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The Tiny “Alien” Catfish That’s Still Baffling Scientists

In April of 2011, researchers officially named a new species of mean-mugging subterranean catfish whose multiple rows of long teeth are reminiscent of the titular character from the Alien films.

The species, Kryptoglanis shajii, was originally found at the bottom of a well in the Western Ghats region of India and despite being discovered a full 3 years ago, scientists have remained hazy on its exact classification within the order that all catfish belong to. Recently scientists have taken X-rays of K. shajii skulls and produced some amazingly detailed images that can hopefully shed light on exactly where this strange creature fits in taxonomically. This study was published in the March 2014 issue of Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Part of the reason these mysterious catfish have gone undetected for so long is that they only live in one spot that we know of – the Western Ghats mountain range in southwest India. And even if you happen to be on a fish-hunting mission in this one specific area, you’re still unlikely to find one since they spend most of their time deep within subterranean waterways.

Once they were found, analysis yielded more questions than answers. ”The more we looked at the skeleton, the stranger it got,” said John Lundberg in a press release. Lundberg is a fish zoologist at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and an author on the most recent K. shajii paper. “The characteristics of this animal are just so different that we have a hard time fitting it into the family tree of catfishes,” he added.

Catfish IP

Another thing that makes them hard to find – they’re only 4 inches long. (Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University)

Hoping to get a closer, more detailed look at the fish’s bones, Lundberg and his team used high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (HRXCT) and X-radiography to illustrate the fish’s bony skeleton. They found that a bunch of boney structures in the fish’s skeleton were missing – which they expected – but also that other structures had very unique shapes – which they didn’t expect. These altered forms were ones that Lundberg described as “completely unique among catfishes and all fishes as far as I know.” Many of the changes were isolated in the catfish’s head, which means they could have all served one evolutionary purpose, but the question remains as to what that purpose would be. Due to all these question marks, it remains very unclear to Lundberg’s team which group K. shajii can definitively be assigned to.

“It continues to be a puzzle,” Lundberg said.

A less scientific way to categorize K. shajii would be to put it in the group of animals that look like they were created by H. R. Giger. Giger was the artist who originally designed the alien from Ridley Scott’s Alien. Unfortunately, the famed artist sadly passed away after a fall on Monday in his native Switzerland. Do yourself a favor and read Giger’s Nerdist obituary by our own Kyle Anderson. Lovers of sci-fi art everywhere know how sorely Giger will be missed, but visions of his work persist in nature.

HT: Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, EurekaAlert!

IMAGES: Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

VIDEO: Kryptoglanis shajii skeleton from Academy of Natural Sciences

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