The Verge Review of Animals: the red-lipped batfish

I know it’s unusual and maybe even unkind to force you to consider the aesthetic appeal of a fish’s mouth, but please, consider this one. The red-lipped batfish (Ogcocephalus darwini) is a deepwater fish usually found near the Galapagos Islands, and its defining attribute is its mouth: big for its body (which usually grows to about 25cm, about the length of a burrito) and droopy, the red-lipped batfish’s lips look like a pair of Twizzlers melting in the sun.

Here are some other things this fish looks like: a stingray in a trash pile, a person about to vomit, and the disappointing offspring of Mr. and Mrs. Bighead. Although the reason for the fish’s striking pout is unclear, some scientists think it’s used to attract a mate. Look how the tip of its pink tongue sticks out of its mouth, and imagine how sensual that might be if you were a fish.

Next to its mouth, the second most important thing about the red-lipped batfish is that although it lives in water, it is not a strong swimmer.

As a human who hasn’t yet perfected on-land movement, I find this to be a relatable characteristic. The batfish’s body is built like an airplane (or maybe a bat — hence its name).

It has both pectoral and pelvic fins, which it uses to scurry clumsily along the ocean floor, and a “small fleshy anal fin” underneath its tail, like a propellor.

The underside of its body is covered in bony scales, and its tail is glazed with little thorns. And that thing in the middle of its face that looks,

if I’m being honest, like male genitalia, is actually an horn covered in little hairs, called an illicium. It’s a retractable appendage (common for anglerfish) that the fish uses like a lure to attract prey.

Speaking of dining habits, the red-lipped batfish is a carnivore and tends to snack on small fish and crustaceans. The red-lipped batfish doesn’t have any predators of its own, and because it lives so far underwater, it’s mostly unaffected by environmental impact. If it’s not resilient, it’s at least lucky. The standard lifespan of a batfish is around 12 years, but I wish it was forever.

I wanted to see if the red-lipped batfish was the favored pet of any celebrities (a true sign of a good animal) but I couldn’t find even one misguided but well-meaning famous person who had taken one home and named it. I also couldn’t find any for sale on the Craigslist black market (not that I recommend you buy exotic saltwater fish on Craigslist — this is just research).

If I were purely going on aesthetics, the red-lipped batfish it would probably score very well. I appreciate its commitment to its overall look, its natural scowl, its penis-shaped horn, and its clumsy little body. But I also feel like I need to deduct points for the same things I love most. The red-lipped batfish is glamorous, but not beautiful, and it seems like poor anatomic planning to make a fish that can’t really swim. You know what I really like about the red-lipped batfish? Its commitment to mystery. I now know more about the red-lipped batfish than I ever have before, and yet, I remain as baffled as ever by its existence. Maybe that’s how it should be.

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