Ghost pipefishes are close relatives of pipefish and seahorses, and today are represented by six different species found in shallow tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific. But while this lineage is estimated to have originated around 70 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous, their fossil record is very sparse – only three fossil representatives are currently known from the entire Cenozoic.
Up to about 9cm long (3.5″), it was already very similar in appearance to modern ghost pipefishes, with a long tubular snout, star-shaped bony plates in its skin, two dorsal fins, and fairly large pelvic fins that formed an egg-brooding pouch in females. It probably had the same sort of lifestyle as its modern relatives, floating pointing downwards and camouflaging itself among seagrasses, algae, and corals.
One specimen preserves a small amount of color patterning, showing hints of dark banding on the pelvic and tail fins. But since modern ghost pipefish can change their coloration to better mimic their surroundings, it’s unclear whether these markings were common to all Calamostoma or were just part of this particular individual’s camouflage.
Non-tetrapod vertebrates like fish have spines that are much less differentiated, with just body and tail segments. So for a long time multiple distinct spine regions were thought to be something completely unique to tetrapods – a specialization developed early in their evolutionary history that served to better support their weight when moving around on land.
But one little fossil fish makes this idea… problematic.
Tarrasius problematicus lived during the early Carboniferous, about 345 million years ago, in shallow tropical marine waters in what is now southern Scotland. Around 9cm long (3.5″), it was an early type of ray-finned fish with a scaleless body and a long scaled eel-like tail with a single continuous dorsal fin.
Its spine shows five different regions all corresponding to those seen in tetrapods, despite it not being closely related to them. But unlike early tetrapods Tarrasius was no land-walker, with its lack of hind fins indicating it was instead a streamlined fully aquatic fast swimmer.
It’s not clear why this fish developed such an incredibly convergent backbone, but it may have helped to stiffen its body so its more flexible tail could provide more efficient thrust, swimming like a modern tadpole.
It also suggests that a pre-existing genetic basis for regionalization – specific patterns of Hox gene expression – was actually an ancestral trait for all bony fish or jawed vertebrates. Tarrasius and early tetrapods may have just happened to specialize their spines in the same way for different purposes, with only the tetrapods going on to see long-term evolutionary success with it.
For the final entry in this series, let’s take a look at a modern weird-headed species – and where better to find some of the strangest and most unique-looking animals alive today than the deep sea?
Malacosteus, also known as the stoplight loosejaw, is a 25cm long (10″) genus of dragonfish found at depths of over 500m (1640′) in oceans all around the world, with the exception of the Mediterranean and polar waters. Two different species are currently recognized, with Malacosteus niger here known from just below the Arctic Circle down to the southern reaches of the subtropics, and Malacosteus australis ranging from there to around 45°S, and up towards the equator in the Indian Ocean.
And there’s a lot to unpack here with the anatomy of this one.
First of all, there’s the fact that its entire head can hinge away from its body, gaping enormous jaws with long fang-like teeth.
The bottom of its lower jaw has no skin membrane connecting the two sides, attached to the rest of its bizarre head only by the hinges and a single exposed muscle, reducing water resistance so it can shoot its trap-jaws out extra fast to snare prey.
Once it catches something it retracts its head, and several sets of pharyngeal teeth further back grab hold of its prey and direct it down its throat.
(Let me remind you that this isn’t an early April Fools joke. This thing is completely real.)
In addition to all that anatomical weirdness, it’s also one of the only deep-sea fish that can both see and produce red-colored light. Most creatures living at that depth have lost the ability to see red since that frequency doesn’t penetrate so far down through water, but the stoplight loosejaw has evolved to take advantage of that by using bioluminescent red light as its own personal night vision goggles.
Using large red photophores under each eye, it can shine a spotlight out ahead of itself and see other deep-sea animals all clearly lit up, while remaining completely invisible to both them and any nearby larger predators. It’s able to perceive the color red thanks to a pigment in its eyes modified from chlorophyll, a visual setup unique to this fish and not known from any other vertebrate.
It also has a smaller green photophore further down on its head – inspiring its common name thanks to the resemblance to traffic lights – and many smaller blue and white ones over its head and body.
So, with its highly specialized jaws and ability to see things other deep-sea animals can’t, the stoplight loosejaw must be hunting something pretty impressive, right?
And as it turns out, it eats… plankton.
The vast majority of its diet appears to be copepods, small zooplanktoic crustaceans that are incredibly common in the waters the loosejaw inhabits. It may simply be “snacking” on such a convenient food source in-between rare encounters with larger prey – but it may also be getting the chlorophyll-based pigment needed for its night vision from eating them.
Rostropycnodus gayeti here was one of the especially odd-looking forms, known from the mid-Cretaceous of Lebanon about 100-95 million years ago.
It had an elongated snout with the upper jaw longer than the lower, a pointed spiky horn on its forehead, and a massive pectoral region that bulged out at the front of its body. Meanwhile its pectoral fins were modified into big immobile spines, and its pelvic fins were highly reduced and positioned beneath another set of large spines.
And it was tiny, only about 5.5cm long ~(2″).
It would have been a slow swimmer, relying on its spikiness to deter larger predators, and it’s currently unclear what it ate with its unusual spiny snout. Many other pycnodonts had mouths full of round crushing teeth, but Rostropycnodus’ jaws seem to have been mostly toothless – so perhaps it used its snout to probe around in cracks or sediment for small soft-bodied invertebrates.
It was heavily armored, with large plate-like scales creating a boxfish-like carapace, but its most distinctive feature was its multiple long spines – three dorsal spines on its back, a fourth on its head resembling a “horn”, a pair of smaller spines on the sides of its body, and one on its underside formed from partially fused vestigial pelvic fins.