Why Are Freakish Fish Washing Ashore in California?

An unusual number of deep-sea denizens washed up last year on Southern California’s beaches.

An unusual number of deep-sea denizens washed up last year on Southern California’s beaches.

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A Pacific footballfish.Credit…Ben Frable/Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

One morning in May, a fisherman happened upon an unsightly creature washed up on a beach in Southern California: Mouth agape, it had needlelike teeth, slick black skin and a bulbous appendage protruding from its head.

Several months later, another just like it beached itself in San Diego. Then came the third.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, another one?'” said Ben Frable, a collection manager at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, and now, the custodian of one of the creatures: a rare species of anglerfish, known as the Pacific footballfish.

He added, “It was pretty exciting.”

The fish — which live thousands of feet beneath the ocean in near-total darkness and freezing conditions — are rarely seen by humans. The first was discovered in the early 1900s. Since then, 31 specimens have been collected worldwide, two of them last year in California. (The third was photographed but, before scientists could collect it, washed back out to sea.)

This year is “a good year for footballfish,” Dr. Frable said. “At least for us encountering them, maybe not for them — they are deceased.” The last collected in California was 20 years ago, he added.

Pacific footballfish are flabby, slow and poor swimmers. The female lures her prey using a bioluminescent appendage that hangs like a lantern in front of her jaws. (The largest female ever found was 18 inches long. The males are a small fraction of that size.)

But much remains unknown about these bizarre deep-sea creatures, including why three washed up last year on California’s beaches.

Scientists say it could be because of an especially good breeding season or unusual ocean currents and temperatures. Or perhaps, Dr. Frable said, it’s just “serendipitous.” The beachings are probably not the result of the oil spill off the coast of Southern California in October, or any kind of sonic boom or other freak occurrence, he added. In those instances, many marine organisms would wash ashore, not just a couple of fish.

“It is an interesting phenomenon, but we’re not alarmed,” said Todd Clardy, the collections manager of ichthyology at the National History Museum of Los Angeles County, where the fish discovered in May is now preserved. He added, “We are thrilled that we could get one.”

For now, California’s ichthyologists are waiting, breath bated, to see whether more of the deep-sea denizens will wash ashore.

“When these types of things happen, I just think it has more people paying attention,” Dr. Frable said. “The scale of diversity of life on the planet is kind of out of the bounds of what we generally conceive,” he added.

“There are still these mysteries out there.”

For more:

How these elusive creatures have been captured on video.

Why male anglerfish are the ultimate live-in boyfriends.

Is this the world’s best-camouflaged fish?

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Novak Djokovic during the Tokyo Olympics last year.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The latest on Omicron and the pandemic

Australia has barred the tennis player Novak Djokovic from entering the country with a vaccine exemption.

The Grammy Awards have been postponed as Omicron drives up virus cases.

A White House official has said reimbursement for rapid at-home tests will start next week.

Track Omicron’s spread across the world.

Follow the latest on Covid-19 from The New York Times.

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San Francisco was shrouded in haze in September 2020 because of wildfires.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The rest of the news

Air pollutants: Ozone and smoke levels are rising over parts of the West. The two harmful pollutants are a result of worsening wildfires and extreme heat.

Gun lawsuit bill: Phil Ting, a member of the State Assembly, unveiled a bill on Tuesday that would make it easier for people to sue gun companies for liability in shootings that cause injuries or deaths, The Associated Press reports.

Mask mandate extended: California’s indoor mask mandate has been extended through Feb. 15, The Associated Press reports.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Rabbi sentenced: A rabbi who was shot during a synagogue attack in 2019 was sentenced to 14 months in prison for fraud schemes.

Medical staff shortage: Staff shortages at medical centers are worsening in Los Angeles County as more health care employees become infected with the coronavirus, The Los Angeles Times reports.

CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

Earthquake: An earthquake on Wednesday near the California-Nevada border was categorized as a 4.8-magnitude quake, ABC 10 reports.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Mask anger: A DoorDash driver pleaded guilty to making death threats and trying to strangle a liquor store clerk who reminded him to wear his mask over his nose, SFist reports.

Voluntary shutdowns: In Oakland, several local bars and restaurants as well as some big events are voluntarily shutting down to protect staff and patrons amid the Omicron surge, The Oaklandside reports.

Paralyzing traffic stop: A 65-year-old man has been left paralyzed after police officers used “pain compliance” techniques during a traffic stop, The Associated Press reports.

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Credit…Con Poulos for The New York Times

What we’re eating

Curried roast chicken with grapefruit, honey and thyme.

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Evening swimming in Palm Springs.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

Where we’re traveling

Today’s travel tip comes from Angi Dixon, a reader who lives in San Jose. Angi recommends visiting Palm Springs:

“I adore it as a place to go and chillax, have some fun, and just feel free and happy. There is a lot to see and do, good places to eat and shop — and great weather! Even in the summer when it is 115 degrees, it is super great. Hotels are super, there is a casino, and beautiful scenery. I love the sand, along with the Joshuas and yucca palms. Just so beautiful.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

What we’re reading

Ryan Kaji, 10, and his family have turned videos of him playing with toys into a multimillion-dollar empire. Why do so many other children want to watch?

Tell us

What’s the best part of winter in California? Email us at CAtoday@nytimes.comwith your traditions, recommendations and opinions.

And before you go, some good news

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? You might be able to keep them with these tips from our colleagues in Style, who explore the stories of people who prove it’s never too late to get started.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Snaky shapes (5 letters).

Soumya Karlamangla, Steven Moity and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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