#5 – The Barreleye fish
I mean, come on, *look* at that face! That is one sad fish, with the mopey eyes and the downturned lips. I feel like if the Nightmare Before Christmas included a fish species, it would be the barreleye. In addition to looking super unhappy, the barreleye also has this oddly translucent head, because its eyes are uniquely adapted to looking upwards. These animals live just below the limit of light penetration and use those extremely sensitive, tubular eyes to survey the waters above for small, delicious zooplankton. That being said – they can also rotate their eyes in order to look straight ahead. While the barreleye looks horribly creepy, it’s generally pretty harmless to anything larger than its mouth, including, you know, me. Which brings me to marine creepy critter #4…
#4 – Giant Isopods
Sure, these enormous creatures look terrifying. I mean – that’s a face and a body that only a mother could love. But these marine giants are relatively peaceful members of the oceanic hierarchy. Closely related to the common pillbug (or, as I knew them growing up, the roly-poly), these deep sea scavengers can also curl into a tight ball when threatened, exposing only their tough calcium-based exoskeleton. Of course, pillbugs reach a size of about 2 centimeters fully grown. The largest known giant isopod reached a size of about 36 cm. That’s a whopping big difference! These pale, ghostly creatures are typically lilac or light pink in color, and they can be found in the west Atlantic from Georgia to Brazil as well as the Indo-Pacific. They primarily feed on dead whales, fish, and squid, although they have been known to prey on slow-moving animals such as sea sponges or even live fish. They have seven pairs of legs, including the first pair which have been modified to help manipulate and bring food to their four sets of jaws – yes, you read that right, FOUR jaws. That’s an utterly gratuitous number of jaws for a supposedly harmless animal. I certainly wouldn’t want one of these suckers sneaking up on me while I take a dip! But compared to our next creepy critter, giant isopods are just a lovely stroll in the park.
#3 – Black Dragonfish
The black dragonfish is basically a floating face full of razor-sharp teeth more than capable of shredding an unsuspecting victim to itty-bitty pieces. Couple that with the spikes on its long, pointy tail, and I for one am voting to stay far, far away from this critter. They can reach lengths of about 40cm, and hunting females are known to migrate from the inky depths to the moonlit surface each night in order to feed, where their jet black coloring can make them extremely hard to see. Our next critter also likes to hide, but it accomplishes that in a very different way. Say hello to…
#2 – the Northern Stargazer
These hunters use their fins as shovels, burying their bodies in the sand until only their eyes and mouths remain uncovered. They wait until prey swim over them, and then rapidly open their jaws, expanding their oral cavity. This rapid expansion creates a vacuum-like suction that can draw any tasty morsel into their mouths. They live in the sandy flats of the lower Chesapeake Bay’s deep open waters. Their range extends as far north as New York – so they are closer than you might think. And of course, when they close their mouths, they look like corpses, complete with undertaker stiches. Yet, the fish that, hands down, wins my prize for creepiest looking marine critter has to be…
#1 – Sarcastic Fringehead
Sarcastic fringeheads get their name from their aggressive temperament and from the distinctive frills just above their eyes. These ambush predators maintain and viciously defend their shelters from anything that happens by. They live in all sorts of burrows, including empty clam or snail shells, cracks in rocky outcroppings, or human trash like cans and bottles. The larger the shelter, the larger the fringehead that occupies it will be. They can reach up to 30.5 cm in length. Their needle-sharp teeth can help them trap and eat slippery, mobile prey like smaller fish or crustaceans – or my bare feet. They have been known to attack divers and can survive as long as six years in the wild. They live primarily in the San Francisco Bay area, which reinforces my desire to stay firmly outside the Pacific Ocean!
While all of these creepy critters look scary, they generally pose no real threat to humans. That concludes our countdown of the Top Five Creepiest Looking Marine Critters! Feel free to shout out in the comments if you have a contender for the list that I missed.
I am a doctoral candidate in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I’m interested in how an individual’s genes and the environment in which it grows come together to determine its physical traits. I study a group of closely related freshwater fish called cichlids which live in the African rift lakes like Victoria, Malawi, and Tanganyika.