Blobfish: Facts about the world’s ugliest animal
The blobfish: it’s an internet sensation from the deep sea with a flabby face that’s equal parts horrifying and hilarious.
Famous for having ugly headshots, this lazy bottom-feeder is relatively new to science but has cast a spell over human beings in the digital age and is already immortalised in memes, soft toys and emojis.
It may have a face that’s hard to forget, but what do we actually know about the blobfish? What’s the real reason it looks so glum? And what can it teach us about conservation or the secretive habitat in which it lives?
Blobfish scientific name
The scientific name of the fish in the famous blobfish photo is Psychrolutes microporos, from a family of fish called Psychrolutidae. However, the term ‘blobfish’ is sometimes used more broadly to describe other members of the Psychrolutidae family such as P. marcidus.
The first specimen of P. microporos was found by a research vessel off the coast of New Zealand in 1983. It was another decade before the fish was formally described and given its scientific name.
And even now, there are large gaps in our understanding of this enigmatic sea creature, despite a number of other samples being found in trawler nets.
Despite the unknowns, the blobfish found widespread notoriety after another specimen was photographed in 2003. This is the famous image you see everywhere, including at the top of this page.
Its gelatinous appearance made it a gift to early internet culture. Droopy, slimy and very easy to anthropomorphise, the fish was later named the ugliest animal in the world in a poll set up by the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, a conservation group that argues it’s not just the cute critters that deserve our protection.
The 2003 specimen was nicknamed Mr Blobby, after the British TV character.
What is a blobfish?
Before finding fame as an internet meme, the blobfish was a scientific curiosity. A member of the Psychrolutidae family, it is sometimes referred to as a sculpin or (for obvious reasons) fathead. The flabby appearance of this deep-sea fish celebrated in internet culture is, however, misleading.
The species only looks like a 1980s dessert when removed from its natural environment and brought to the surface.
Why do blobfish look like that?
Blobfish species live in some of the deepest pockets of the ocean, at depths between 600 and 1,200m. Down there, the pressure can be more than 100 times what the atmospheric pressure you feel right now. Blobfish have a variety of adaptations to live in high-pressure habitats, including a squishy body, with soft bones and very little muscle.
When a blobfish is taken out of water, decompression can make it expand and cause its skin to relax, distorting its features and giving it that characteristic big nose. And on land or the deck of a boat, the blobfish’s gelatinous tissue doesn’t hold its structure, and the animal collapses into a shapeless mass much like a washed-up jellyfish.
“The image everyone knows about is really hideous because it’s a dead one,” says Simon Watt, the biologist, comedian and science communicator who set up the Ugly Animal Preservation Society. “In the wild, they’re not exactly beauty kings or queens but they’re not quite so depressed-looking.”
It’s the same as if we did the reverse to humans, and we were suddenly dragged to a depth of 1,200m without any protective gear or breathing apparatus. We would look pretty disgusting too! Blobfish look different underwater because they’re not supposed to be on land.
What does a blobfish look like underwater?
At depth, a blobfish kind of just looks like a fish. They have slightly bulbous heads, pronounced black eyes and feathery pectoral fins. Their bodies, pinkish-grey in colour, taper to the tail a bit like a tadpole. Blobfish typically measure less than 30cm in length and weigh under 2kg.
Are blobfish dangerous?
No. Blobfish are less than 30cm long, have soft bodies and no teeth. It’s safe to say you could take one in a fight.
But the vast majority of people will never encounter a blobfish anyway, unless you’re lucky enough to see a dead specimen in a museum or a fishing net. These animals live deep in the ocean, so you need a submarine or submersible to find them alive.
In 2019, Daily Mail Australia reported that a man working in the Sydney Fish Markets ate a blobfish. He didn’t appear to suffer any ill effects.
While it’s unlikely that such a fish will ever become commercially available, even if it is safe to eat, the impact we are having on blobfish now by just accidentally catching them occasionally is unknown.
How do blobfish swim?
With as little effort as possible. Like a lot of deep-sea fish, the blobfish doesn’t have a swim bladder, the air sac-style organ that helps fish closer to the surface control their buoyancy. If they did, they’d be crushed under the pressure. Instead, the fatty body composition of the blobfish comes into play. It’s actually less dense than the water it lives in.
“If you think about how oil floats on water, it’s a bit like that: having high fat content means it makes them more buoyant,” says Watt. Blobfish simply bob along in the water or on the sea bed, staying largely still and using as little energy as possible.
“It’s labour-saving,” Watt says. “Being lazy is a survival strategy, and being fatty to help being lazy is a survival strategy.” We can all relate to that, surely.
What do blobfish eat?
Given their inherent lethargy, blobfish are thought to eat whatever passes right in front of them. Their neutral buoyancy means the water carries them along. When small crustaceans, sea snails or other edible matter gets too close, they become dinner.
This lie-in-wait strategy is common among deep-sea predators.
Where do blobfish live?
The Psychrolutidae family is fairly widespread with species found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. However, some species of blobfish – including the one nicknamed Mr Blobby – are found in fairly small territories.
P. microporos (and its closely related cousin P. marcidus) live in the waters around and between Australia and New Zealand, always at depths greater than 500m.
Little is known about blobfish reproduction because it’s hard to observe any creature when they live in the dark depths of the ocean. This includes mating behaviour, although marine biologists suggest that, given their limited movement, pairs might simply cling to each other.
Some Psychrolutidae species have been observed laying thousands of eggs, often on rocks that they patrol from nearby. Reports suggest that expectant mothers group together and nest near one another, presumably for protection.
There are a number of fake pictures of baby blobfish online, but it’s not clear what they actually look like.
How long can a blobfish live?
This is a difficult question to answer as we know so little about these intriguing fish. However, we do know that marine fish that live in deep water tend to grow slowly, take a long time to reach maturity and have extended lifespans.
For example, the roughly rockfish, which lives at depths of 150 to 450 metres, can live for more than 200 years.
The blobfish and conservation
It’s unclear whether blobfish are actually endangered, partly because it lives in the alien world of the deep ocean and we know so little about it. For example, we don’t know how many there are, whether they have natural predators, how they’re affected by ocean acidification or how long they live for.
“With the blobfish, it’s questionable whether it’s even endangered, but that’s true of almost all fish,” says Watt. “It’s very hard to work out the territory of a fish. We do know that there’s a risk from deep-sea trawlers.”
If P. microporos is limited to the region around Australia and New Zealand then its numbers are unlikely to be huge – but neither is the number of trawlers in that region. It’s hard to know how much damage the population suffers when even a single blobfish ends up in nets, Watt says.
“We know that anything that lives in the deep tends to have long lives, so for example an orange roughy – which is a fish we do see on tables throughout Europe – reach maturity at around 30. Which means if you kill one now, it’s 30 years before that population recovers.”
Whether or not the blobfish itself is endangered, it has already done an effective job at raising awareness, thanks in no small part to Watt’s poll of the world’s ugliest animals and ongoing projects. Hisapproach to conservation is deliberately irreverent, but the comedy belies a serious point. His website states that invertebrates, for example, make up 79 per cent of animal life, but they are only covered in 11 per cent of conservation literature. Ugly animals are less likely to be researched, never mind protected.
The blobfish may be unfairly painted with the ugly brush, but it still works as an effective mascot for Watt’s work.
“Conservation is so depressing that we needed a silly way of talking about it,” he says. “The people who know the giant panda are already on board. The people who have the blobfish as their spirit animal were not being talked to.”