Angst and the deep-sea angler fish
By Andrea Baird

Determined to spend this winter curled up in front of a fireplace with a lover and a glass of wine instead of (once again) in front of my radiator with a ski-hat and a book, I decided to search the scientific literature for tips from the animal kingdom on how to find myself a mate. Instead I found a cure for my romantic daydreams: the freakish love story of the deep-sea angler fish. Suddenly commitment doesn’t sound so great….

Over 100 species of angler fish live in ocean depths down to 6,000 ft., fishing for prey by waving a fleshy, glowing forehead appendage in front of their gaping mouths. The vast darkness of the ocean a mile below the surface makes the angler fish dating scene even tougher than Boston’s, particularly for males. Available females are slow-moving, sparse (males outnumber them by up to 30 to one, according to one estimate) and disinclined to hunt down a mate. So males must dart through the depths searching frantically for a female, guided only by their noses - which are the largest, compared to the size of the fish, of any vertebrate.

Luckily for the males, female anglerfish are not only smelly, but comparatively huge. A female Ceratias holboelli, hanging in the water like a spiny black eggplant, can reach three and a half feet in length. Her potential mates max out at two-thirds of an inch. But despite her fragrant bulk, the odds are against a male finding a female to spawn with each year. So the angler fish have evolved a mating strategy that takes both kinky sex and monogamy to disturbing new levels.

Once the male has sniffed out a female he swims up and, in a shocking bit of sadism, clamps down on her with an unshakable bite. The fish has evolved tooth-like plates in his upper and lower jaw for this purpose, and once he sinks them into a chosen female, he stays put. If anglerfish sex were anything like the human variety, after spawning the male would immediately fall asleep or disappear, either way relaxing his grip. But the male anglerfish doesn’t let go. Ever again. FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE
Fairly romantic, right? After all, relentless pursuit followed by life-long commitment is the definition of fairy-tale romance. With the possible exception of the biting, anglerfish love is what my ski-hat and I have been dreaming of, isn’t it?

Not so fast. This endless anglerfish union quickly devolves into exactly (well, maybe not exactly) the kind of situation that fills perpetually-single folks like myself with doubt and commitment-related terror. As soon as the male attaches himself to his mate, she begins to slowly absorb him (men, this part may sound familiar). Eventually, his lips grow into the skin of her side, his mouth and eyes disappear, his circulatory system ties itself to hers and he becomes a permanent appendage, dependent on her for food, protection, and a ride. He becomes little more than a reproductive organ, the sex act his only purpose (ladies, I’m sure this part sounds familiar). Two perfectly good individuals fusing into a codependent chimera…suddenly my book doesn’t sound that bad.

But who am I kidding. I know I’d still smear myself with meat tenderizer if I thought it would make life-long love bite onto me. And, too be fair, the anglerfish system of extreme monogamy seems to work for them. Aside from the total loss of individuality and freedom, the male thrives as a parasite, ballooning up to six inches in length. The female goes about her business and yearly spawning – and the perpetuation of the species – is assured. They certainly never have to find another date.

So yeah, I can embrace the wisdom of the anglerfish. Much like me, they live in a vast dark abyss where chances to meet a mate are few and far between. After generations, they know that once you find someone, you’ve got to hang on to them. Just one caveat: don’t forget, on occasion, to loosen your grip.