Pacific blackdragon

black hole

Ultra-black fish scales could be the future of astronomy

These deep-sea fish are nearly impossible to see.

Karen Osborn, Smithsonian

600 feet beneath the ocean's surface dwells one of nature's strangest animals: a fish that can absorb light like a black hole.

Karen Osborn, a zoologist at the Smithsonian, has been trying to capture the inky, black face of these fish for years, and finally in a study published this summer in Current Biology has done just that.

Inverse is counting down the 20 stories that made us say 'wtf' in 2020. This is number 20. See the full list here.

Across 16 different species of fish, Osborn and colleagues identified a shared biological trait which allows these fish to stop light in its tracks — effectively making them invisible to predators.

The adaptation is "so cool, and so efficient," Osborn told Inverse, it could inspire new, ultra-black materials that we can use to block out light pollution in astronomy, or create our own more effective camouflage gear.

To study these fishes mysterious powers, Osborn collected some scales and brought them back to the lab to see if she and her colleagues could fathom where the light was disappearing to when it hit the fish.

Their findings were published in July in the journal Current Biology.

One specimen of the ultra-black fish species Anoplogaster cornuta.Karen Osborn, Smithsonian.

A structural wonder — What Osborn and her team found was a distinct pattern of pigment-transporting organelles lying just beneath the fish's skin. These organelles, called melanosomes, are specifically designed to transport a dark pigment called melanin, which is also in human skin.

Typically melanosomes only absorb a proportion of incoming light and bounce most of it back out. But Osborn explains that the pattern of melanosomes in these fish's skin is such that when light hits the skin, it is bounced back and forth between melanosomes forever — effectively disappearing.

"Typically that light would bounce back out, and that would give away the position of the fish," Osborn explained to Inverse at the time. "[These fish have] created, effectively, a structural light trap, but they've done it just using the shape of the pigment that's in there."

Osborn and colleagues identified the same melanosome structure across 16 different fish species. Their scales absorb 99.5 percent of light.

The ultra-black Pacific blackdragon (Idiacanthus antrostomus), the second-blackest fish studied by the research team.Karen Osborn, Smithsonian

A technical twist — These fish aren't the only ones inspiring ultra-black, non-reflective materials — scientists at MIT recently created an ultra-black material in 2019. The scientists' design is slightly more effective at capturing light than the fish's melanosomes, but if biomimetic research has taught us anything, it is that animals tend to do it best — we just need to find them.

Inverse is counting down the 20 stories that made us say 'wtf' in 2020. This is number 20. Read the original story here.

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