Discovery and description of elaborate larval cusk-eels and the relationships among Acanthonus, Tauredophidium, and Xyelacyba (Teleostei: Ophidiidae)

Matthew G. Girard, Ai Nonaka, Carole C. Baldwin, and G. David Johnson

The larvae of marine fishes often differ substantially in appearance from their adult forms. While sometimes visually striking, these larvae can be difficult to iden­tify. Cusk-eels of the predominantly deep-sea family Ophidiidae have epipelagic larval stages that are re­markably diverse in appearance and some of these larvae, such as the bony-eared assfish (Acanthonus ar­matus), are widely popular subjects for blackwater photographers. Re­cently, a larva was photographed and collected off the east coast of Florida that resembled a bony-eared assfish but differed in pectoral-fin morphology. Based on counts and DNA data, we identified this larva as the gargoyle cusk (Xyelacyba my­ersi), a species for which the larval stage has yet to be described. With an improved understanding of cusk-eel larval morphology, we found and identified a single larval specimen of the spiny blind brotulid (Taure­dophidium hextii) collected from the eastern Indian Ocean in 1977, another species for which the larval stage has yet to be described. We describe these novel larvae, compare them to a newly caught larval Acan­thonus from Hawaii, and highlight morphological similarities and differ­ences among them. Previous works have suggested a close relationship among the monotypic genera Acan­thonus, Tauredophidium, and Xy­elacyba, and we found 4 larval and 6 adult shared morphological traits, including an opercular-spine locking mechanism, that support these taxa forming a clade. Considering these findings and that more than a third of ophidiid genera are monotypic, we modify the classification of these 3 taxa so they are classified in the same genus, Acanthonus, to highlight their relatedness. Our study demonstrates the scientific importance of images and specimens collected by blackwa­ter divers for species identification and further highlights their signifi­cance in understanding evolutionary relationships.

Year published
Published online 17 April 2024