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In late April and early June, two giant eel-like fish washed ashore on the beaches of Aramoana, New Zealand and Catalina Island, California. Known as oarfish or Regalecus russelii, the colossal deep-sea creatures that measured 10-feet and 17-feet long respectively, are a rare sight. Hence the news of two appearing almost simultaneously, caused much excitement and also a little trepidation.
That because according to Japanese folklore, the bony fish is a messenger from the dragon god of the sea that is sent to warn earthlings of an imminent earthquake. While most researchers believe there is no connection, there are some who think there may be some scientific basis to this ancient tale.
Rachel Grant, a lecturer in animal biology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge speculates that the emergence of the oarfish from the depths of the oceans could be a result of changes in their natural habitat. Just prior to earthquakes, the pressure build-up in rocks in the deep-sea results in electrostatic charges that can cause ions (electrically unbalanced atoms) to be released in the water. The atoms form toxic hydrogen peroxide that either kills the living organisms nearby or forces them to rise to safer, shallower waters. There is also the theory that the release of large amounts of carbon monoxide during undersea earthquakes is what causes oarfish to die and wash up on the beaches.
But before you run for the hills, the scientists also admit that the sighting of an oarfish does not always mean a major quake. According to Dr. Grant, "It may be due to other factors unconnected with earthquakes, such as infrasound caused by underwater activities like military submarines."
So which one of the two reasons holds true for the most recent sightings? While nobody knows for sure, there are some theories. The oarfish that washed ashore in New Zealand on April 20 before mysteriously disappearing the following day, could have been warning for the deadly 7.8 tremor that shook Nepal on April 28. As for the one that surfaced in Catalina Island? Researchers hope that was a premonition for the tremor recorded by the USGS further north of island, a day later, on April 29.
No matter the reason, the sight of an oarfish is always a thrill for researchers. That's because despite having known of their existence for centuries, information about this bony fish that can reach lengths of up to 50-feet and weigh as much as 600 pounds is still a little sketchy.
What the scientists have been able to observe, from the rare sightings of the live specimens and the ones that have washed ashore is pretty impressive. Turns out that the "sea serpents" have an uncanny ability to self-amputate. Similar to lizards, they can separate the vertebrae off their tails at will. Researchers speculate that in addition to being part of their natural growth pattern this adaptation may also be a way for the long creatures to escape from predators. The deep sea dwellers also have the ability to swim vertically by spreading out their fins. Scientists believe they largely use this capability while feeding on plankton.
But the most surprising fact of all is that ominous looking creatures that are the inspiration of numerous sea monster legends are harmless! In fact, the lack of teeth and a tiny mouth prevents the oarfish from even chasing after bigger prey in the ocean. Instead, they have to be content with plankton and small crustaceans, although they may snatch an occasional small squid or jellyfish.
Also, despite their impressive size and looks, oarfish are not popular with fishermen. Part of the reason is that the species dwell too deep in the oceans to be caught. However, the bigger reason is probably that the fish are not edible due to its gelatinous texture. People that have been brave enough to try it have described them to be "flabby and gooey!" As a result, the fish are not and will probably never be on the ever expanding endangered species list!
Resources: mysteriousuniverse.org, huffingtonpost.com, dailymail.co.uk, mountainandsea.org