Oarfish necropsy: Washed-up sea serpents reveal secrets

Researchers dissect an 18-foot-long oarfish and discover some more unusual creatures on the inside.

Oarfish
Students and staff from the Catalina Island Marine Institute heft the 18-footer. Catalina Island Marine Institute

Two different oarfish, massive eel-like fish from the deep, have washed up near the California coast over the last two weeks. Considering the scarcity of sightings, it's been a veritable plague of oarfish . It has also been an unexpected gift for researchers.

Parasitologists at the University of California at Santa Barbara got their hands on pieces of the longer of the two fish, the 18-footer that appeared near Catalina Island . They took the opportunity to dissect samples from the fairly intact sea beast. Inside, they found a host of parasites.

"Our findings say that these are actually majorly parasitized fish," says Armand Kuris, professor of zoology in the UCSB Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology.

The fish's intestines held larval tapeworms, one of which was 6 inches long, an image that is perhaps more disturbing than the sight of a dead 18-foot-long sea serpent. Some young roundworms and an adult spiny-headed worm were also found.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Southwest Fisheries Science Center took a look at the smaller oarfish found near Oceanside, Calif. Researchers there report finding parasites as well as hundreds of thousands of eggs inside the fish.

Despite the post-mortem studies, the cause of death for both fish has not been determined. The research won't end with the parasite and egg findings. Further study is expected to help scientists learn more about the fish's biomechanics, bone structure, and reproductive abilities.

Worm from inside oarfish
A roundworm in a vial found inside the longer oarfish. Sonia Fernandez
About the author

Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET's Crave blog. When not wallowing in weird gadgets and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.

 

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