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See Inside April 2006

Short Takes

Only A Scientist Would Brag, "I Once Caught A Fish This Small ..."



FRANK VERONSKY
In late January a Brobdingnagian battle erupted over a Lilliputian water dweller. Okay, the battle wasn't really all that huge. And we're not talking about the Benihana shrimp toss case, a lawsuit that started in January. That ballyhoo was big and concerned a chef who flung sizzling shrimp into the mouths of his patrons. Hey, it's not just dinner, it's a show. Anyway, one guy dodged the shrimp, hurt his neck, went into a general health decline and eventually died. His widow sued for $16 million, which is a lot of clams. (In February the jury let Benihana off the hook, finding the restaurant not at fault.)

No, the fight in question concerns competing claims by scientists over the smallest of fry: the world's tiniest fish, which also makes them the world's shortest vertebrates. A multi-institutional research team reported that it had discovered adult fish just 7.9 millimeters long. The species, Paedocypris progenetica, is found in incredibly acidic peat wetlands in Indonesia. "Tiny backbone living in corrosive swamp" would ordinarily describe a member of the House ethics committee, but in this case it's a kind of carp.

The scientists published their finding in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, a journal title that takes up almost 10 times the space on this page than would the creature cited as the previous record holder for world's smallest vertebrate. That beastie is the eight-millimeter-long dwarf goby. Henceforth and in comparison to be known as the moby goby.

A quick aside: what you definitely don't use to catch any of these petite pisces is a Driloleirus americanus, better known (to probably half a dozen people) as the giant Palouse earthworm. In February a graduate student at the University of Idaho became the first person in almost 20 years to see one. It's a white worm, as Ahab might have noted, that can reach a length of one meter. Which is puny compared with some Australian earthworms that can be three meters long. Fortunately, they're down under down under.

Back to our untall tale. The print had barely dried on the various newspaper stories touting the teeny titleholder (talk about small victories) when a petition for priority appeared--the University of Washington was quick to point out that their Theodore W. Pietsch had plumbed new depths, or heights, I'm not sure which, in lack of length September. Publishing in the Ichthyological Society of Japan's journal, Ichthyological Research, Pietsch revealed that full-grown males of the species Photocorynus spiniceps, a kind of anglerfish collected in the Philippines, have come in as small as 6.2 millimeters. These boys are more than (or less than, I'm not sure which) normal males. Female P. spiniceps can measure a massive 46 millimeters long--males are so small because they marry way up, engaging in what is known as sexual parasitism.

In his journal article, Pietsch explains sexual parasitism with this 1938 quote from naturalist William Beebe: "To be driven by impelling odor headlong upon a mate so gigantic, in such immense and forbidding darkness, and willfully to eat a hole in her soft side, to feel the gradually increasing transfusion of her blood through one's veins, to lose everything that marked one as other than a worm, to become a brainless, senseless thing that was a fish--this is sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it." And you thought the Sigourney Weaver movie where the hideous monster latches onto its victim was bizarre. Alien, not Working Girl.

The minuscule male has chosen a life basically as a sex organ: the major occupants of its body cavity are its testes. The female carries on all the usual functions of life for both, and the sole job of the mindless, attached male is to breed. And you thought the Tom Hanks movie where the dim-witted guy gets the girl was unbelievable. Forrest Gump, not Splash. In that one, the dim-witted guy gets the fish.

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