Life in the dark can be intriguing

If Edgar Allan Poe had been an environmentalist, he might have liked to write a story called “Life in the Dark: Shedding Light on Biodiversity in the Dark Places of Planet Earth.”

The real book by that name, written by Danté Fenolio and published by Johns Hopkins University Press, is one of the most interesting presentations I’ve seen of the obscure life that few of us know about, let alone see. Fenolio introduces us to macabre creatures with names like Viperfish and Fangtooths that would surely have thrilled Poe.

Opening the book, one is first struck by the absolutely brilliant photography, which leads to two immediate questions: how do these strange animals make a living and how were they able to be photographed? The answer to the second is a combination of perseverance and dedication to art and science in exploring and photographing around the world, in addition to taking advantage of modern technology.

For many deep-sea creatures, Fenolio was actually aboard trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico and various oceans for weeks. When the net brought the animals to the surface, he was there day and night with his photographic equipment.

A series of photos records the developmental stages, from embryo to adult, of a deep-sea anglerfish called Murray’s Deep Sea Devil. The name is fitting given that the fish was named after Sir John Murray, the father of modern oceanography, lives at ocean depths below 6,000 feet and has the nightmarish appearance of a monster that the one would expect to see at such depths if it were not black. A photo shows an open-mouthed devil ray with lots of teeth as it chases a fluorescent, orange, and presumably terrified shrimp.

But not all is horror and terror in the dark, and the ocean abyss isn’t the only places the author has explored. Shallower seas, underwater caves and the subsoil are also areas of darkness in which animals must adapt or die.

One photo shows a colleague wading through waist-deep water with the roof of a cave just above his head. Some of the photographs are stunning without being scary, like several pages of small glow-in-the-dark fish including blue-striped dottybacks, purple firefish and giant flashlight fish that live in tropical seas at depths moderate.

The photography is captivating and the author’s ecological explanations of how bioluminescent organisms work are equally intriguing. Unsurprisingly, much of the biology of this underwater world remains unknown to science. The book makes readers want to know more.

Although we are all aware that many strange fish live deep under the sea, Fenolio also brings up the fascinating invertebrates of the seabed. The photo of him holding a Japanese spider crab, the largest crab in the world with a span of up to 12 feet between outstretched claws, is impressive. But even more in a sense is an image of the giant isopod, the world’s largest woodlouse, which reaches a length of over 30 inches. Imagine if the isopods of our backyards, the roly-polys, reached this size!

Fenolio’s photography will capture everyone’s attention. The writing is also excellent, with a thread of conservation that runs throughout the book. People can’t care about something if they don’t even know it exists, and with this book, everyone will experience many more lifeforms than ever before.

At the end, Fenolio says, “My closing message is a request, a plea really, that we not only marvel at the wonders of life, but also do our part to preserve them. . . for generations to come. One can easily imagine the dramatic photographs and biological discussions of some of this hidden biodiversity appealing to Poe’s macabre imagination. But most of the book is an overview of the benign beings that add to the incredible biodiversity of the world, which we can only truly appreciate by knowing they are there and seeing pictures of them.

Whit Gibbons

Whit Gibbons is a professor of zoology and senior biologist at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia. If you have an environmental question or comment, email [email protected].

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