Royal Society Publishing

Long–wave sensitivity in deep–sea stomiid dragonfish with far–red bioluminescence: evidence for a dietary origin of the chlorophyll–derived retinal photosensitizer of Malacosteus niger

R. H. Douglas , C. W. Mullineaux , J. C. Partridge


Both residual downwelling sunlight and bioluminescence, which are the two main sources of illumination available in the deep sea, have limited wavebands concentrated around 450–500 nm. Consequently, the wavelengths of maximum absorption (λmax) of the vast majority of deep–sea fish visual pigments also cluster in this part of the spectrum. Three genera of deep–sea loose–jawed dragonfish (Aristostomias, Pachystomias and Malacosteus), however, in addition to the blue bioluminescence typical of most deep–sea animals, also produce far–red light (maximum emission 4700 nm) from suborbital photophores. All three genera are sensitive in this part of the spectrum, to which all other animals of the deep sea are blind, potentially affording them a private waveband for illuminating prey and for interspecific communication that is immune from detection by predators and prey. Aristostomias and Pachystomias enhance their long–wave visual sensitivity by the possession of at least three visual pigments that are long–wave shifted (λmax values ca. 515, 550 and 590 nm) compared with those of other deep–sea fishes. Malacosteus, on the other hand, although it does possess two of these red–shifted pigments (λmax values ca. 520 and 540 nm), lacks the most long–wave–sensitive pigments found in the other two genera. However, it further enhances its long–wave sensitivity with a chlorophyll–derived photosensitizer within its outer segments. The fluorescence emission and excitation spectra of this pigment are very similar to spectra obtained from mesopelagic copepods, which are an important component of diet of Malacosteus, suggesting a dietary origin for this pigment.