Pity the blobfish. First, it must contend with possibly the worst name for a sea creature outside of “sea cow.” As if the name wasn’t bad enough, in 2013, Ugly Animal Preservation Society voters awarded the poor blobfish its annual “World’s Ugliest Animal.” And yet the blobfish didn’t start out looking this way. No, in his true habitat, he’s actually a rather handsome chap, and perhaps we should understand just what he’s been through before we start judging his looks.
Blobfish is actually just a nickname
When he’s not being subjected to the cruel taunts of a certain Preservation Society, the “blobfish” actually goes by the name Psychrolutes microporos. The species is found exclusively around New Zealand and Australia, between 3300 and 4500 feet beneath the surface of the ocean, and it turns out these fish lead a rather fascinating life. Well, for fish anyway. That far beneath the sea, for example, the blobfish is subject to 100 times the atmospheric pressure we typically feel. You try surviving in that sort of environment for a few days and see what you look like.
Down there in the murky deep, they float, like ghostly apparitions, along the seafloor. Partly as a result of the intense atmospheric pressure, the blobfish never developed a compressible swim bladder, as many fish have. So they are neutrally buoyant, which means they neither rise nor sink, but just…float. And, being under all that pressure, they also don’t have much in the way of bone mass or muscles. Also, bones and muscles require a good bit of oxygen, not something in strong supply where the blobfish makes its home.
No one is quite certain what the blobfish eats, or how it mates— it’s dark down there, and it’s so far down expeditions are impractical. As Martin Goman, an ichthyologist at the Museums Victoria in Australia, points out, “We just don’t know that much about them,” and it’s likely to stay that way. But blobfish typically live100 years or more, which gives them an edge on us humans. And as it turns out, despite the Ugly Animal Preservation’s Society’s award, blobfish aren’t even endangered.
Beauty is, after all, only skin deep
And yet despite all its peculiarities, the blobfish actually looks like most other fish when seen in its natural habitat. Its unfortunate looks, it turns out, are our fault. Mr. Blobby, the most famous of these fish, who gained international fame for his features via the internet, didn’t begin life with such a scowl.
Blobfish have been seen since the early 20th century, but Mr.Blobby, who managed to put the species on the map, was hauled up during a deep-sea trawling expedition. Caught in some scientists’ net, the poor blobfish was hauled unceremoniously, and far too quickly, to the surface. The result: his body, and especially his facial features, simply collapsed from the rapid decompression. Held together by tight compression his entire life, when that compression disappeared, he had nothing left to keep him up. Besides which, one can only imagine just how indignant he must have felt.
To add insult to injury, Mr. Blobby was placed in a solution of 70% ethyl-alcohol solution, which fixed his features. Mark McGrouther, who is responsible for fish at the Museums Victoria, notes, “The fixation process tightened Mr. Blobby’s skin and [further] collapsed his—or her—snout.”
An ambassador from the deep
Since his discovery and his award, Mr. Blobby has gone on to become a cultural icon, making blobfish instantly recognizable. You can buy plush versions of Mr. Blobby, and he’s become a sort of Australian mascot. A recent episode of the kid’s show “The Octonauts” introduced a character named Bob Blobfish. There are countless blobfish memes floating around out there on the internet. Unfortunately, all of this fame is cold comfort for the blobfish. He still finds himself the subject of constant ridicule, like this poem written by children’s author Michael Heartst readily demonstrates:
“Blobfish, blobfish, Jell-0 of the sea,
Floats upon the bottom, lazy as can be.”