Blobfish: World's Ugliest Animal or Someone's Grandpa?

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 
Blob fish, ugliest fish
The blobfish looks like a normal fish under water, only becoming a blob when it transitions from the pressure at depth to the surface. NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

Imagine someone voted you the ugliest person at work. You would be upset, right? Well, it's a very good thing the blobfish (Psychrolutes microporos), a member of the illustrious fathead sculpin family of deep-sea fishes, doesn't speak English and also lives very far away — 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) under the ocean off the coast of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand — because in 2013, it was voted the World's Ugliest Animal by The Ugly Animal Preservation Society.

The blobfish's disgruntled visage became an overnight international sensation in 2003, long before the The Ugly Animal Preservation Society got ahold of it, when the NORFANZ deep sea expedition pulled up a large, pink blobfish off the northwest coast of New Zealand. This deep-sea fish had a parasitic copepod hanging out of its mouth, and looked like the cartoon character Ziggy after a monthlong bender. The crew called it Mr. Blobby and snapped a now-famous photo — some would go so far as to call it a mugshot — of this bulbous fish out of water.


Why Is the Blobfish So Blobby?

Part of the blobfish's ... charm, if you want to call it that, lies in the uncanny valley, the fact that it looks human, but something isn't right. But here's the thing: We were never meant to see the deep-sea blobfish like this.

"Blobfish are pretty 'normal' looking underwater," said Gareth Fraser, whom we interviewed in 2019. Fraser is a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Florida who studies the evolutionary development of marine fishes. "They only really become a blob when they transition from the pressure at depth to the surface. In my opinion they were awarded the ugliest animal status unjustly."


So, why is the blobfish so ... blobby? Well, it's actually a very clever adaptation: At the extreme deep-sea depths the blobfish calls its natural environment, they go about their business experiencing about 120 times the pressure we do on dry land.

Because of this, they don't grow longer than around 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) and have only enough muscle to allow them to swim in short bursts and not much bone to give their bodies form. The bones of this deep water fish are extremely thin and fragile compared to fishes that hang out near the surface because it takes a lot of energy to build bone.

Blobfish also have quite a bit of fat and the jelly layer of flesh closest to their skin contains a ton of water — in fact, if you pick up a blobfish by the tail, most of their innards just slosh to the face like a water balloon. So when it comes to physique, they just let the pressure of the bottom of the ocean do all that work of maintaining a form. But up here in the air, there's nothing to keep a blobfish's body from melting into a formless, globular puddle. Terra firma is definitely not where the blobfish shines.


What Do Blobfish Eat?

But the deep-sea blobfish has some other cool features besides its pretty face. In fact, the aspic-like texture of its flesh is unique in itself. Lots of fish stay afloat thanks to a handy little gas-filled sac called a swim bladder that allows them to adjust their buoyancy. But in the high pressures of deep water, a swim bladder would just burst. The blobfish found a workaround to the swim bladder, though! Their flesh has a buoyant, jelly-like consistency that is less dense than water and keeps them cruising around in the deep sea at the depth at which they're most comfortable.

Although very little is known by marine biologists about the blobfish's life history, another blob-ish aspect of this deep-sea fish is that it doesn't seem to move around very much. Remember, they are not very muscular, so it's not like they're the most ferocious predators of the deep sea. Nobody has ever seen a blobfish eat, but scientists think they most likely enjoy a diet of whatever just floats into their mouths of the sea bed.


According to gut content analyses, they're mostly eating crustaceans off the sea bed, but scientists have found hermit crabs, brittle stars, sea pens, anemones, plastic bags, a bunch of rocks and even octopus beaks in their bellies. Octopuses are extremely smart, and in order to catch one, a predator would have to have some sort of special talent. For a blobfish, this seems to be their large and powerful jaws, which are able to open extra wide and snap shut, swallowing large prey whole. Curious octopuses, beware!

Blobfish Seem to Be Loners

Blobfish seem to be pretty solitary creatures; every blobfish ever spotted by researchers has been all alone. Scientists know very little about how they reproduce or how often they encounter others of their kind.

The scarcity of blobfish in their known habitat has some scientists concerned. Although it's possible they're being caught up in trawling nets at that depth, it's not likely — those nets are vast, but not that big. What poses a bigger threat to blobfish in the long term is rising ocean temperatures — blobfish seem to need to live in very deep, cold water or extreme latitudes.


Mystery, thy name is blobfish! That being said, all signs point to this species doing pretty well for itself, considering.