‘World’s ugliest animal’ contest took a blobfish out of water

The smooth-head blobfish was unfairly judged for the World's Ugliest Animal contest.

Kerryn Parkinson

The blobfish recently took home honors as the “World’s Ugliest Animal.” But how ugly is it, really? When you consider that the photo that people voted for was of a decompressed specimen that only barely resembles the living animal, it hardly seems fair to judge.

The most famous photo of a blobfish — and the one used for the contest — is of Mr. Blobby, a specimen collected in 2003 northwest of New Zealand. The fish sports a big floppy frown, a bulbous nose and has a yellow parasite hanging from its mouth.

Mr. Blobby is from the genus Psychrolutes in the family Psychrolutidae, known as blobfishes or fathead sculpins, and is possibly a smooth-head blobfish, Psycholutes marcidus. The 11 known species of Psychrolutes are found blobbing along temperate seafloors worldwide.

According to the Australian Museum in Sydney, which houses Mr. Blobby’s remains, the fish was trawled during the NORFANZ expedition at a depth of more than a kilometer. Most blobfish are found quite deep, 300 meters or more, meaning that they can be subject to severe decompression when researchers haul them to the surface. Fish with gas-filled swim bladders undergo rapid expansion of the bladder that could push their internal organs out through their mouths. Blobfish don’t have swim bladders but do have very soft bones. That makes sense for an animal that lives in the crushing pressures of the deep sea, allowing the fish to compress without cracking their bones. But up at the surface the fish seem jellylike and basically collapse, distorting their features.

Alive and at proper pressure, P. marcidus probably doesn’t have Mr. Blobby’s melted appearance:

Drawings of blobfish show them as much more fishlike. Alan Riverstone McCulloch/Wikimedia Commons

“Species of Psychrolutes have very weak, barely ossified bones, so they look bloblike even in life,” says ichthyologist Ronald Fricke of the Staatliches Museum in Stuttgart. Fricke first described the blobfish Psychrolutes occidentalis from Western Australia in 1990. His research paper in the Japanese Journal of Ichthyology describes the fish as having a limp body with soft bones and thin, loose skin. There are few photos of living blobfish of any species, but an underwater rover captured one of P. occidentalis, and it too is a plump but pretty cute little guy:

An underwater rover captured a photo of the plump blobfish. © SEA SERPENT

Another thing to be aware of: A number of the blobfish photos on the Internet are not of real fish. An artist sculpted a model from plasticine, then used a mold of the sculpture to create silicone replicas of Mr. Blobby for the Australian Museum. Photos of the replicas, which are quite true to the famous Mr. Blobby photo, can easily be mistaken for more samples of real blobfish, giving the impression that all blobfish look like Mr. Blobby.

In the end, the question of whether the blobfish is cute or not just begs another question. What’s this fascination with ugly animals really about, anyway? The ugly-animal contest champions the world’s less biophilic endangered creatures with the premise that “the panda gets too much attention.” The contest is sponsored by a comedy team, but their joke is funny because it’s true. People care more about saving big-eyed mammals than melted-looking fish. (Blobfish may be in danger from trawling.) Most of the other “ugliest” contenders were “ichs and herps,” as biologists say — reptiles, fish and amphibians. I’m encouraged by the number of online comments defending the blobfish as cute, but I wish animals didn’t have to be cute to be valued.

Erika Engelhaupt is a freelance science writer and editor based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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