First functional fish head joint discovered in deep-sea dragonfishes in museum collections

First functional fish head joint discovered in deep-sea dragonfishes in museum collections
This image shows the skeleton and anatomy of a barbeled dragonfish with a true functional head joint (A) in contrast to the relatively inflexible connection usually found in fishes (e.g., a young Mediterranean sea bass (B)). The bone is stained red and cartilage is stained blue. Some barbeled dragonfishes have reduced the size or completely lost several of the vertebrae just behind the head, while five groups exhibit a true functional head joint like the one pictured above (A). Both adaptations allow a considerable degree of head motion that is significantly expanded in the groups that have a functional head joint. Credit: Nalani Schnell, Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle

Scientists with the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and the French Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle are the first to describe and illustrate an evolutionary novelty among fishes—a unique, flexible connection between the skull and vertebral column in barbeled dragonfishes, a group of closely related deep-sea predatory fishes. The description details the first and only example of a complex, flexible head joint among fishes known to science.

The description and illustrations, reported Feb. 1 in the journal PLOS ONE, present a detailed analysis of the functional head joint and includes a number of striking images and figures to show the unique anatomy of these fishes.

The scientists described five groups of barbeled dragonfishes with a true functional head joint. Other groups of barbeled dragonfishes have evolved more limited degrees of head flexibility by reducing the size or number of vertebra in their head and neck anatomy.

"The arsenal of specialized traits that barbeled dragonfishes have evolved as deep-sea predators—huge mouths with dagger-like teeth, distensible stomachs, snake like, black bodies with light producing organs and elaborate chin barbels with bioluminescent tissue—make them ferocious and voracious ambush predators, thus the name dragonfishes," said Smithsonian scientist Dave Johnson. "We suspect that the head joint adaptation helps these fishes engulf their prey items, since the added flexibility allows them to open their mouths up to 120 degrees wide—an angle that is unmatched in any other group of fishes."

Scientists demonstrate the anatomy of a barbeled dragonfish's jaws as they are fully opened, including the elevation of the head. At the connection between the head and flexible part of the vertebral column, the functional head joint is exposed by the movement and notably enhances the degree of cranial elevation. Credit: Nalani Schnell, Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle

Scientists studied barbeled dragonfish specimens from the collections of the National Museum of Natural History and five other collections around the world. Barbeled dragonfishes are a dominant group of predatory fishes that live mainly between 650 to 3,300 feet deep in the ocean's mesopelagic zone, otherwise known as the twilight zone, so museum collections provide an invaluable resource for scientists seeking to access and study these otherwise difficult-to-reach deep-sea fishes.

First functional fish head joint discovered in deep-sea dragonfishes in museum collections
The photo and the x-ray image show the external and internal morphology of a barbeled dragonfish that lives in the deep sea and attracts prey with its luminescent chin barbel. The x-ray image shows a barbeled dragonfish that has eaten a large lanternfish whole. This and other stomach content analyses support the hypothesis that the functional head joint greatly reinforces the maneuverability of the head in order to ingest large prey items whole. Credit: Nalani Schnell, Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle

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Spinal gap of barbeled dragonfishes mystery solved

More information: DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0170224
Journal information: PLoS ONE

Provided by Smithsonian
Citation: First functional fish head joint discovered in deep-sea dragonfishes in museum collections (2017, February 1) retrieved 27 June 2019 from
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Feb 02, 2017
Looks similar to a mutated Amazon Arowana: Osteoglossum Bicirrhosum that has adapted to the deep sea condition. The Arowana has a very similar means of eating, similar morphology and barbels on the jaw.

There is the possibility that since there is a long verge where the Amazon River runs well out into the Atlantic, it would be easy for some species to slowly adapt from the riverine environment to being able to hunt in the salt water to finally finding an extreme niche in the Deep Oceanic Realm and form specialized body parts with new fuctions to do so.

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