Extreme Mating of a Pugnacious Dreamer
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- 💜 Dean West
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The female deep sea anglerfish is known for being an extremely hideous creature. Its unique appearance with its huge jaw full of sharp fang-like teeth, blind eyes that stare out into the darkness and its iconic lure evoke terror. The lure or esca, is a modified dorsal fin that in many species contains bioluminescent bacteria. Its luminescence and movement hypnotizes, drawing its prey closer. Once the anglerfish senses that the prey is close to the lure it will suddenly open its jaw and suction its prey into its mouth and to its death. Not only does the esca attract prey; it is thought that the organ is used to attract male attention for mating. The female's appearance has captured our collective imagination and has shaped how we think about monsters. If you were to bring an anglerfish to our level, the surface level, it would cause their swim bladder to explode and tissues to rupture due to the pressure change. This only leads to more unease around the deflated balloon or slimy puddle of a creature. The way we see anglerfish and possibly all monsters is a distortion. If we were to see them in their natural habitat, we would see nothing at all or a few specks or tendrils of bioluminescence. To comprehend the female anglerfish visually is perhaps unfair, as they live in total darkness and they themselves are blind. We will need ways beyond the representation of the organism's body to get to know this stranger. Our culture today is more obsessed with the deep ocean than ever before. The briny darkness beyond the twilight zone has always drawn our imaginations in. The sheer vastness of the unknown excites and terrifies us. 90% of the space of the ocean is below 1000m. We are equally excited to pull organisms out of this depth, burst them out of water and examine them in the daylight. Most of which will never experience the light or warmth as they will have died on the way up. Since discovery, the deep sea anglerfish have always had strong overtones of an animal arising from the underworld or even from the depth of the subconscious body. Common names for species in the lophiiformes (anglerfish) Order include: Sea Toads, Prickly Sea Devils, Four-armed Frog Fish and the more bodily: Warty Sea Devils, Needlebeard Sea Devils, Double Spined Sea Devils and the most eerie: Dreamers. What we picture when we think about anglerfish is the female. Anglerfish have extreme sexual dimorphorism with males often being 60 times smaller and half a million times lighter in weight than the female. This sexual dimorphism is key to the unusual mating method of the Anglerfish called sexual parasitism. In the vastness of the deep ocean, there is little food and subsequently the population density of anglerfish is low. It is immensely improbable that two female anglerfish would ever encounter each other. To overcome vast emptiness, the female becomes like an island. Males are underdeveloped in all aspects except swimming and sensing ability, unable to feed but rather have a large liver that sustains them for a few months, giving them time to find a female. Males follow chemical scent trails for kilometers. Upon finding the female, the male bites down into her body. The male is now connected to the female's blood stream and is dependent on her for survival. Their skin begins to fuse. The male uses the female’s energy to develop its sexual organs whilst the other facilities of the male atrophy. Males become almost fully incorporated into the female's bodies and start to look like growths on the female body. Species have been observed to have eight males attached to them. In certain respects, the male becomes an unborn child; a foreign body attached to the female's blood supply and reliant on it for everything. It is a complex debate as to whether this mating method actually does constitute true parasitism or if it is in fact symbiosis. In my opinion, it sits in the space between parasitism and symbiosis as an exchange does occur. The male takes energy from the bloodstream and gives sperm in return, yet this sexual reproduction seems far more parasitic than in other species. Does the unborn child parasite the mother? Perhaps, but in doing so it allows the mother to pass on its genes. It may be that we are looking at the anglerfish in the wrong way. For any other vertebrate, parasitic attachment would cause a significant immune response; however, the female anglerfish is the only vertebrate to have almost no immune system. It does not produce t-cells or antibodies. On a bodily level, it is unclear how the female anglerfish distinguishes between self and other. There is no evidence that it can do this immunologically and this is what allows the male to become incorporated into the female's body. It leaves the question: can you parasite off of an entity that doesn't draw its borders of the self? In humans, self/other lines are drawn firmly; even in the parent and unborn child relationship, the placenta is needed to stop the mothers immune system from attacking the fetus and its foreign genetics. Peter Solerdijk thinks of all the great metaphysical systems in religion and philosophy as immune systems. Systems that create architectures (both literal and what Sloterdijk would call anthropotechnical) that protect the human from contingency, meaninglessness and death. These architectures allow humans to develop relationally inside. He sees a continuity between biological immunity and cultural immunity, but science still does not know how the female anglerfish protects itself from pathogens with no immune system. Unknowns continue to muddy the waters. When we are looking at an anglerfish, we see our fears reflected back. Observing an anglerfish isn't just an insight into the deep ocean, but also into the abyss of deep time. Anglerfish appear in the fossil record 55.5 million years ago compared with homo sapiens that appear at an estimated 300,000 years ago. Our obsession with the mystery of what bursts through, what bubbles up from the dark depths continues.