Is the Umbrella Conger Shady or Sheltered?

Right, this is getting ridiculous.

This is yet another animal – this time a fish – with a weird or awesome name and…that’s pretty much it. There’s hardly any information floating around about the umbrella conger, even the origin of its fancy name!

As slippery as an eel

Its genus name, at least, comes from the Greek for “jaw” and “serpent” (Gnathophis), which is pretty apt since, as a conger, it’s a scale-less eel with a wide mouth, large teeth and long tail. I thought conger eels were basically sea-going anacondas, but at just 45cm (17.7 inches) long, this little umbrella could fit up your sleeve. Its tail is still almost twice the length of its body, but have fun discerning that from the rest of it. Especially in the dark of the ocean’s twilight zone.

Night sight

Fond of soft, sandy, South Pacific sea-floors, the umbrella conger lives for the tropical night and spends it crunching up small crustaceans and bristle worms. It can venture as deep as 366 metres (1,200ft) in search of prey, and prefers the shadow of a continental shelf. For this reason it’s seldom seen by humans, except as unfortunate bycatch, but the odd glimpse has shown us its slick silver sides, olive-greenish upper body, dark stomach, pale intestinal stripe, and overbite with protruding tooth. So the spitting image of an umbrella then, in both colour and appearance. Or is it?

Um, no.

What’s in a name?

In their hugely ambitious project to give all fish names an English translation and explanation, Christopher Scharpf and Kenneth J. Lazara of ETYfish believe the umbrella conger’s is:

“perhaps referring to skinny filaments that protrude from snout and over eyes and/or to a scalloped flap of skin lying over labia, lips, supported by well-developed labial bones.”

Incidentally, it’s also known as the fringe-nosed conger eel, but there’s even less information under that moniker. Maybe that’s a good thing…?

Sheltered existence

Given our atrocious treatment of some of the animals on this list (read:most), perhaps it pays to be under the radar. So far the umbrella conger has not been assessed by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, although it was listed as of “conservation concern” in a 2007 report by Australia’s Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board. It flings its spawn out in the ocean in early winter, and could potentially double its population in one and a half to four and a half years, and, since it’s not exactly top of our menu or in our way, it might be relatively safe for the moment. Well, climate change aside. Because even a literal umbrella can’t do much about that.

TLDR

Latin: Gnathophis umbrellabius 

What? Small marine eel with an overbite

Where? Soft sea floors around Australia and New Zealand, from 12-366 metres / 39-1,200 feet deep in the epipelagic (sunlight) and mesopelagic (twilight) zones

How big? Up to 45 cm / 17.7 inches long

Endangered? Not much data to go on, but in a 2007 Australian natural resources report it was listed as  “of conservation concern”

Probable motto: Well I’m technically out of the rain, I suppose…

They look…interesting. Do they need my help at all?

There are no specific campaigns for this little conger, but Conservation International has several ongoing projects in the Pacific Ocean and its islands to combat climate change and over-fishing.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Baker, Janine L. 2007. “Marine & Estuarine Fishes of Conservation Concern in the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Region“. Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board.

Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Conger eel“. Britannica.com.

Froese R. & Pauly D. (eds). 2019. FishBase (version Feb 2018). In: Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life, 2019 Annual Checklist (Roskov Y. et al, eds.). Digital resource at http://www.catalogueoflife.org/annual-checklist/2019. Species 2000: Naturalis, Leiden, the Netherlands. ISSN 2405-884X.

Gnathophis umbrellabius (Whitley, 1948)”. No date. Atlas of Living Australia.

Gnathophis umbrellabius (Whitley, 1948)”. No date. Fish Base.

Gnathophis umbrellabius (Whitley, 1948)”. No date. World Register of Marine Species.

McMillan, P.J. et al. 2011. “New Zealand fishes. Volume 2: A field guide to less common species caught by bottom and midwater fishing“. New Zealand Aquatic Environment and Biodiversity Report No. 78. Ministry of Fisheries.

Scharpf, Christopher, and Lazara, Kenneth J. 2018. “The ETYfish Project: Anguilliformes (part 3)“.

Whitley, Gilbert P. 1948. “Studies in ichthyology. No. 13.” Records of the
Australian Museum 22(1): 70–94.

Featured image credit: “Umbrella conger”, by Kenichi Miyamoto

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