Hello darling, there is still room in my stomach

Hello darling, there is still room in my stomach

RRomance is different, admittedly, but this love is really crazy. It doesn’t get any deeper, certainly not more bizarre. And this is how it goes: He, tiny, bites down on her, she, huge compared to him, wants everything, literally. Two bodies merge, a small one dives into the big one. He transfers his body to her, she gives him her lifelines. A vampire lover for life. Extreme love, it really gets under your skin. Biologists call it sex parasitism, but actually it is love to the point of self-abandonment. The groom becomes the donor organ, the love of transplantation. So weird love frogfish in the deep sea.

Joachim Müller-Jung

Editor in the feuilleton, responsible for the “Nature and Science” department.

But let’s start at the beginning: A few days ago, the American fish expert Ted Pietsch from the University of Washington received a drawing of a golf ball-sized lump from the Natural History Museum in London. A new species of frogfish, Pietsch suspected that from the first moment. The black-colored, immature deep-sea fish female had landed in a net that scientists had thrown out in the middle of the Atlantic. Of course it was dead. Deep-sea frogfish only live below a thousand meters, without the pressure and darkness down there they perish miserably. In the deep sea, however, the fish, with their distinctive toothed ridges and headdress, are a kind of zoological aristocracy. The unusual, adolescent female, for example, which is now stored in London as a species record, carries a bouquet of appendages with fluorescent bacteria on the tip of the fishing rod above the snout. With the light, the female lures the prey, but also the males.

A female black angler fish, Melanocetus johnsonii, measuring about three inches.  The male, which is not even two and a half centimeters long, clings to the female's belly.

A female black angler fish, Melanocetus johnsonii, measuring about three inches. The male, which is not even two and a half centimeters long, clings to the female’s belly.

Image: Edith A. Widder

Scientists now know of more than 170 species of deep-sea frogfish, and numerically they probably belong to the most successful fish groups in the deepest layers of the oceans. And if the US expert Pietsch and the Freiburg immunologist Thomas Boehm from the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics are right, this could actually be due to the frogfish’s passionate devotion to love.

In September 2020, the two, together with a few other biologists, presented their study of frogfish pairs in the international scientific journal “Science” – and at the same time presented a sensational thesis about a possibly fateful connection between the immune system and reproduction. How, Boehm wondered, is it possible that the small frogfish males are not shed when they nest under the skin of the larger females?

Immunobiologist Thomas Boehm.

Immunobiologist Thomas Boehm.

Image: Copyright: M. Rockoff, MPI Immunobiology and Epigenetics

Females have already been found carrying up to eight of the parasitizing male love servants on their bodies. When the reproductively mature females are ready to spawn, the hour of the little bloodsuckers comes. Then they empty their semen and are then carried around with them until the next “act” – for life. “Some of these males are literally degenerate – down to the testicles, which is all that matters,” says Boehme. It doesn’t matter which part of the body the males attach to, they often sit on the abdomen, many also below on the stomach, but when the time comes and the hour of love comes, the dwarf males are ready – insemination just in time.


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