Is this fish evil?

I was going to do a “demons of the deep” post for Halloween but as I was considering which animals to include I had to stop and ask myself what this was really all about and it took me in a slightly different direction, viz:

Consider the viper fish with its capacious maw and manifold needle teeth


Or the deep sea angler, a shapeless blob except for a massive tooth-filled mouth and tiny beady eyes


Or the stoplight loosejaw, with a truly massive dislocatable jaw, teeth in its throat and “night vision” light organs that illuminate hapless victims unable to see the wavelength they emit.

All of these fish hail from that vast, cold, crushing, silent perpetual night that is the abyssal depths of the ocean.  They are creepy, there’s no doubt about it: black, flabby, toothy and generally unpleasant looking.  But why is it that?  They are just fish like any others, supremely well-adapted to their habitat in fact, and utterly harmless to humans.  A loosejaw presents no more threat to me than does a bubble-eyed goldfish.  Indeed, 99.999% of people will never even see one.  But that visceral response is undeniable – they just LOOK creepy and dangerous, so what’s going on?

Come any closer and I’ll rip yer bloody arms off!

I don’t think anyone has studied this phenomenon for fish, at least not that I can find, but psychologists HAVE studied why people have similar visceral responses to spiders, snakes and other creepy crawly things.   It seems that humans are hard wired to fear angularity and dark colours, combined with unpredictable movements.  Sometimes just one of these properties is enough, like the stereotypical response of those afraid of mice to their scurrying movements – to jump up on a chair – but this is not always the case.  Frogs, for example, move in every bit as unpredictable a way as spiders, but because they are rounded, with big eyes and pleasantly coloured/patterned skin, they are seemingly forgiven.  If an animal happens to have all three properties, then it’s prime phobia-fodder.  By way of evidence, I offer the following two spiders:

The redback on the right has the unholy trinity – angularity, dark contrasty colours and unpredictable movements.  The jumping spider on the left however, almost looks cute, with his gentle lines, mild green colour and big doe eyes.  So when people say they are afraid of spiders, what they really mean is that they’re afraid of redbacks and their ilk; plenty of spiders are perfectly innocuous.  Indeed, they are not afraid of spiders per se, they are actually afraid of the apparent angularity, darkness and unpredictability of the redback.  There is an important difference though.  Both the redback and the jumping spider are ruthless predators of insects, but only the redback is dangerous to people, so maybe natural selection was onto something when it hard wired these responses in our brains.

What about the deep sea fish though?  Surely we can’t have evolved to react the same to them as we do to spiders?  Unless you have a million dollar submersible, you’ll never even encounter one, and if you did it almost certainly wouldn’t hurt you.  The only thing I can think of is that they just got caught up in the evolutionary cross-fire, so to speak.  Their adaptations to deep sea life – dark skin, angular jaws, pointy teeth – just happen to trigger in us hard-wired responses meant to serve a totally different purpose: keeping us safe from those terrestrial critters who can in fact, do us harm.

So, this Halloween,  instead of vilifying a gallery of deep sea critters with no more control over their colour and shape than we do, I, for one, am going to strive to look instead at the beauty in deep sea fishes that comes from the perfection of form for its evolved function.  I just wish I could get rid of my dopey looking goldfish now, and replace it with a nice gulper eel or viper fish.

Alistair Dove (149 Posts)

Dr. Alistair Dove is a systematic and ecological parasitologist by training, with broader research interests in the natural history and health of marine animals, especially whale sharks. He is currently Director of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta USA. His comments here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Georgia Aquarium

19 Replies to “Is this fish evil?”

  1. What other people find “creepy” and “ugly” in nature is exactly what I’ve always found the most wonderful. People think it’s some kind of irony or joke, like I just “love creepy things,” but I don’t find them “creepy” to begin with. I guess you could call it “cool,” but it’s not quite that either, it’s just an overall delight for me to see how life takes on drastically different shapes for different purposes.

    While not a scientist myself yet, a lot of my site and blogs are devoted to my favorite organisms and I’m happy to say I’ve virtually never used “ugly” to describe an animal. I just can’t.

    1. ….The same cannot be said for my writing on Cracked, though. It pays well and drives traffic back to my site, but their editorial goes in and adds more “nature is disgusting” humor before it goes live. It’s just a running joke there, but I think the readers take it seriously.

  2. The last time I was descending into the abyss in my million-dollar submarine one of those fish offered to buy my soul. Not saying whether I took him up on it!

  3. Great article for Halloween. The pictures are awesome. I love everything fishy, but these critters are definitely scary looking. It is interesting to think that fish (with no motive to be good or evil) can so clearly conjure up an impression of evil in our minds. Wonder why we are hard-wired with that response.

