A ghostly, mutant ratfish caught off Whidbey Island in Washington state is the only completely albino fish ever seen by both the curator of the University of Washington's 7.2 million-specimen fish collection and a fish and wildlife biologist with more than 20 years of sampling fish in Puget Sound.
"Ratfish usually hang out in places with soft, muddy bottoms," says Jon Reum, the aquatic and fishery sciences doctoral student who found the albino ratfish during a UW research project. "The typical ratfish in Puget Sound is brown or black with a smattering of white spots so it blends in with the sediments."
This fish was almost pure white with a crystalline layer near the surface of its skin that gave it a silvery sheen.
"It must have been like a beacon," says Ted Pietsch, UW professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences and curator of the UW fish collection. "Why didn't it get eaten, long before this, by some predator, for example, by a spiny dogfish so common in Puget Sound and that love to devour ratfish""
The foot-long female may have been 2 or 3 years old, Reum and Pietsch estimate, making her a teenager in the ratfish world.
She was caught this summer in about 200 feet of water during a UW research project examining the food web in Hood Canal and Puget Sound. Puget Sound is the nation's second-largest estuary in the Lower 48 after Chesapeake Bay. The city of Seattle, home to about 4 million people, is built on its shores. Puget Sound connects to the Pacific Ocean via the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north.
Albinos, found among mammals, fishes, birds, reptiles and amphibians, have a gene mutation that keeps them from making the pigment melanin. The condition is rare in sea life, Pietsch says. He could find only a handful of sightings of albino sharks, and none of albino ratfish, though ratfish are common and abundant in many places around the world. Puget Sound, for example, is filled with a greater number of ratfish,
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University of Washington