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July 31, 2008

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Life: Rich with Metaphor

Via Reddit:

Some anglerfishes of the superfamily Ceratiidae employ an unusual mating method. Because individuals are presumably locally rare and encounters doubly so, finding a mate is problematic. When scientists first started capturing ceratioid anglerfish, they noticed that all of the specimens were females. These individuals were a few inches in size and almost all of them had what appeared to be parasites attached to them. It turned out that these “parasites” were the remains of male ceratioids.

At birth, male ceratioids are already equipped with extremely well developed olfactory organs that detect scents in the water. When it is mature, the male’s digestive system degenerates, making him incapable of feeding independently, which necessitates his quickly finding a female anglerfish to prevent his death. The sensitive olfactory organs help the male to detect the pheromones that signal the proximity of a female anglerfish. When he finds a female, he bites into her skin, and releases an enzyme that digests the skin of his mouth and her body, fusing the pair down to the blood-vessel level. The male then atrophies into nothing more than a pair of gonads, which release sperm in response to hormones in the female’s bloodstream indicating egg release. This extreme sexual dimorphism ensures that, when the female is ready to spawn, she has a mate immediately available.

Posted July 31, 2008 at 2:08 | Comments (7) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Science


The anglerfish just won the "GAHHHHH" crown away from spiders when it comes to mating stories.


Its sad to see your friend give it all up for a girl.

Posted by: pon on July 31, 2008 at 03:23 PM

If I ever write a novel, the phrase "atrophies into a pair of gonads" will appear in it, mark my words.

I think that's going to give me nightmares. . .

Okay, the original cited source, a Nature Paper from 1975 (Precocious Sexual Parasitism in the deep sea Ceratioid Anglerfish Cryptopsaurus couesi Gill, Theodore W. Pietsch from Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Biology) has the following quote from the abstract:

" Since its discovery 50 years ago, the story of sexual parasitism in ceratioid anglerfish has become a part of everyday scientific knowledge, yet no thoroughly satisfactory analysis of the known facts concerning this remarkable reproductive strategy has been made, in spite of the elegant work of Bertelsen1."

Common scientific knowledge? Excuse me? Our science teachers have been holding out on us!!!

Also, if the male is performing a species mating function, how is it parasitism, and not just cooperative symbiosis?

More than symbiosis! I resent "parasitism"; the male essentially gives his very self up for the good of the family. Sounds like very noble self-sacrifice!

Okay. A "parasite" is "An organism that lives on, in, or with an organism of another species, obtaining food, shelter, or other benefit; (now) spec. one that obtains nutrients at the expense of the host organism, which it may directly or indirectly harm."

My cursory research suggests that according to the current biological standards, where "harm" is defined as something detrimental to evolutionary fitness, the male anglerfish would certainly not be a parasite, since his apparent parasitism in fact is actually necessary for reproduction.

However, according to the broader definition of a parasite as "an organism that obtains nutrients at the expense of the host," then yes, the anglerfish could be considered a parasite, since it contributes nothing in the way of nutrients to the female. Entirely useless, except for the gonads (although I think we've all known guys like that before).

The real trouble is that the definitions for both symbiosis ("living with") and parasitism are necessarily limited to relationships between different species, not different genders in the same species. Not that parasitic behavior among members of the same species is unheard of. As a dad, I can testify that babies act very much like parasites, especially when fetal or teenaged.

But who cares about anglerfish? Did you know that in ancient Greece, a "parasite" was "A person permitted to eat at the table of a public official, or at the feast following a sacrifice. Also: a priest or priest's assistant who was permitted meals at the public expense"? I love the OED.

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