Ultra-black nightmarish fish reveal secrets of deep sea camouflage

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A deep-sea dragonfish has ultra-black skin capable of absorbing bioluminescent light. He also has big teeth. Karen Osborn, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Goths know black is cool. Some scary-looking fish swimming in the depths of the ocean know this too. Researchers uncover the deep and dark secrets of blacker than black fish that have developed special skin characteristics to help them hide from predators who use bioluminescence to hunt.

The research team, including lead author Alexander Davis, a doctoral student in biology at Duke University, published a study on ultra-black fish in the journal Current Biology (PDF) on Thursday. They identified at least 16 species of deep-water fish with skin that absorbs more than 99.5 percent of light. It is the ultimate camouflage for the ink depths of the ocean.

As the name suggests, the dragonfish and common fangfish are not the most cuddly creatures in the sea. They may seem nightmarish to disgust humans, but they are of great interest to scientists looking for means of developing new ultra-black materials.

Vantablack is the most famous of ultra-black coatings. It was designed for defense and space sector applications, but has also appeared in architecture and art. It is not the only one of its kind. MIT Announced New ‘Blackest Black’ Material in 2019.

The ocean research team used a spectrometer to measure light reflected from the skin of fish plucked from Monterey Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. These deep-dwellers live up to a mile below the ocean’s surface.

“The darkest species they found, a tiny monkfish not much longer than a golf tee, absorbs so much light that almost none – 0.04% – bounces in the eyes,” said l Duke University in a statement Thursday.

Scientists have discovered differences between black fish and ultra-black fish by focusing on melanosomes, structures in cells that contain the pigment melanin.

“Other cold-blooded animals with normal black skin have tiny pearl-shaped melanosomes, while ultra-black ones are larger, more tick-like,” Duke noted. Ultra-black structures are also tighter. Computer modeling has revealed that these melanosomes “have the optimal geometry to swallow light”.

This ultra-black fish is an Anoplogaster cornuta. He was released into the ocean after being studied.

Karen Osborn, Smithsonian

According to study co-author Karen Osborn, “Mimicking this strategy could help engineers develop cheaper, flexible, and more durable ultra-black materials for use in optical technology, such as telescopes and cameras, and for camouflage. Osborn is a research zoologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

The study of fish skin adds to our understanding of how these unusual animals function in their dark worlds. A 2019 study found that some deep-sea fish see in color.

The ultra-black fish presented photo challenges to scientists. “It doesn’t matter how you set up the camera or the lighting – they just sucked in all the light,” Osborn said.

Lucky for your nightmares, Osborn has captured surprisingly jagged sights of an ultra-black deep-sea dragonfish and an Anoplogaster cornuta. Make sure to follow some Bauhaus music and look deep into their milky eyes.

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