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Weird & Wild

Rare "Sea Serpent" Oarfish Found on California Island

The fish, which was dissected for further study, is giving experts a glimpse into a mysterious deep-sea animal.

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Catalina Island Conservancy staff member Amy Catalano stands next to a 14-foot-long oarfish that washed onto a Catalina beach on June 1.


Another one bites the dust: A dead oarfish has washed ashore on Catalina Island, roughly 22 miles (35 kilometers) off the coast of Los Angeles. It's the fifth of the mysterious deep-sea creatures to flop onto West Coast beaches within the past year.

Tyler Dvorak with the Catalina Island Conservancy spied the carcass while scanning a beach on the northeastern end of Catalina with binoculars on June 1. "I knew what it was immediately because of the one that washed up last year," the biologist says.

"It was a pretty weird thing to see," says Dvorak, who photographed it while his colleague contacted researchers in Los Angeles, who were eventually able to collect parts of the 14-foot (4.3-meter) long animal. (Watch rare video of two live oarfish in Baja, California.)

The fish could have been even longer, but it appeared to be missing its tail, says David Chan, director of the Pennington Marine Science Center, who dissected it for future study by scientists at California State University, Fullerton and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Missing tails aren't unusual for oarfish, writes Tyson Roberts in the book Systematics, Biology, and Distribution of the Species of the Oceanic Oarfish Genus Regalecus. The animals are able to pop them off in a process known as autotomy. It's similar to the way certain lizards can amputate their own tails when threatened with a predator.

A Rare Opportunity

Live oarfish are often found hanging vertically in the water with their heads pointing up. They're "really a stunning vision of beauty, of grace," says Betrand Loyer, a producer on a film about oarfish in the Mediterranean, in an interview earlier this year. "It's like seeing a fairy underwater."

The oarfish's deep-sea lifestyle makes it difficult to study, so any opportunity to do so is welcome. (Learn 5 surprising facts about oarfish.)

Experts at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles asked Chan to remove the oarfish's head, stomach, gonads, and organs on the same day the animal was found. This was to prevent scavenging and decomposition.

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A headshot of the oarfish that appeared on a Catalina beach earlier this week.


Chan stored the parts in a freezer overnight until researchers picked them up the next day. He explains that the Cal State Fullerton team will study the head to see how the various parts move, while the Natural History Museum was interested in DNA samples so they could verify the species.

There are currently two recognized species of oarfish, Regalecus russellii and R. glesne, the latter of which prefers cooler waters.

"The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium [in San Pedro, California] has someone interested in the gill parasites," Chan says, while researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara will look into the animal's stomach parasites.

Unfortunately, Chan wasn't able to save the rest of the animal due to its size and the lack of storage space.

So he had to leave the rest of the oarfish to become dinner for Catalina's scavengers.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

Learn about freshwater monster fish.

Watch: Explorer Zeb Hogan talks about other monster fish.

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