For the last five years I have been zealously stalking a cryptic fish
known as a Black Brotula, across the waters of Mexico, Florida, the
Bahamas and the Caribbean. And last July, I finally tracked my prize
down in a 60-foot sponge-encrusted ledge off the tip of Tobago in the
hinterland of the Caribbeanthe last dive site east before Africa.
After a thousand unsuccessful searches in a thousand coral caves, my
light beam finally illuminated the elusive brotula, hovering in the
shadows like a black ghost held aloft by a skirt of gracefully undulating
fins. Now admittedly, my quarry isnt exactly a 30-pound Cobia
fit for a banquet table, but the thrill of my hunt for the Black Brotula
(Stygnobrotula latebricola) is every bit as seductive.
Why and how the brotula struck my fancy is only speculative. Possibly
because it is such an odd little fish from an odd fish family. There
are 170 species worldwide in the family Bythitidae. All have a similar
appearance: blunt heads, tapering torsos and medial fins encircling
the body. But the similarities end there. Brotulas vary from three inches
to three feet in length and occupy diverse habitats from reefs to freshwater
caves. However, most species live deep. As a matter of fact, the deepest
collected fish ever recorded is a brotula taken 4.34 miles down. It
appears that the family has a penchant for dark places. Another unique
characteristic is that the Black Brotula and a few other family members
are the only bony fish in the Caribbean known to bear live young.
The Caribbeans small contingent of shallow-water brotulas lives hidden deep inside the reefs unseen recesses where they dine on a variety of small crustaceans. Only the Black Brotula is known to venture into sun-lit openings. The species has also been documented as a cleaner (an organism that makes a living picking parasitic crustaceans off fishes). Facts like these make me wax Darwinian: It might just be that over time, the promise of an easy meal of parasites coaxed the Black Brotulas ancestors just far enough out of the dark and into the shadows for the species to become the consummate challenge for todays fish watchers.