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Master's Monday Blog - Ecology of Barracudina in the Gulf of Mexico

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Salutations!

My name is Rich Jones and I am a master’s student in Dr. Jon A. Moore’s lab at the Florida Atlantic University’s Honors College. Dr. Moore is an ichthyologist who has been working closely with DEEPEND since the beginning helping to identify some of the obscure and poorly studied deep-sea fishes collected from these depths. For myself, as someone who has always been excited about biodiversity, this work has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. Some of the fishes we have identified have only been seen by a handful of people before in the history of the world. The opportunity to study the habits of these rare animals with a comprehensive suite of data, let alone hold them in your hand, is a unique pleasure of working with DEEPEND. Some of the fishes we caught were less rare, but equally as mysterious in how poorly studied they are. One such obscure group entrusted to our lab were the Paralepididae, commonly known as “barracudina” due to their superficial resemblance to small barracuda (they are not related to barracuda). Samples collected by DEEPEND and NOAA cruises have presented a rare and unique opportunity to study these enigmatic little fishes, and I have spent the past few years getting to know them through my thesis research investigating their basic life history in the deep Gulf of Mexico.

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Pictured here is a duck-billed barracudina (Magnisudis sp.) in its natural habitat, deep in the ocean. Duck-billed barracudina are some of the largest of the barracudinas and can grow to lengths of about one meter (3 feet). They are members of the sub-group known as “scaly” barracudina because they have more scales than the other varieties. This photograph is an extremely uncommon example of a live barracudina, taken by the NOAA Okeanos Explorer’s Remotely Operated Vehicle (or ROV) as it descended through the mid-water to survey the deep seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico.

At first, I knew nothing about barracudina. I wanted to focus on them for my master’s thesis research simply because they were so poorly studied. Once I began to get to know them, I learned that there are a lot of amazing and strange things that make these little fish special. Many of the smallest species are almost completely transparent in life, lacking all but a few scales. Some of those transparent species possess a unique type of bioluminescence along their bellies which is derived from their liver tissues. They use this bioluminescence to counter-shade their silhouettes against the dim light down-welling into the deep sea. They are all simultaneous hermaphrodites which means that they are both males and females at the same time throughout their entire lives. This type of reproductive mode is extremely rare among vertebrates but likely a useful quality in the deep-sea where encounters with potential mates are rare. They are very closely related to lancetfish (Alepisauridae) which are some of the biggest and baddest fish found in the deep pelagic. They can grow to lengths greater than 2.5 meters (8 feet)! Unlike barracudina, lancetfish are well studied because they are frequently caught as bycatch in pelagic long-line fisheries. So much so that they are often considered a pest to that fishery! The lancetfish’s smaller relatives, the barracudina, are not directly caught by the long-line fishers themselves but are frequently documented in the stomachs of those fishers’ targets, swordfish and big-eye tuna. In fact, several barracudina species were first described by science based on specimens found in the stomachs of fish bought at fish markets.

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Pictured here is a juvenile javelin barracudina (Lestrolepis intermedia) collected during a DEEPEND cruise. This species is one of the “naked” barracudina, so called because they lack most scales and are highly translucent. This species has a unique bioluminescent organ that runs along its belly in a straight line and an additional photophore spot just in front of each eye. In life, these fish glow a faint yellow color. Observations from submersible expeditions in the 1950’s reported that this species exhibits a unique swimming behavior in which it orients itself vertically in the water column, rapidly switching its orientation from upwards to downwards.


Part of the reason barracudina are so poorly studied is because they are only infrequently captured in net trawls, and the specimens that are caught by nets are usually smaller representatives for their species. Given that they are infrequent and small in net sampling but frequent and large in the guts of certain top-predator fishes could mean that they are more common than we know and that they are just fast enough swimmers to avoid the nets. It could also be that barracudina are generally uncommon and just one of many important prey types to those deep-diving delicacies of the fish market. Either way, barracudina are under-appreciated, and as our impacts on the ocean increase, whether from industrial fishing, climate change, or oil spills, we will need to know more about the favorite prey of our favorite seafood to inform us about the sustainability of those treasured pelagic resources.

To that end, my work with barracudina has two main goals: (A) identify ecological patterns among the barracudina species in the Gulf of Mexico and (B) develop an easy to use key for identifying these often difficult-to-distinguish species. Regarding their ecology, I am asking some very basic questions: (1) What depths do the different species inhabit? (2) Do they vertically migrate? (3) How easily can they avoid the nets? (4) What do adult barracudina eat? And (5) Where in the water column are adults and juveniles found, respectively?

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A picture of a typical sample from a MOCNESS tow that includes the common naked barracudina (Lestidiops affinis; center of photo) among other mesopelagic fishes like lanternfish and bristlemouths. While barracudina are not the most abundant, small swimmers of the deep sea, they are still relevant as they are a favorite food item for deep-diving tunas, billfishes, whales, and sharks.


