Cal State Fullerton researcher Misty Paig-Tran, Ph.D., is studying the remains of a 14-foot giant oarfish, a rare deep-sea creature that attracted national media attention when it washed up on an Oceanside shore last week.
Paig-Tran, an associate professor of biology at CSUF, was able to get in contact with Suzanne Kohin of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who was first on the scene and secured the body of the rare bony fish for study on campus.
The NOAA agreed to let her have the fish when they were finished with it. Tran called the discovery a “gratuitous accident.”
Paig-Tran specializes in biomechanics and asks biological questions about organisms and about how their form affects their function. She uses engineering techniques to test her hypothesis.
“For this fish, because I’m a biomechanist I’m interested in why deep-sea fishes have very what we call unmineralized skeletons, which means that unlike the bone you or I have, this bone is very soft in nature,” Paig-Tran said.
Deep-sea fishes have very gelatinous, flaccid skeletons. Tran said she wants to explore how that benefits a fish swimming in the crushing depths.
Her current research deals with the structure and function of deep-sea fishes.
The giant serpent-like oarfish is a deep-water fish for the most part.
It was first described in 1772, but it has been rarely seen because it lives at considerable depths. Oarfish are thought to reside in depths around 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) according to National Geographic.
“It’s one of the longest fishes in the world and certainly the longest fish that has a bony skeleton,” Paig-Tran said.
They can grow up to 56 feet and weigh up to 600 pounds.
Paig-Tran will take pieces of the fish’s skeleton and test it with engineering techniques called materials testing.
“I’m going to look at the properties of that material to see how hard it is, for example, how flexible it is, and to answer questions about how fishes can move in the deep with such a jelly-like structure,” Paig-Tran said.
She said it is too early to tell whether the fish she is studying is related to the 18-foot oarfish found dead in Catalina just five days prior to the incident in Oceanside.
“Certainly, this isn’t the first time that multiple oarfish have surfaced at once so it’s possible that they’re linked—there’s actually been a third stranding of an oarfish down in Cabo so that’s very far from where these two oarfish were linked,” Paig-Tran said.
Paig-Tran will have a better idea of what exactly happened to the fish once the autopsy is complete within the next six months.
She said the oarfish is in relatively good condition. It was fresh—not decayed—and with no external trauma when they found it.
She said it is a long process–the oarfish has undergone a series of X-rays and will order computed tomography scans (CT) in the following weeks.
Tran said they are going to get CT scans of the fish itself before they cut into it to know exactly what the internal structure looks like before they begin dissection.
“Once that gets completed then we’ll start to slowly go through this from the head down to the tail systematically in order to try to figure out what was the cause of death and to guess some of these structures that we’re interested in looking at,” Paig-Tran said.
The oarfish was carrying hundreds of thousands of unfertilized eggs when it washed ashore.