female of their species before dying of starvation. For them, the brief days of singleness are counted and they pass in the agony of a desperate race against the clock.
Once one of such helpless little fish gets the feat of finding his fiancee: the outburst happens. Greetings or courtship the little fish looms on the back or belly of the above and, having secreted an envelope that degrades the layer of mucilage that previously closed his mouth, bites the skin of his beloved. He makes a deep incision in the flesh and clings with devotion. What happens then has no name in our modest way of understanding love: the tissues of the male begin to liquefy, fusing with those of the female in an irreparable way.
Like the tortuous premise of the film The human centipede but taken to an even more extreme level, the bodies of both spouses are gradually amalgamating with each other until they end up consolidating in the same anatomical framework. During the process of union the male loses its structures, its eyes, internal organs and other primordial attributes disappear, or if it is preferred they are reabsorbed, and a single blood torrent is established – as well as a single metabolic and gaseous exchange flow – between the novel couple that now integrates the same being. In the end, the only thing that remains for the posterity of the humble fish is its cartilaginous contour and its gonads (or testicles). And this is how the female gets the necessary sperm to be able to generate offspring and perpetuate the species: I carry with me the vestige of stallion imbibed on his body for the rest of his days. In fact, it is not unusual for a single female to carry several males on its surface, with up to eight individuals being called home.
Caption: This reproductive behaviour is so paradigmatic that until recently it was considered that the small bulges infiltrated on the surface of the fish that emanated from the depths of the ocean wrapped in fishing nets were actually parasites.
One of the few videos that have been filmed of a pair of lanternfishes in their environment (at 800m depth), in case there is doubt that we are plotting with the most extravagant side of life.
To end here the contribution of Zefrank for his hilarious series True Facts on lantern fish.