Hurricane Harvey stranded a mysterious fanged eel on the beach in Texas, leaving the animal to die, rot and bloat. But despite its untimely end, the creature has since become an internet star.
The perished eel achieved online fame after science communicator Preeti Desai came across the creature, snapped its photo and posted the image to Twitter on Sept. 6. She asked the internet to identify the strange beast, writing, "OK, biology twitter, what the heck is this?? Found on a beach in Texas City, TX."
Desai received all kinds of replies. The species diagnosis wasn't easy, as "the specimen is in advanced decay, which makes it a bit of a challenge," said Steven Murawski, the endowed chair of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, who looked at Desai's photos of the toothy creature. [Photos: The Freakiest-Looking Fish]
"It is unclear how big the specimen is, and that is important here," Murawski told Live Science in an email. "I'd say tusky eel (Aplatophis chauliodus), but its maximum recorded size is only 815 millimeters (about 32 inches)."
Murawski isn't alone in his diagnosis. Kenneth Tighe, a specialist in amphibians and reptiles at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Maryland, said he, too, thought the cryptic fish looked like A. chauliodus, which is also known as the fangtooth snake-eel, according to the BBC.
The genus name of Aplatophis literally translates into "terrible serpent" from Greek, according to FishBase, a global database of fish species. These eels live in tropical waters from the Gulf of Mexico to French Guiana in South America, swimming at depths ranging from about 100 feet to 300 feet (33 to 91 meters) below the surface.
The fangtooth snake-eel can dig a burrow in the seafloor, where it hides with only its snout and eyes exposed. When it spies a tasty fish or crustacean, the eel darts out from its burrow to nab its next meal, according to FishBase.
But the eel in Desai's photo is rather long, meaning it might not be a fangtooth, Murawski said. "If the specimen is substantially larger (longer than 1 m [3 feet]), my money is on the stippled spoon-nose eel (Echiophis punctifer)," he said. "The latter has a maximum recorded size of 1,191 mm [47 inches]."
Given that the mysterious creature is fairly long, Murawski said he suspects the washed-up specimen is a stippled spoon-nose eel.
That creature has an equally intriguing genus name, which means "a little viper serpent" in Greek. It also lives in the Gulf of Mexico, but swims in slightly deeper waters, ranging from about 130 to 328 feet (40 to 100 m), according to FishBase.
Like the fangtooth snake-eel, the stippled spoon-nose eel burrows into the sandy or muddy seafloor to wait for prey, FishBase said.
However, Tighe noted that the marine critter could also be a garden or conger eel, as these species also live off the Texas coast and have "large, fang-like teeth," he told the BBC.
Whatever it is, while the creature may look eyeless in the photo, that's just because its eyes have dried up during the decomposition process, according to EarthTouch News Network. Because the fish was in a high state of decay, Desai opted to leave the eel on the beach and "let nature take its course," she told the BBC.
Original article on Live Science.
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Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.