The Pacific spiny lumpsucker (Eumicrotremus orbis) normally looks like a doe-eyed tennis ball, but when Leo Smith decided to take a photo of it, the fish took on the appearance of something straight out of a horror movie.
That’s because Smith, who is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, used a Frankenstein-like process to capture the “demonic” photo.
Smith told Live Science that he captured the lumpsucker’s unusually spiny skeleton as it fluoresced red under the microscope. Via a process called “clearing and staining”, Smith used special filtering attachments to hide all but the light show.
First, he cleared the fish by immersing it in a bath of cow-stomach enzymes that digested its muscles but left the connective tissue. In doing so, the fish became transparent, but the bones were still visible. Then, Smith stained the fish’s skeleton and cartilage with dyes. This method ensured its bones were still encased in flesh and in a position similar to how it would be if still alive.
The process didn’t end there. Smith had to arrange the fish to face the camera, but without its muscles, it was too floppy. He suspended the fish in a glue mixture made of gelatin and glycerin that was “gross to touch”, he told Live Science. Under the fluorescent light, the fish took on its “demonic” appearance.
“The specimen lights itself, and everything else in the image disappears,” he said.
Normally, the Pacific spiny lumpsucker is about as cute as a fish can be. At 2.5 to 7.6 centimeters (1 to 3 inches), the little swimmers are found in the Pacific Ocean and use suction cups to attach to solid objects so they don’t float away. They come in a wide variety of colors, from shades of brown to green, often with yellow or orange highlights.
But don’t let their cute appearance fool you. Instead of scales, these little buggers are covered in plate-like structures with lumps called tubercles that they use to defend against predators. This, according to Smith, makes them feel like a cactus. Tubercles are found in other species of fish, and are common in the 28 species of lumpsuckers and 430 species of snailfish.
If you’re still not convinced, take a look at these googly-eyed little buggers yourself.
[H/T: Live Science]