Elaborate fins of the ribbonfish
Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
NAMED FOR THE elaborate fins that ripple delicately after them as they swim, ribbonfish from the genus Trachipterus are found all over the world.
There are six known species, and Australia’s is the southern ribbonfish, a 2m-long silvery creature with black polka dots on its sides and bright red fins.
Found off the coast of southern Queensland and South Australia, the southern ribbonfish has also set up a population off the coast of South Africa. This fish is pretty much a taxonomic nightmare, because while it’s certainly a single species, according to the Australian Museum no one can decide whether its correct scientific name is T. jacksonensis or T. arawatae.
Having two names and two metres in length is pretty impressive for a fish, but the southern ribbonfish will never have a reputation quite like its relative, T. altivelis, or as it’s more commonly known, King-of-the-salmon.
Native to the eastern Pacific Ocean, ranging from Alaska to Chile, the 1.8-metre-long King-of-the-salmon earned its name from the legends of the Makah people, an indigenous population native to Washington in the United States.
The Makah believed that each year this ribbonfish would lead schools of salmon to their spawning grounds, and to kill one would risk stopping these salmon runs altogether.
Not that they’re an easy catch if you were intent on killing one – King-of-the-salmon ribbonfishes spend most of their time feeding in the open ocean at depths of around 900m. The adults will often plunge right down to the seabed to feed on krill, squid, octopuses and smaller fish.
As juveniles, the ribbonfish’s pelvic fins (which hang from their undersides) are long and fan-like, and look like bright strands of hair in dark waters where their transparent membranes are obscured. The image above by underwater photographer Joshua Lambus is a perfect example of a juvenile ribbonfish, but this species is yet to be identified.
“A very rare fish to come across, usually; I’ve only seen two in the many times I’ve done the blackwater dive,” said Lambus of the shot. “But this night for whatever reason I saw four! Maybe a spawning of some sort, or maybe I ought to go buy a lottery ticket!”