It’s Hard Out There for a Blobfish: Ugly Animals Need Conservation Too
A captive axolotl. Image: Henry Mühlpfordt/Wikimedia

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It’s Hard Out There for a Blobfish: Ugly Animals Need Conservation Too

Unlovely creatures deserve as much attention as the Cecil the Lions of this world.

Consider the blobfish, a creature which, when out of water, looks like an anthropomorphised piece of colon. Its skin appears fixed in the process of melting: it is less like a fish than a fish hand-drawn by a very drunk person. It looks permanently irked, as though the wind changed, somehow, underwater. One look at the blobfish, and it's hard not to think "Poor baby…"

Known formally as Psychrolutes marcidus, the blobfish—maligned, disputed, loved by comment section contrarians—owes its gelatinous appearance to a complete absence of bones and muscles. Its buoyant, jellied flesh allows it to float from place to place with minimal physical exertion. It is a member of a group of fish species known, in all seriousness, as the "fatheads."

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Very little is known about the blobfish. It's not been filmed or observed in its natural habitat, so no one is quite sure what it eats. It lives at the bottom of the sea, floating just off the floor, and the only specimens we have were washed ashore or scraped up accidentally as bycatch.

That's the problem: along with other unloved sea creatures suffering the ill effects of trawl fishing, it is at risk of being endangered. Boneless, toothless, and about the size of a football, the blobfish is wholly unthreatening, but we are a threat to it.

Unlovely creatures deserve as much attention as the Cecil the Lions of this world.

Enter The Ugly Animal Preservation Society. It has adopted the blobfish as its mascot, and raises money for charities like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Land Trust with a travelling standup comedy show themed around ugly creatures.

Nobody needs to be reminded how much the internet loves a cute animal—sloths wearing onesies, internet-famous cats, and global outcry over the killing of a lion by a dentist—but few tears are shed day to day as the blobfish slouches its slow, meandering way towards extinction.

The same goes for a number of what are routinely called the ugliest creatures in the world. Those featured on the IUCN's Red List of endangered creatures include the gob-faced squid, a toothy alien-like creature, the South American "scrotum frog," the Asian sheepshead wrasse (also known as the "Shrek Fish"), and the axolotl, a ghoulish walking fish whose arms regenerate if cut off.

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All of these are not conventionally "cute," to say the least. Unappealing and largely considered inedible, many of them routinely find themselves trapped on fishing hooks, but they attract little of the sympathy and conservation efforts afforded to the "charismatic megafauna": elephants, lions, and, in the sea, the humpback whale.

The Ugly Animal Preservation Society's founding principle is simple: "We can't all be pandas." Unlovely creatures deserve as much attention as the Cecil the Lions of this world.

Each of the society's performances sees the host city appoint an ugly animal mascot—at the Dublin show I attended, we voted for the lesser horseshoe bat, a bulbous thing with no neck and panels of skin instead of eyes.

But the deep sea creatures are the strangest. "I suppose half the point is showing people that the natural world does not exist for our benefit," said biologist and TV presenter Simon Watt, creator of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society. To comment on the blobfish's ugliness is missing the point: "It doesn't really care about our world, and it still is important in spite of that."

But public appetite for other fish poses a threat to the slow-moving creature. "Nobody eats the blobfish. They probably taste disgusting, so they always get thrown back dead," Watt said. "It's another tragedy in what we do with deep-sea trawling and longline fishing. They're so wasteful. With certain types of deep-sea trawling they'll scrape the bottom of the sea and decimate their habitat, too."

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"It pays to be a big creature. You get more papers on lions than on honey badgers."

Without the existence of a standup night which lovingly takes the piss out of them, some otherworldly fish might not even have names aside from their Latin monikers. The gob-faced squid, for examples, was known only as the somewhat less pronounceable Promachoteuthis sulcus until a scientist performing at an Ugly Animal Preservation Society night gave it a new name. Personal branding is apparently important for fish. As Watt notes, "I think that the existence of names like the colossal squid is proof that we are living in the age of the media-conscious scientist."

After naming, ideally there'll be a holotype—a preserved physical specimen. Many of the "ugly animals" Watt's show addresses have only one or two holotypes which can date back to the 19th century. Today, discovering a new type only offers the vaguest promise of viral success. "Finding a gob-faced squid doesn't give you any real fame–people hadn't even heard about it until we started talking about them in our shows," said Watt.

Another example Watt mentions is the gastric-brooding toad, an alien-like creature which breeds its young inside its throat. It has not been sighted since the 1980s and is presumed extinct, though embryos were successfully cloned by the Lazarus Project in 2013, lending yet further to its air of science-fiction mystery.

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It's understandably hard for funding bodies to feel sympathy for a gastric breeding toad; biologists will have their pets, but for the most part public affection rests with creatures which appear in Disney films, or can be easily spotted on safari.

"It pays to be a big creature," said Watt (though perhaps not a colossal squid). "You get more papers on lions than on honey badgers. For example, in one part of Africa the vultures started to die out, because they were being poisoned. But nobody even noticed until it killed a couple of lions too. It's an economic thing—nobody goes on safari to see the vultures. There's more research into the larger, prettier species."

But the blobfish can only dream of lion-level love and attention. It floats in a hostile world, misunderstood and perceived as useless. "If we only love the things which appeal to us in a shallow aspect, the pretty things, and don't take in the weirdness and complexity of the world as well, we're missing as a society," said Watt. "These creatures aren't evolving to be weird, they're evolving to be good at what they are…"

Which in the blobfish's case is being very lazy, and oddly adorable in its own messy, gelatinous way.

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.

Front page thumbnail image: Alphama/Wikimedia