Assistant biology professor studies oarfish

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In Cal State Fullerton’s Dan Black Hall there is a freezer. In all appearances, there seems to be nothing special about the common kitchen appliance. However, behind its door TV dinners or ice cream are nowhere to be found, but instead the frozen remains of a real-life sea monster.

The freezer belongs to Misty Paig-Tran, Ph.D., a CSUF assistant biology professor, and the frozen sea monster is the 14-foot-long oarfish that washed ashore last October.

“I like weird fish,” Paig-Tran said. “I really liked bioluminescence, so everything that glowed is why I went into marine biology.“

Paig-Tran is a marine biologist who specializes in biomechanics, which uses established engineering sciences to analyze biological anatomy and systems. Growing up in Southern California made it easy for her to fall in love with the ocean and marine biology at an early age. It wasn’t until graduate school, though, when she discovered her interest in the biomechanics of fish.

When an almost completely intact oarfish washed ashore in Oceanside, it was a dream come true for any ‘weird fish’ lover and biomechanic. With almost nothing known about the mysterious fish, it was also enticing for marine biologists curious about the anatomy of deep-sea organisms.

Paig-Tran acquired the fish last year with the permission of National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. She said she hopes her research on the mysterious creature, as well as her other research, helps her achieve her goal of becoming a tenured professor at CSUF.

The study of bizarre and unique fish seems to be a fixation of Paig-Tran’s. Her focus of study is on some of the most unique animals in the ocean. She observes the mechanics of filter feeding in large marine organisms.

Filter feeding is the way some marine animals strain and then eat suspended food particles from water. The animals’ filter feeding methods can vary greatly between species. Some of Paig-Tran’s earlier research was on how manta rays and devil rays filter feed.

After observing the structure and shapes of the rays, she used a series of two-liter Sprite bottles to mimic the structure of the rays’ mouth and throat. From her replica rays she was able to determine that the way the rays eat is similar to a Dyson vacuum called cyclonic filtration. As the rays swim through the water, any particle they ingest gets caught in a very powerful cyclone that is created by the body shape of the ray.

“What happens is as particles are either very dense or very big they are not going to be able to follow that cyclonic motion, they’ll spew out on the sides. Kind of like if you think of (the movie Twister) the cow at the end. The cow gets spit out before the smaller things get spit out. It is exactly the same thing,” Paig-Tran said. “As that cyclone gets smaller and smaller sort of like your bathwater … It starts with the big round part of the cyclone and then it goes down into a small cone and exits out of your bathwater, the same thing is happening so smaller and smaller particles get filtered out until small that they leave with the water.”

This was the first time the process had ever been seen biologically. Paig-Tran also discovered the speed at which the rays travel through the water also determines the size of food their vortex allows them to eat.

Now that Paig-Tran is full-time professor at CSUF, with her own lab and research student, she plans to make studying the oarfish a priority for her lab.

Andrew Barrios, a 23-year-old biology major, is her first research student at CSUF. He is working on going through the 75,000 computed tomography scan images of the oarfish in order to make a complete model of the fish.

“I’ve made a complete 3-D model of the vertebrae of the oarfish. We’re looking at these hyper-ossified parts in the skeleton,” Barrios said. “Right now, I’m making figures for a paper we’re working on together.”

Possibly the most interesting information the lab has uncovered about the oarfish is the hyperossification on all its bones. At the tips of all the oarfish’s jelly-like bones, they each have a hyper-ossified part, or an extra hard bone-like spur.

Paig-Tran said she believes this is the way the oarfish moves in the water.

If the muscles of the oarfish only had something jelly-like to pull on, it would not be able to move in the deep. However, if it has a little spot on its bones that’s very stiff, its muscle could pull on the spot and move pretty well, she said.

“We’re finding that it has really strange anatomical structures in its skeleton. We’ve certainly seen similar structure in other fishes, but not this extreme,” Paig-Tran said. “It turns out that the oarfish is a pretty extreme fish.”

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