September 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

There’s been a rumour flying around the internet that a mysterious fish from the deep predicted the Japanese earthquake.

The fish is called Regalecus russelii or the Streamer fish. It is a member of the Oarfish family and lives 1,000m beneath the sea and is rarely seen on the surface unless sick or dying. They also happen to look like some sort of mythical sea serpent.

It’s no wonder that there is a legend surrounding the fish.

In Japanese folklore the Oarfish acts as a messenger of warning from the Sea God’s Palace. Whenever they appear on the beaches of Japan, an earthquake is imminent.

In March 2010 the Daily Telegraph and the Japan Times reported that unusually high numbers of oarfish had been found on the coast of Japan. The Daily Telegraph in particular warned that this was a sign of impending doom. A year and one terrible earthquake later the claims could seem to have been justified.

Here is where taking a step back and focusing on the facts comes in handy. There is currently no scientific evidence whatsoever to suggest that there is a link between the two events.

The oarfish is an extraordinary looking animal. Finding a fish that looks like a sea serpent is likely to make a strong impression on anybody’s mind. If a second extraordinary thing such as an earthquake happens later on, it is human nature to connect the two events even if there is no actual connection between them.

It is of course possible that the Streamer fish is sensitive to seismic activity but we don’t actually know enough about the animal to judge. The only sighting of an oarfish at depth (i.e. in its natural habitat) was in 2008. We don’t know how many there are,  know very little about their distribution, almost nothing about their behaviour and are still unsure about much of their physiology. The estimates of how big the Streamer fish can grow for example varies between 3 and 15m. There is as yet no real information to work from.

The idea that the oarfish can predict earthquakes is filled with unknowns and, for now, remains a myth.  What it has shown however, is how little information there is on deep sea creatures when we need it. There are huge amounts of research that still need to be done on marine life and what could be discovered is surely worth the risk and expense of getting to it. There is a 270kg, 15m fish down in the deep that we’ve only ever seen once. Just give me a submarine!


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