Video: What is this scary fish?

So last Wednesday I got a message from DSN reader Aaron England Looze asking if I could identify this fish:


Anyone who knows me knows I love weird animals, so of course I took the bait. And because I work at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, my preliminary investigation consisted of walking around the hallway with my iPhone, asking people if they’d ever seen this fish. The scientific consensus is that it is “very scary” and “ew, turn the video off!” But this was mostly from people who study sea anemones and other inverts, so I waltzed into the lab of fish biologist Dr. Joel K. Llopiz, hoping for an ID. Joel is the go-to guy for this sort of creepy critter, and while he hadn’t seen this particular fish before, he was intrigued. Joel sent the video to colleagues over at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The verdict?

A GOBY! This fish is a goby. Possibly in the genus Taenioides.

Dear sweet, scary Goby: Your name is synonymous in my mind with tiny sand fish, with charismatic mudskippers and marvelous mandarinfish. The whole ‘jagged fangs’ and ‘pin eyes’ thing is just…well it’s just really, really freaking me out, dear Goby. The whole thing is pretty dang freaky.

Sarah Keartes over at Earth Touch News sleuthed out a similar identification, and even found a nice little nightmare-goby guide to go with it (PDF). The guide, by ichthyologist Edward Murdy, explains that the ridges on the fish’s face and body, which make it look so skeletal, are in fact covered with sensory structures. Now I’m not sure exactly what type of environment this fish was pulled from, but its tiny eyes and sensory ridges suggest a low-visibility habitat, possibly muddy brackish or freshwater, as Sarah Keartes suggests. And the text associated with the video is in Malay, so possibly somewhere in Malaysia.

But now here is the real question: How BIG is this guy? It looks like it’s a couple of feet long to my terrified brain, but without reference points it’s hard to tell. However, Joel Llopiz says it’s probably tiny: “These guys are only a few centimeters in length.” So there you go: a silver lining. If ever you find yourself swimming in muddy Malaysian waters, you can take comfort in knowing that this fish, though it may be lurking, is probably about the size of your pinky.

(P.S. I don’t blame the people who found this fish for poking it with a stick from a safe distance, I get it, this is one freaky fish. But as someone who works with animals that aren’t always well loved, I just want to stand on my tiny soap box for a second to encourage everyone to treat critters, even the ugly scary ones, with kindness. Let’s hope this little monster goby made it back to its dark little home safe and sound.)

14 Replies to “Video: What is this scary fish?”

  1. All I could think of looking at this thing is that its probably writhing in pain as it slowly suffocates to death in the brightest light it has ever known while its senses are overloaded. Poor thing.

  2. not so sure I buy that it lives in “muddy water”.

    looks more deepwater to me. some of that family are indeed found quite deep (over 100m), which would also explain the lack of eyes and albinism.

    mouth structure suggests it might be a parasite, like a lamprey maybe; the teeth used to hold onto a host instead of for feeding.

    also, I disagree it’s the size of your pinky, based on the physics as it gets flung about on the end of the probe. it’s a bit bigger than that. not a lot; still small, but maybe 10-15cm would be my guess. enough that I wouldn’t be comfortable giving it my finger to latch on to.

  3. Thank you for your concluding comment about being kind to animals, however unappealing we may perceive them to be.

    I disagree, though, about blaming the person who was poking the fish and then stuck the object into the fish’s mouth and violently shook him or her with it. There was no need or justification for that, and it is all the more wrong considering how small the fish is said to have been.

    Humans are in no position to ridicule other animals as being “ugly.” As for being “scary,” imagine how terrified this poor fish must surely have been.

  4. Eel gobies (subfamily Amblyopinae) are generally inhabitants of coastal areas and estuaries, and have even been recorded from the lower reaches of rivers. They also turn up as ‘oddballs’ in aquarium shops from time to time. From what we know about the habits of some species, they generally seem to be burrowers in muddy bottoms, with some species capable of breathing air when stranded at low tide.

    While some species of amblyopines, like Amblyotrypauchen arctocephalus, Ctenotrypauchen chinensis and Karsten totoyensis have been recorded from deeper waters, the vast majority of species are considered shallow water species.

  5. I thought this little guy was super cute, so I made a dismay noise when they poked it. ….This actually makes me love gobies more.

  6. @Ichthyic

    This fish doesn’t look particularly parasitic to me.The teeth curved backward look more like those of a predator: the whole point is to avoid preys to escape the mouth.
    Lampreys have many small teeth-like structures around the mouth and now jaws, a completely different structure.

    Also, the ugly of some people is the “most interesting” of others :)
    I wouldn’t have guessed it is a goby!

  7. ” the ugly of some people is the “most interesting” of others” agreed!

  8. “also, I disagree it’s the size of your pinky, based on the physics as it gets flung about on the end of the probe. it’s a bit bigger than that. not a lot; still small, but maybe 10-15cm would be my guess. enough that I wouldn’t be comfortable giving it my finger to latch on to.”

    Yeah I’m still curious about the actual size, too. I’ve been fooled before into thinking a fish was bigger than it actually was (many deep-sea fish), but it still looks somewhat hefty to me…I sent this question (and others) to the person who posted the video on FB, but that was a couple days before I posted this and still no reply. Maybe they’ll get back to me at some point and we can solve this mystery!

  9. Ambled into this looking at “Red Devil squid ” . I am just a nerd who looks up things in depth when it flashes across my brain. Yet I digress, love this site. Now this creature is just straight cool looking to me. Thank you for this interesting article….now on to look up Gobies I envy you folks who work within the oceans in your various fields. I live in Charleston SC , USA and I just love the ocean and find everything I find in it interesting. I also applaud the shout out to kindness and respect for all creatures. We have a lot to learn about what they really know and FEEL.

  10. Tarnioides Gracilis. The slender Eel goby. Reputed as a bottom dweller of fresh water river bottoms and estuaries. No surprise there for a goby.

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