  4. As a historian of deep sea biology, I can’t help but find the following quote from William Beebe quite apt:

    “Some time ago when I had read and written scientific facts until my brain whirled, I sought relief one evening by looking at dragon pictures by Parrish and Rackham, and then I became scientific again to the extent of comparing them with colored plates which I had had made of deep sea fishes. To my delight I found that I could duplicate or actually improve upon every character of dragons or gargoyles. After one has become acquainted with the everyday inhabitants—villagers, aristocrats, commoners—living today in the deep sea, Dunsany, Barry, Blackwood, Grimm, Sime – all these lose force as inventors of fairies, hobgoblins and elves, and become mere nature fakers. For in these abyssmal regions there are fish which can outdragon or outmipt any mere figment of the imagination; crustaceans are there to which the gargoyles of Notre Dame, the fiends of Dante’s Purgatory appear usual and normal.” (in; The Arcturus Adventure (1926), p.340)

  5. There’s really nothing ‘ugly’ in this world. Nature provides us only the best it could pssibly give us. We may not like them but they’re there, and I think we should do what we can to appreciate them.

  6. Thank you for that lovely quote Drs.D. Something to think about!

    This is one of my favourite issues to contemplate. As someone who grew up closely observing animals and insects I am fascinated by people’s reactions to them. I have no fear of spiders (although I have a healthy respect for them, and as Australian growing up with redbacks everywhere I don’t garden without gloves), but I will still get a fright if I see one out of the corner of my eye. I would never kill a spider that was in my house. If I don’t want it there I trap it and put it outside, or otherwise happily co-exist with them.

    The fish photos are interesting. The viper fish looks like the alien in Aliens, which is interesting, because those photos could not have been around when that film was made. So perhaps we are hardwired to have an image of things that we find scary, in the same way we are hardwired to find puppies and babies endearing.

    I find scuttling things very yukky – centipides and the like. But I make myself watch them, and the more I watch them the less I fear them. I think we need to encourage people to really observe the natural world and think about their atavistic fears of things that alarm them. We live with amazing animal life all around us. We need to respect and understand the animals we live in. Those who kill things just because they don’t like the look of them are often people who also have no respect for people who are different to them.

    1. Thank you Vanda. I love sharing a bit of the history of science, so it is nice to see it is appreciated.

      Your comment about observing and as a result being less scared is interesting. It is not my period of expertise, but I remember a history lecture I attended as a biology student, which stuck. If I remember correctly, in medieval times, life revolved around settlements (towns and cities) that were parts of the world isolated from wild nature. Nature at that time was considered dangerous, full of monsters and mythical creatures. Of course much of what was known about nature was read in books, the study of nature was the study of books. Only when the world opened up and people ventured outside the settlements, and started observing for themselves, did they develop an understanding of nature and became less scared.

      Of course this is a hopelessly inadequate explanation of that process, but I find it fascinating how strongly linked (inversely related) fear and observation appear to be.

  7. It’s about time someone wrote about this. I for one, despite taking countless of Biology classes, have been afraid of ‘creepy’ creatures since forever. I think this article will help me fight my pointless aversion for these animals.

  8. I don’t know but for myself I find these creatures to be ABSOLUTELY fascinating…people have always told me I am weird because of that but honsetly…who cares?!?!! They are Just Fascinating

  9. Nice article! It gave justice to the creatures that are victims of judgemental way of thinking :)

  10. Have you noticed in that the last three Doctors (in Dr Who) will greet each new monster with “Oh you are beautiful”, and the more monstrous and dangerous the more enamoured his tone . . . admittedly if the creature is a threat to his favoured Earth species he will follow that descriptive with a vow to destroy if they don’t leave . . . but still . . .

  11. Funny, I have a much, much stronger visceral response to the arguably cute, goofy green spider, but not so much to the black widow. I think because it’s eyes are facing forward, it looks like it’s coming to get me, no matter which way it’s facing it is “looking” at me (no pupils), and it has those other creepy peripheral eyes. Ever since I can remember, I have had visceral response to spiders; but oddly, the baby versions of spiders like the green one do indeed seem cute to me.

  12. Apparently the “Alien” was based on the Hyperiid amphipod Phronima. Also, many of these deep-sea fish may look scary, but they aren’t actually very big. The viper fish (Chauliodus sloani), is about 30cm long, most angler fish are less than that size and the loose-jaw is even smaller. I was lucky enough to come across one in my deep-sea samples; it had been eaten by a long-nosed velvet dogfish. So it’s big teeth and fearsome appearance didn’t help it very much in the face of a metre long shark. :)

  13. No doubt, this is what nightmares are made of. These fish are absolutely frightening, but I bet they taste super delicious

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