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Toothy Fish from S. Oregon Coast Is Not What They've Been Telling You, Say Experts

Published 07/06/22 at 6:35 PM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Toothy Fish from S. Oregon Coast Is Not What They've Been Telling You, Say Experts

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(Brookings, Oregon) – Like something out of the “Alien” flicks – or Heaven forbid, those parasites in Stargate: SG1- whatever this creature was caused an Internet stir. Problem was, it quickly became the subject of rumor. (Photos courtesy Reddit's Tilkrik, unless otherwise noted)

In June, a buzz erupted over a southern Oregon coast find near Brookings: a shriveled freak of the deep. Those teeth weren't smiling for the camera. Loads of Internet publications ran with it, and picked up on an answer someone – though no one knows who – had provided on an online forum. So, just what was this oddball item? Chances are you were misinformed by the answer.

The original post came from Reddit and a woman whose handle there is Tilkrik. She'd wondered what she'd found. Somewhere along the lengthy stretch of responses, the publications covering it decided the answer was a monkeyface prickleback (Cebidichthys violaceus), otherwise known as a monkeyface eel.

Not so fast. That answer created quite a hubbub, but it left the marine nerds associated with Oregon Coast Beach Connection uneasy. No one in that story or any subsequent article was quoted. No sources attributed to this find and who the expert(s) may have been.

It was red flag time. Oregon Coast Beach Connection has access to many experts, which turned out well. There is considerable doubt the find on the southern coast was a monkeyface eel. Yet there isn't a huge degree of certainty what it is, either. Among the marine experts in the region, a mystery has unfolded.

Those experts, however, are leaning pretty well towards something that makes a little more sense: the giant wrymouth eel (Cryptacanthodes giganteus).

The first among them was Keith Chandler of Seaside Aquarium. Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport believed it was a monkeyface eel, however.

Chandler was much more certain, actually based on the teeth.

“I've got a stuffed one here in the aquarium,” Chandler told Oregon Coast Beach Connection. “It has those teeth. But you can't see them like you can in the photo, because the example is all shriveled and lets you see the teeth more.”

Getting deeper into the experts, at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), Marine Fishery Research Project Leader Leif K. Rasmuson chimed in and said he was leaning towards the giant wrymouth as well.

From there, Rasmuson contacted about 20 others in other wildlife agencies and academia, including Milton Love, a famed marine biologist and author on the subject of fish.

“The teeth are throwing folks,” Rasmuson told Oregon Coast Beach Connection. “The tables tilted much more towards Giant Wrymouth. 75% Wrymouth, 25% something else.”

Rasmuson said that while experts leaned towards the giant wrymouth, he emphasized that no one was completely sure. The photos didn't reveal enough details. Love – probably the big expert in the field – told Rasmuson he was inclined to think it was giant wrymouth, but he too wasn't 100 percent certain.

So, it's a bit of a mystery.

How does one find out what it truly is? Rasmuson said a sample for genetic testing would be nice.

Photo of giant wrymouth courtesy WDFW

Yet a monkey eel it likely is not. Photos of those have a fairly different shape in general, although it's close in some ways.

In any case, neither the monkeyface prickleback or the wrymouth eel are actually eels. They may have a similarly-shaped body, but they don't fall under the fish order Anguilliformes with true eels.

Boothe added there are two kinds of wrymouth as well: the dwarf and the giant.

“The 'regular' wrymouth gets to be about 38 inches in length, the giant wrymouth can reach up to 48 inches in length,” she said.

Some on the Washington coast may have a clearer answer someday. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) the giant wrymouth is eel-like with a broad head that is flat on top. It's quite a common fish up and down the Oregon and Washington coast, with a range from the Bearing Sea down through California.

“It is found on soft bottoms, where it creates and lives in burrows. It is found in depths from 6 to192 m (20-630 ft),” WDFW said on its species website.

The giant wrymouth is a pale and reddish brown with all kinds of dark blotches. There are scales on some areas, and some of its fins have spots as well.

The dwarf wrymouth has no scales, but is otherwise fairly similar to its “giant” cousin.

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