Meet the Monkeyface Prickleback, the Hero We All Need

Public Domain NOAA/MBARI. NOAA/MBARI

This vegetarian tidepool dweller could be an answer to dietary protein in times of climate crisis, but who could ever eat a charmer like this?

Sometimes you come across a fish that is so wonderfully weird you just want to pick it up and cuddle it like a puppy. (Or is that just me?) I mean really, though. consider the blind cavefish that crawls up waterfalls and walks like a four-footed animal. Or the 6-foot long catfish that swims 7,200 miles from the Amazon headwaters to the Andes! And who can forget about the badass toothy hermaphrodite that lives 8,000 feet below the surface of the sea?

Well now we have another friend to add to our collection of fabulously freaky fish: Cebidichthys violaceus, otherwise known as the monkeyface prickleback. Hello, my love.

While sometimes mistakenly referred to as an eel, the monkeyfaced cutie made the science headlines recently when University of California, Irvine (UCI) researchers studying the genome of the fish highlighted its aquaculture potential and declared it could be the "new white meat." In the paper, which was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the authors conclude that the "unusual fish ... offer new possibilities for humans to obtain dietary protein as climate change imperils traditional sources."

Among the many unusual features of the fish is that it lives on greens. The authors explain that it is among just five percent of the 30,000 fish species that are vegetarian, "nourishing themselves only with the specialized algae in the tidepools where they live."

Curious about how the monkeyface prickleback could survive on a food source containing such a low level of lipids, Donovan German, associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology, and his colleagues sequenced and assembled a high-quality genome for the fish and discovered the secret.

“We found that the monkeyface prickleback’s digestive system is excellent at breaking down starch, which we anticipated,” said German. “But we also learned it has adapted to be very efficient at breaking down lipids, even though lipids comprise just five percent of the algae’s composition. It is a compelling example of what we call ‘digestive specialization’ in the genome.”

With the increasing realization of just how horrendous raising livestock is for climate change, the discovery could lead to a new source of protein for human consumption – it could be a particularly suitable target for aquaculture, which has problems with what exactly to feed the fish being raised.

“Using plant-based food ingredients reduces pollution and costs less,” said researcher Joseph Heras , the paper’s first author. “However, most aquaculture fish are carnivores and can’t handle plant lipids. Sequencing this genome has provided us a better understanding of what types of genes are necessary for breaking down plant material. If we scan additional fish genomes, we may find omnivorous fish with the right genes that could provide new candidates for sustainable aquaculture.”

And as it turns out, C. violaceus has the great misfortune of being pleasant to human taste buds, as evidenced by those who flock to California tide pools in order to catch them.

Sure, they may have a "mild sweet taste," but look at that face! And the rest of the body: The monkeyface prickleback grows to as much as three feet long and six pounds in weight and can live up to 18 years of age.

And then there's this nugget from FishBase: C. violaceus "breathes air and can remain out of water for 15-35 hours if kept moist." Yes, you heard that right; this fish breathes air and doesn't mind hanging out on terra firma for a day or so.

Given the mayhem we're creating with the climate crisis and such a ducked-up food system (see what I did there?), I know we need to find alternative sources of protein – but I hope we can leave this wonderfish out of the equation. Maybe Beyond Meat can come up with a Beyond Monkeyface Prickleback. In the meantime, I'm starting a fan club.

monkeyface prickleback

California Academy of Sciences/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0