On Sunday night, the Oscar for Best Picture went to The Shape of Water, a movie about an attractive fish-man and a mute woman who fall in love and have fish sex twice. The ripped amphibian man has inspired many essays on bestiality and at least one sex toy, suggesting that humans are more open-minded about sea creatures than we think. It is a fitting moment for scientists to introduce in a new paper an equally interesting but much less sexy fish: the bizarrely named ‘sarcastic fringehead’.
The paper, recently published in the Journal of Morphology, outlines some grotesque features of Neoclinus blanchardii, nicknamed ‘sarcastic fringehead’ because of the mocking expression on its face when its mouth is closed. If the Shape of Water fish-man is the ocean’s Chris Pine, then N. blanchardii is Larry David at his most ironic, sneering in mockery at the shiny ripped youth around him.
Its sardonic expression, however, disappears when it opens its massive mouth, the researchers point out in the paper, noting that its jaws can open even wider than its body. Then it just looks scary.
The 20- to 30-centimeter-long N. blanchardii, found along the Californian coast, opens its huge mouth to such a massive degree to show off two rows of jagged teeth as a warning to opponents, the researchers argue. “I’m bigger than you and you shouldn’t come into my area,” said Watcharapong Hongjamrassilp, Ph.D., a biologist at the University of California Los Angeles and first author of the new paper in an interview with New Scientist on Friday.
The warning is known as the “gaping display” but can sometimes be adapted for battle. The massive spread of the fish’s jaws means it can fit half of an opponent’s entire head inside, if it so chooses. Feisty as it seems, it is not much more violent than the Shape of Water fish-man when provoked; it’ll clamp its jaws over an opponent’s head but will usually allow those individuals to escape unscathed once they admit defeat.
While scientists already knew about this behavior, they were not sure what purpose it served to the fish. As they investigated it more closely, they found that the fish is anatomically equipped to open its mouth that wide, thanks to a very long upper jaw bone and stretchy cheeks, suggesting the behavior is evolutionarily advantageous. Furthermore, the inside edges of its mouth are fluorescent yellow, and its cheek lining reflects ultraviolet light. All of this suggests its frightening looks are designed to be seen — and to scare.
N. blanchardii is no piscine heart-throb, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any place for it alongside the Sexy Fish-Man and other water-bound celebrities. In fact, it already proved its on-screen charisma while starring in one episode of the BBC series Life. But if there’s one reason The Shape of Water deserved its Best Picture Oscar, it’s because it centered around celebrating our differences. Who’s to say this fish wouldn’t make a splash in a comedic sequel?