Fish with small brain and unflattering name displayed by B.C. museum

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The Royal BC Museum in Victoria has put on display a fish with a large head, small brain and unflattering name: a bony-eared assfish.

The deep-sea creature, about 30 centimetres long, was caught by scientists 10 years ago in Queen Charlotte Sound, off the north end of Vancouver Island.

Formally named Acanthonus armatus, the species is known to inhabit Pacific Ocean waters, but this is the first one caught off the coast of North America, said Gavin Hanke, the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology.

The specimen is featured in “Finding Fishes,” the first exhibition in the museum’s new Pocket Gallery. The alcove — formerly the museum’s coat check area — will showcase rarely seen items from the museum’s collections in three-month rotating displays.

Visiting the Pocket Gallery is free — no museum ticket required.

As might be expected from its common name, the bony-eared assfish, which is a member of the cusk-eel family, will never win an ichthyological beauty contest.

“It is an ugly fish. That’s why I like it,” Hanke said.

“It’s got a big bulbous head and a tapering body and flabby skin. It almost looks like a glorified tadpole. It felt very gelatinous and soft when we picked it up.

“It has a very large mouth, and off the back of the gills there are some very large spines that point backwards,” he said.

“When we first found the fish there were six or seven of us on the deck of the boat looking at it, and nobody could guess even which family it belonged to, because we had just never seen one before.”

Weeks later a Fisheries and Oceans Canada expert in Nanaimo, B.C., managed to identify the critter.

Hanke is including the fish in a series of papers he is publishing on the newly discovered extended range of some ocean creatures.

And although the species is known for its tiny brain, Hanke says he hasn’t “opened this one up” to investigate. Because of its status as B.C.’s only bony-eared assfish, he wants to keep it intact, barring any interest from a researcher seeking to study the specimen.

Hanke is unsure how the fish got its “ridiculous” moniker.

“There are some funny names out there for species, but that one takes the cake.”

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