Museum Collections Solve Whalefish Mystery

Meet the Suspects

More than a century ago, in 1895, two Smithsonian scientists described a new kind of deep sea creature living at least 1000 m (3,280 ft) below the ocean’s surface—a part of the ocean that we still know very little about.

The scientists named their find the whalefish because of its whale-like appearance. Little did they know that this fish would become one of the prime suspects in a mystery that took scientists from around the world decades to solve.

This deep sea creature has a whale-like body and gaping mouth. It grows up to 400 mm (15.7 in) long.

Credit: Kunio Amaoka


Chris Kenaley

The Mystery Develops

Flash forward to 1956, when scientists described another new kind of fish. It was named the tapetail because of its long, streamer-like tail. It also had a large upturned mouth.

Unlike the whalefish, the tapetail was found living near the ocean’s surface. And there was something very curious about this sea creature: Every single one of the 120 tapetail specimens scientists studied was a larva or juvenile.

Where were all the adults?



Dave Johnson/Smithsonian Institution

The Plot Thickens

In 1966, based on 11 specimens, scientists added another deep sea creature to the list of mystery suspects: the bignose fish, found living deep in the sea like the whalefish. It has an unusual nose-like bulge on its snout with large organs for smelling. Its upper jaw can’t move. And something else proved odd about the bignose fish: Of the 65 specimens now collected, every one is a male. Where were the females?

Then, in 1989, the whalefish also became a suspect. An Australian scientist studied all the whalefish specimens collected so far—a total of over 500 from all over the world. Every adult was a female. Where were the males?

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Dave Johnson

Sat, 10/23/2010 - 5:48pm -- brayr
Photo Caption: 

This is the kind of puzzle solving that a scientist dreams about. - Dave Johnson, Ichthyologist, National Museum of Natural History

Photo Credit: 

Ai Nonaka

A Tapetail is caught on film while swimming over a coral reef off the coast of Japan.

Credit: Courtesy of Yasuhiro Morita