The oarfish is probably the closest we’ll get to a real Chinese dragon, so it’s no wonder it’s inspired legends, earthquake warnings, propaganda and, er, robot propulsion…?

Yes, the longest bony fish in the world, which tops out at 17 metres (56 feet), moves by undulating the gorgeous crimson dorsal fin running the length of its body, something oceanographer and ecologist Mark Benfield thinks could be used to propel robotic vehicles. He doesn’t specify if it’s some kind of hamster-wheel arrangement, but in any case, when you live somewhere with very little food, sharp drops in temperature and the pressure of 100 atmospheres, moving tends to be your favourite hobby anyway.

The “king of the herring” lives in the mesopelagic or “twilight” zone of the ocean, between 200 and 1000 metres (656 and 3,280 feet) down, hiding here during the day and shimmering up to the surface at night to feed on plankton and small fish, sometimes hanging vertically like an enormous silver blade. If you do happen to see one up top during the day, it’s incredibly bad news. At least for the oarfish.

“Ribbon fish” are usually only seen dead and stranded, likely due to illness or exhaustion after being churned up by stormy waters. However, an amazingly lucky tourist managed to film some alive in Mexico, which you can see in all their rippling glory on UnCruise.com’s blog here. A huge thanks to Nathan for letting me use this screenshot as well:

© UnCruise.com

Japanese mythology offers a different take for their appearance in shallow water, and this time it’s incredibly bad news for us.

Considered a Messenger of the Sea God, the “rooster fish” apparently appears before an earthquake. It lives far above the ocean floor though, so it probably wouldn’t notice any seismic shifting, and Rick Feeney, of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, claims there’s no link between earthquakes and sightings in California. Either that, or it just took the long way round when coming to warn the US.

A group of US soldiers also fell foul of the oarfish, if a certain hoax was to be believed. In Thailand in the 1990s, a doctored photo was circulated of them holding the “Queen of the Naga”, purportedly caught along the Mekong River during the Vietnam War. Rumours abounded such as all of the men pictured dying of sickness or in freak accidents, but the game was up fairly quickly once people noticed the reported date – after the US had withdrawn from Vietnam – and the colour of their clothing.

Personally I would have had more trouble believing the oarfish was real. When I first saw two of them as a child in Tring Zoological Museum, rippling their way up a wall above a staircase, I thought they were some kind of ceremonial kite. I wasn’t too far off as they apparently taste like one, but rest assured if their taste matched their appearance, it’d be a party of New Year fireworks in your mouth.

TLDR

Latin: Regalecus glesne

What? Long fish that looks like a sea dragon

Where? Found in the mesopelagic/twilight zone of seas worldwide, except the polar regions (that we know of!)

How big? Estimates vary, but can be up to 17 m/ 56 ft long

Endangered? It seems to pop up everywhere and has no known major threats, so currently “Least Concern”.

Probable motto: I was named after the wrong kind of “oar”.

They sound cool. Do they need my help at all?

Despite the occasional stranding, not specifically, but their ocean home could do with some loving. No one likes an acid bath.

Greenpeace

Oceana

WWF

Just to prove I’m not fibbing

Brown, Rachel. 2017. “Mysterious ‘sea serpent’ oarfish resurfaces“. National Geographic.

Bryner, Jeanna. 2015. “Oarfish: photos of world’s longest bony fish“. Livescience.com.

Cohen, Eric. 2007. “The postmodernization of a mythical event: naga fireballs on the Mekong River“. Tourism Culture & Communication, 7(3): 169-181.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Oarfish“. Britannica.com.

Emipepumomo, Mudigo V. 2014. “Fish diversity in one of earth’s least explored zones: the mesopelagic zone“. University of Southampton.

Griggs, Mary Beth. 2014. “This rare footage shows two live 15-foot-long oarfish swimming in the ocean“. Smithsonian.com.

Howard, Brian Clark. 2013. “5 surprising facts about the oarfish that has been washing up on beaches“. National Geographic.

Layers of the ocean“. No date. National Weather Service: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mystery of the real life sea serpent“. 2015. BBC Earth.

PattayaOneTeam, 2010. “Naga hoax exposed“. Thaivisa.com.

Regalecus gresne“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Reidhead, Megan, et al. 2013. “Mesopelagic zone (the twilight zone)“. Denver School of  the Arts.

Shields, Brenton. 2017. “What animals live in the mesopelagic zone?” Sciencing.com.

Featured image credit: Model of an oarfish (Regalecus glesne) at the Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. by Tim Evanson.