What I have found is partly to be expected and partly surprising.  It is not surprising, for example, that net avoidance is common among barracudina. The NOAA cruises immediately after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill utilized two different net types to sample the deep Gulf. One was a high-speed rope trawl and the other a multiple opening and closing net and environmental sensing system (or MOCNESS), which the DEEPEND cruises also employed. The mouth area of the MOCNESS is fairly small and because the net mesh size is only 3mm in diameter it cannot be towed very fast. This increases the potential for net avoidance by larger, faster swimmers. The rope trawl, on the other hand, had a much larger mouth area and could be towed much faster which made it more difficult to avoid. The rope trawl caught significantly more and significantly larger barracudina than the MOCNESS, which was to be expected.

Another unsurprising, but important, finding was that different barracudina species occupy distinctly different layers of the water column. It seems that there is a general distinction between where in the depths you find the “scaly” and “naked” barracudina types. The smaller, translucent or “naked” types are significantly more common near the surface in the lower epipelagic while the larger “scaly” types are almost exclusively found in the twilight zone of the mesopelagic. However, while the naked barracudina are much more common near the surface, they can be found throughout the water column all the way to the deepest, darkest depths. Comparing abundances caught at depth between day and night, there does appear to be a slight, but far from significant, amount of vertical migration in barracudina. I suspect that the reason there appears to be any vertical migration at all in these species may be that they are chasing their food, most of which does vertically migrate to the surface waters at night to feed.

Dietary habits also had a similar distinction between the two main types of barracudina. After dissecting the stomachs of several hundred adult specimens, I found that the naked ones seemed to be exclusively eating migrating mesopelagic fishes while the scaly types were eating mostly deep-sea shrimps. This is somewhat surprising because we would expect that small fishes, like barracudina, living in the deep sea would eat whatever they encounter and would not be very picky. It is likely that these differences in dietary habits and apparent selectivity are the result of a combination of their preferred habitats and their unique feeding behaviors, which continue to remain unclear. Rare observations from the voyages of the French submersible Bathyscaphe Trieste in the 1950’s reported that one barracudina species (Lestrolepis intermedia) indeed swims quite rapidly through the water column, “like silvery javelins”, occasionally halting to “float along like erect pieces of asparagus”, rapidly changing their orientation from looking upwards to looking downwards. It is unknown whether this is a unique hunting behavior or predator avoidance behavior or both. It is also unclear whether all barracudina species exhibit this odd behavior.

The apparent differences in distribution and diet I have found among the barracudina in the Gulf of Mexico could prove to be useful information as the different species appear to reflect distinct aspects of the deep-pelagic ecosystem where they live. The presence or absence of certain barracudina from a given area or large fish’s stomach could be used to help make inferences about the state of the greater pelagic environment. In managing an entire ecosystem, fishery managers rely on suites of different indicator species to inform them about the ecosystems that sustain our living ocean resources. For these suites of indicators to be effective, however, managers need to able to correctly identify them to their respective species. Many barracudina, especially the naked ones, are very difficult to identify to species and the keys that exist to diagnose them often require counting the number of vertebrae they have which is not an easy thing for most managers to do. As such, another goal of my research is to provide an easy-to-use dichotomous key that relies on simple measurements and illustrations of pigments to aid quick but accurate identification to species. Helping me to complete this goal is Ray Simpson, a post-doctoral researcher based at the Yale Peabody Museum, who is an excellent illustrator.

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An illustration of the Spotback Barracudina (Uncisudis advena) by Ray Simpson

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A picture of one of the largest (>15cm) ever recorded specimens of the Gulf of Mexico Bullis’s Barracudina (Stemonsudis bullisi). This endemic species had previously only been known and described from two juvenile specimens around 6cm long.

Like the DEEPEND consortium itself, the over-arching goal of my research is to contribute to a baseline of data that will inform future research and monitoring efforts in the deep Gulf of Mexico. In this way, even our simplest findings are superlative: three of the nineteen barracudina species captured in our samples represent first records for those species in the Gulf of Mexico, and the overall ranges of several other species have been expanded significantly thanks to our sampling efforts. We captured the largest specimens ever recorded for one species which is only known from the Gulf of Mexico. Hopefully publishing these results in an open-access outlet will provide useful information to managers when the next spill happens or when changes in deep-sea fisheries management need specific monitoring criteria. Regardless, it has been a real pleasure working with these odd little swimmers from the shadowy depths.

Check out Ray Simpson’s website here: http://www.watlfish.com/
It is an online outlet for Ray’s illustrations and an exhaustive list of Fishes of the Western North Atlantic which reads like a field guide.

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