Yes, it looks like the hypothetical progeny of a spiny sea creature and a dragon. But this deep-sea oddball, which washed up in Namibia recently, would probably have surprised you with its adult incarnation. 

Image: Corna Smith, Ocean Defenders Hawaii/Facebook

What you're looking at is a baby ox-eyed oreo, also known as an oxeye oreodory (Oreosoma atlanticum). It's undeniably cute, but if there's one thing we know about baby fish, it's that they don't always stay that way. As an adult, this animal is no looker:

In its natural habitat, the fish might not be quite so unappealing, but this shrivelled, preserved specimen is all we have to go on. Oreodories inhabit waters up to 1,550 metres (nearly 5,000 feet) deep, so spotting a live one is rare. In fact, almost everything we know about the species comes from accidental trawl hauls. The youngster you see here was found dead by beachgoer Corna Smith near Luderitz, a harbour town in southern Namibia. 

While the rotund baby fish does have roughly the same shape as an Oreo cookie, that's not where its munchable moniker comes from. The fish's Latin name, coined by French naturalist Georges Cuvier, comes from the Greek "oreos" (mountain) and "soma" (body). To understand his reasoning, let's change our vantage point:

Image: Corna Smith, Ocean Defenders Hawaii/Facebook
Image: Sandra Raredon, Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons

The ventral (under) side of the ox-eyed oreo's body is covered in a row of cone-like spikes, which resemble the peaks of a mountain range. As the body undergoes its adult overhaul, the cones disappear. Whether these structures serve a purpose, or are simply an evolutionary leftover, is a mystery. But other species undergo similar transformations. At birth, the giant ocean sunfish (Mola mola) looks more pincushion than fish.

Other members of the oreo family Oreosomatidae, like the smooth oreodory (Pseudocyttys maculatus) and black oreodory (Allocyttus niger), are better known and targeted by some commercial fisheries. Each represents the only member of its respective genus, but they all possess large eyes, perfect for navigating the murky depths.

Based on other members of the family, it's quite possible that our unfortunate ox-eye met its end long before its time. The smooth oreodory, for example, is thought to have a 100-year lifespan!

ht: Azula


Top header image: Sandra Raredon, Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons