You are definitely not allowed into the remote office of Luiz Rocha, curator of fishes at the California Academy of Sciences. Using special scuba equipment and techniques, he dives 200, 300, even 400 feet deep in waters off the coast of the Philippines to an ecosystem that few people have laid eyes on, one that usually only submersibles can reach: the Twilight Zone, a bustling reef clad almost entirely in darkness. He and his colleagues dive so deep, in fact, that to keep from getting the bends, they have to take several hours to carefully ascend bit by bit, sometimes only affording them 10 minutes to study an ecosystem almost unknown to science.
But the Twilight Zone specimens that Rocha and his colleagues bring back to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, including unique corals and fishes, are helping them piece together a snapshot of one of the weirdest habitats on Earth. Oddly, for a place where little light penetrates, corals thrive here, a stark contrast to the glittering shallow reefs of the world, where corals rely on light-harvesting symbiotic algae to survive. Instead, here in the Twilight Zone corals filter plankton out of the water to get their energy. The fishes in this hidden world are also extravagantly colored: Rocha and his colleagues named one brilliant purple and blue species Cirrhilabrus wakanda after Wakanda, the hidden home of Black Panther.
To learn more about why a fish might be so colorful in such a dark environment, we sat down with Rocha, going behind the scenes in the vault that houses the Cal Academy’s specimen collections. In the livestream above, he brings out his other favorites as well, including the deep-sea anglerfish (my vote for the creature with the weirdest procreation system in the animal kingdom) and a massive tooth of the extinct shark megalodon. Also, stay tuned to our Facebook page for more livestreams with the Cal Academy (here’s one we did with their arachnologist) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s master aquarists.
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