Field of Science

The Live-Bearing Brotulas

Black brotula Stygnobrotula latebricola, photographed by Thomas W. Doeppner.


The subject of today's post is the Bythitidae, a family of mostly marine fishes referred to as the live-bearing brotulas. Bythitids belong to the Ophidiiformes, a group of more or less elongate fishes with long soft dorsal and anal fins. They differ from most other ophidiiforms in that the males have an external intromittent organ and they are mostly live-bearers rather than egg-layers (though at least one species, Didymothallus criniceps, is potentially an egg-layer: Schwarzhans & Møller 2007). Bythitids do share these features with the deep-water Aphyonidae, which are however particularly elongate, lack scales and a swim bladder, and have loose translucent skin in contrast to the firm skin of bythitids (Nielsen et al. 1999).

Bahamian cave fish Lucifuga spelaeotes, photographed by Joe Dougherty.


Bythitids are often thought of as deep-water fishes, but there is also a reasonable diversity of them in shallower habitats such as coral reefs. The shallower-living species are mostly very cryptic in their habits and may be only rarely encountered; deeper-water species may occupy more open habitats or be found in association with hydrothermal vents. Some species of the genera Lucifuga and Ogilbia are found in freshwater caves in the Caribbean (Lucifuga species), the Yucatan (Ogilbia pearsei) and the Galapagos (O. galapagosensis); other species are found in marine caves such as the 'blue holes' of the Bahamas. New species of bythitid continue to be described at a reasonable rate of knots (over 100 species have been described in the last ten years alone). They vary in size from small (Microbrotula species are about four centimetres in length) to very large (Cataetyx laticeps reaches over 75 cmm; the Fishes of Australia website states that bythitids grow up to 2 m, but I haven't been able to find which species this refers to).

Yellow cuskeel Dinematichthys iluocoeteoides, from here.


Because of their cryptic habits, the lifestyles of most bythitids remain poorly known. They are predators of invertebrates and other fish. The few identified larvae have been collected in the epipelagic zone (Nielsen et al. 1999) but bythitids are believed to have relatively low fecundity rates (presumably as only small numbers of embryos have been found in gravid females). Reef-dwelling species, as far as is known, have only small ranges, and many may be endangered by habitat degradation.

REFERENCES

Nielsen, J. G., D. M. Cohen, D. F. Markle & C. R. Robins. 1999. FAO species catalogue. Volume 18. Ophidiiform fishes of the world. An annotated and illustrated catalogue of pearl-fishes, cusk-eels, brotulas and other ophidiiform fishes known to date. FAO Fisheries Synopsis 125 (18): I–XI + 1–178.

Schwarzhans, W., & P. R. Møller. 2007. Review of the Dinematichthyini (Teleostei: Bythitidae) of the Indo-west Pacific. Part III. Beaglichthys, Brosmolus, Monothrix and eight new genera with description of 20 new species. The Beagle, Records of the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory 23: 29-110.

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