Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Jennette's Pier "Sea Monster": One Whopper of a Teachable Moment

"Scary, Fanged Cannibal Lancetfish Washes Up Alive"
"Rare Cannibal Fish Washes Up On A North Carolina Beach" 
"Photo Shows Rare Cannibalistic Deep Sea Monster"
               "Photos of mysterious lancet fish going viral on social media"

Seemed like a simple tweet at the time...
These are a small sampling of headlines from the multitude of stories about a lancetfish found on a beach in Nag's Head, North Carolina. As one headline notes, the photograph of the fish went viral on social media on May 16th, just minutes after we posted it in our regular Twitter and Facebook feature we call "#NCNatureFriday." The photo was originally posted on Facebook and Twitter by Jennette's Pier, an educational and recreational facility in Nag's Head that is operated by the North Carolina Aquariums. At last check, their original photos on Facebook have been shared almost 3,000 times.  

The lancetfish photo made the evening television news across North Carolina on May 16th. It is featured on Animal Planet's blog, at least two major US network news websites and is still being shared on news outlets around the world. (Just do a search for "lancetfish" to see what we mean.) Honestly, we thought it would get some retweets but had no idea it would fuel a social and online media frenzy. This event certainly made us learn a lot about the lancetfish, but it also reminded us once again of the power of social media and the importance of solid, science-based environmental education. 

Here are some clarifications on some of the more interesting comments that have been made in reference to the lancetfish photo and our thoughts on some of the things we've learned. 


Alepisaurus ferox can certainly be described as a ferocious looking fish, but it's an open ocean predator after all. Note that lancetfish have a large dorsal fin, but in this photo it was folded down. That along with the close-up of the head probably enhances the "scary sea monster" quality a bit, and we didn't really anticipate that when it was posted. Not a very strong or fast swimmer, lancetfish ambush their prey which consist of slow-moving fish, crabs, squid, etc., and sometimes other lancetfish (see "CANNIBAL," below). Our research shows no reports of lancetfish injuring humans. As a matter of fact, lancetfish are sometimes eaten by humans, but the flesh is said to be soft and not very palatable: and


Well, that does make them sound scary. However, cannibalism (eating members of their own species) in animals is not uncommon, especially in fish. 


Sort of. It is rare to see a lancetfish on shore or near the shore, and the sighting at Nag's Head is certainly something to note. Lancetfish live in the open ocean--they are "pelagic," which means they live in the zone of the ocean that is not near the shore or bottom. While it is rare to find them on the beach, they may not be that rare in the open ocean. They are distributed worldwide and are sometimes taken as by-catch by fishing fleets. As a matter of fact, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences has lancetfish specimens in its research collection. When they turn up on shore it is likely they are dead or at least sick or injured and no longer able to swim well. This was the case with our lancetfish--Jennette's Pier reported that it washed up alive and was returned to the water, but washed back up again later: ; and


Yes, this is a fish story that went viral and we totally did not expect it. We were thinking "neat fish that washed up near Jennette's Pier" and much of the social media world saw it as a scary sea monster which started a flurry of retweets and shares. It shows the power of social media and the fact that all of us that do social media outreach need to be prepared in case this happens. We always need to think before we post and to make sure we have quick access to research and information to share with the news media and the public if something does go viral.


There were a lot of NOPES* and other negative comments on social media, not only in reference to the fish, but also in reference to North Carolina's beaches, the world's oceans and nature in general. We know a lot of it was in fun and not to be taken seriously, but this in itself can be a lesson to environmental educators that we have a continual duty to provide the public with accurate, up-to-date and balanced information about nature and the environment. We also have to make sure we do this in a clear and consistent manner that is based on the best science.  


The lancetfish experience has reminded us of why awareness and sensitivity to the environment is the first, and possibly most important, component of environmental education. We hope this one wayward lancetfish helps us all increase the public's awareness of our oceans and the many amazing species that live in it.   

Thanks to the following for their feedback and review of this post:

Dr. Paige Brown, From the Lab Bench at SciLogs, @FromTheLabBench 

Dr. Wayne Starnes, Research Curator of Fishes, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences 

* "Nope" is an internet meme: "On the web, this emphatic expression is used to indicate fear, disgust or general distaste towards something" From

Based on SumAll, our @NorthCarolinaEE Twitter account had a mention reach of more than 600,000 on that day.