Cannibal Fish with Fangs Washes up on California Beach

A cannibalistic fish with large fangs has been found washed up on a beach in California.

The fish was discovered by a beach walker in West Marin, a rural region of Marin County. Images were shared to The West Marin Feed, a news feed for people living in the area edited by Christian Anthony.

"The fish was still alive when the beach walker found it," Anthony told Newsweek. "He put it back into the shorebreak to try and resuscitate it."

He said the fish, which was around four feet long, then disappeared and that it probably did not survive.

cannibal fish
The mystery fish that washed up a the beach in California. It was later identified as a lancetfish. Adam Neale/The West Marin Feed

Anthony shared images of the fish to Facebook and Twitter asking for help to identify the species. After just ten minutes, Christopher Martin, the curator of ichthyology at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley, had gotten in touch, identifying the species as a lancetfish.

Long-snouted lancetfish (Alepisaurus ferox) are large predatory fish that can grow up to 7 feet in length and live in oceans across the globe, except the polar seas. They are found at depths of between around 350 and 6,500 feet and hunt in the twilight zone.

They are prehistoric in appearance, with gaping fanged jaws, giant eyes, long slim bodies and a large frilled fin along the top of its back. The species' scientific name means scaleless lizard, as its skin is covered in pores, rather than scales.

Lancetfish are often caught as bycatch by fishermen, commonly in the waters off the coast of Hawaii. While they have no value to fishermen, to scientists studying the mid-ocean they are hugely important.

The species is remarkable because of its unusual digestive system that leaves its prey largely intact. This means scientists can look to see exactly what this marine predator that sits in the middle of the food chain has been eating. From this, researchers can better understand the middle of the food web in the mid-ocean, which will help them get an idea of how the marine food web is changing.

From studying the stomach contents of lancetfish, scientists discovered the species is cannibalistic, often consuming members of its own species, earning it the alternative name of cannibal fish.

"Their enormous teeth are likely used for biting their prey, rather than suction-feeding like most piscivores," Martin told SFGATE. "Then they have the difficult task of removing their impaled prey and getting it down their throat somehow—imagine trying to eat a shish kebab underwater."

A lancetfish close up. The species, also known as cannibal fish, are hugely important to the study of mid-ocean food webs. NOAA