A lot of fish are named after land animals — catfish, dogfish, rabbitfish, porcupine fish, kangaroo fish (that last one does’t actually exist, but I wish it did). Today’s animal, the ratfish, seems to have gotten the short end of the naming stick. I like rats, but I don’t think I’d want to be named after them.
Ratfish belong to the family Chimaeridae, otherwise known as shortnose chimaeras. Chimaeras are an odd group of fish that have cartilaginous skeletons like those of sharks and rays. In fact, their closest relatives are sharks. Almost all chimaeras are deep water fish, and are therefore difficult to find and to study. So today I’m going to focus on one of the few chimaera species that hangs around in shallow waters, the spotted ratfish.
Spotted ratfish live in the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska to Baja California. They have been found at depths of up to 913 m, but are much more common in areas between 50 and 400 m deep. In the spring and autumn spotted ratfish tend to hang out in shallower waters, moving to deeper areas in the summer and winter. They prefer to live on the ocean floor, particularly on sandy, muddy or rocky reefs.
Spotted ratfish are named for their spots, and for their long, ratlike tails. They can grow to be up to a meter in length, and females are much larger than males. Ratfish tails can make up almost half of the fish’s length, and are long and thin. Spotted ratfish have silvery-bronze skin, and are covered in fun white spots. They have big huge adorable eyes, which reflect light like those of a cat or dog.
Spotted ratfish hunt during the night, using their sense of smell to locate prey. They swim slowly above the ocean floor, looking for shrimp, worms, fish, crustaceans and sea stars. Ratfish particularly enjoy foods with some crunch to them, such as crabs and clams. They have incisor like teeth that act as grinders to help break up their yummy diet.
Spotted ratfish may be hunters, but they themselves fall victim to predators. Sharks, halibut, pinnipeds and pigeon guillemots are all known to consume spotted ratfish. Eating a ratfish is not always a pleasant experience, however. They are equipped with a venomous spine on their dorsal fin, which can cause painful wounds. The spine can also be deadly if ingested: harbour seals have died after a ratfish spine penetrated the stomach or esophagus. The lesson here: don’t eat ratfish, unless you posses spine-removal tools.
Breeding season in spotted ratfish occurs from spring to autumn. Female ratfish lay one or two fertilized eggs into sandy or muddy areas every two weeks or so. Egg laying can last for four to six days, which is a long time, but is necessary, considering the size of the egg sacks. Each sack is twelve centimetres long, and is basically a leather pouch. The eggs take a long time to develop and hatch, sometimes staying inside the egg case for up to a year.
Unfortunately for spotted ratfish, the appearance of their eggs, and the extensive time it takes for the eggs to hatch means that the eggs are sometimes mistaken as inanimate objects by divers. But the news isn’t all bad: the overall population of spotted ratfish is doing just fine, in part because they don’t taste that good. I guess the key to surviving in the modern world is to taste bad, and not look too pretty.
Cover image by Linda Snook / MBNMS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons