Sunday, December 12, 2010
December 12, 2010 : Stoplight Loosejaw
The stoplight loosejaws are small, deep-sea dragonfishes of the genus Malacosteus, classified either within the subfamily Malacosteinae of the family Stomiidae, or in the separate family Malacosteidae. They are found worldwide, outside of the Arctic and Subantarctic, in the mesopelagic zone below a depth of 500 meters (1,640 ft). This genus once contained three nominal species: M. niger (the type), M. choristodactylus, and M. danae, with the validity of the latter two species being challenged by different authors at various times. In 2007, Kenaley examined over 450 stoplight loosejaw specimens and revised the genus to contain two species, M. niger and the new M. australis.
Malacosteus and the related genera Aristostomias and Pachystomias are the only fishes that produce red bioluminescence. As most of their prey organisms are not capable of perceiving light at those wavelengths, this allows Malacosteus to hunt with an essentially invisible beam of light. Furthermore, Malacosteus is unique amongst animals in using a chlorophyll derivative to perceive red light. The name Malacosteus is derived from the Greek malakos meaning "soft" and osteon meaning "bone". Another common name for these fishes is "rat-trap fish", from the unusual open structure of their jaws.
As long wavelengths of light (i.e. red) do not reach the deep sea, many deep-sea organisms are red-colored (effectively appearing black) and are insensitive to red wavelengths. The red photophore of Malacosteus thus allows it to illuminate prey without being detected. These fishes exhibit a number of adaptations for feeding on large prey. The "open" structure of its jaws reduces water resistance, allowing them to be snapped shut more quickly, while large recurved teeth and powerful jaw closing muscles assure a secure hold on prey items. The connection between the head and the body is reduced, with unossified vertebrae, allowing the cranium to be tilted back and the jaws thrust forward for a wider gape. Finally, the gills are exposed to the outside, allowing the fish to continue respiring while slowly swallowing large prey.