2001-05 The Black Brotula

by Ned and Anna DeLoach with Paul Humann

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 Caribbean—the 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 isn’t 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 Caribbean’s 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 Brotula’s ancestors just far enough out of the dark and into the shadows for the species to become the consummate challenge for today’s fish watchers.