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Project title or topic of activity

Deep Sea Fish

Author(s): Chantelle Botkin, Carla Escobar, Amanda Grasis

Date: Fall 2000


Summary of Activity

Students are shown photos of various weird deep-sea fish as they hear about their general characteristics, including feeding and reproductive habits typical of animals in the deep sea. The students will make a list of important characteristics that they think would be useful to classify fish. A discussion is held about limitations and benefits of traits and adaptations found in deep-sea fish, followed by the students working in small groups to create their own deep-sea fish based upon what they have learned so far. Each group presents their animal to the rest of the class, explaining the function and need for each body part or organ placed on the animal.


Grade levels

4th-6th grade.

Extensions can be incorporated for any grade level. See "Beyond the Activity", below.

Background information

Little is known about deep-sea life. However, animals recently discovered in the deep sea are known to live under very extreme conditions, including darkness, high pressure, and drastic temperature changes. On the ocean floor, hot fluids released from the hydrovents can reach 750 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, little sunlight, if any, reaches beyond 3,000 feet; no wavelengths can be absorbed, and the world is dark. Consequently, deep sea fish and other animals have acquired adaptations that allow them to "create" their own light, a process called bioluminescence.

All of the following information and images of deep sea creatures are courtesy of PBS’s NOVA "Life in the Abyss" available on the Internet: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/abyss/life/bestiary.html

Anglerfish (Cryptopasaras couesi): More commonly known as the "triplewart sea devil," the female has 3 luminescent sacs, called caruncles, in front of her dorsal fin. The caruncles also aid in enticing prey to within striking distances. The males are parasites and premanently attach themeselves to her sida to facilitate breeding.

Gulper (Eurypharynx pelecanoides): Also known as the "umbrellamouth gulper" or "the pelican eel," this fish can greatly expand its hinged jaws to engulf fishes and deposit them in its pouch-like lower jaw. These fish grow up to 2 feet long, including their whip-like tail , and live in depths greater than 6,500 feet.

Anglerfish (Melanocetus johnsoni): This fish is very round shaped with a large mouth. Nicknamed the "black whale" or "common black devil," its ferocious appearance is deceiving, since it can only reach a maximum length of 5 inches.

Viperfish (Chauliodus sloani): Its lower fangs are so long that they don’t even fit in its mouth!! Instead, they project back close to the eyes. No viperfish has ever been photographed in its natural habitat, but it is rumored to hover at a 45 degree angle.

Ogrefish (Anoplogaster cornuta): The juveniles differ so much from the adults of this species that it took over 50 years for biologists to realize that they were the same species. Also known as the "fangtooth," these animals are found in tropical and temperate waters up to 16,000 feet.

Gulper (Saccopharynx lavenberi): These animals can grow up to 6 feet long with rows of sharp teeth. They eat their prey whole, giving them the name "gulpers." Their victims travel to their "sack-gullet" and into the stomach where they are digested.

Anglerfish (Linophryne arborifera): Their Latin name means "toad that fishes with a net," which refers to the bioluminescent bulb on top of its head and the hanging filaments below that lure prey. Despite its ferocious jaws, this fish is only the size of a baby's fist.

Grammatostomias flagellibarba: Its name means "lined stomatid with a whip-barbel." This fish is only 6 inches long, but the barbel on its chin can project up to 6 feet long. In addition to its impressive barbel, it has two rows of blue-violet luminescent organs on its flanks, which can light up the dark depths of the ocean.

Vampyroteuthis infernalis: Also known as the "vampire squid from hell," this species has the largest eyes of any animal relative to its body size. A six inch squid has eyeballs the size of a large dog. This fish has wing-like fins and photophores, tiny lights on its body. These features help it find prey in depths of 3,000 feet.

Stylephorus chordatus: This fish can reach close to 3 feet in length. It has elongated tail rays, which give rise to its two nicknames "tube-eye" and "thread-tail." Its mouth is the most interesting feature, because it is able to expand up to 38 times its original size when sucking sea water.

Basket Star Fish (Gorgonocephalus arcticus): This fish can be found from the Arctic to Cape Cod and in water as deep as 4,000 feet. This fish is only about 20 inches long. It feeds by creating a canopy that grabs the food to the underside of the body where the mouth is located. The Latin name means "Gorgon Head."

Anglerfish (Caulophryne polynema): The name of this fish means "stalked toad with many filaments." It looks more like a porcupine. A fisherman who caught this fish thought it looked like it had swallowed an orange, because its stomach was so round and stretched. It can grow up to 8 inches long.

Anglerfish (Himantolophus groenlandicus): Sometimes called the "football fish," this animal looks like a linebacker for a professional football team. It was the first anglerfish ever found. This fish can grow up to 21 inches long.

Lasiognathus saccostoma: This fish has a huge overbite, which gave it the latin name meaning "grotesque among grotesques." It has a "fishing rod" on top of its head with a lure and three bony hooks, which serve to frighten away prey.

Thaumatichthys axeli: Also known as "Prince Axel’s wonder-fish," this fish has a bioluminescent organ projecting from its toothy jaws. This serves to light the dark habitat for this bottom-dweller, who lives in depths of up to 11,778 feet. The fish shown in the photograph was found in the Atlantic Ocean.

Long Nosed Chimaera (Harriotta raleighana): This fish has a sharp nose that resembles the nose contour of a supersonic jet aircraft (or maybe even an elephant!). It was for this reason that they were nicknamed "rattail" and "ghost shark." Long Nosed Chimaera have a dorsal fin with a venomous spine that could kill a person. Although this is not likely to happen because they live in waters 8,000 feet deep.

*Note: Scientists are just beginning to understand these deep sea wonders. Therefore, what is currently known and presented on this website is limited. There is still an abundance to be learned and discovered about the deep-sea and its inhabitants. There is a continual need for research in this area, which begins with inspiration in the classroom.

Credit for the activity

The photographs, drawings, and information courtesy of:

Nova Online, a division of the Public Broadcasting Network (PBS):

Title: Life in the Abyss


The activity, itself, was created by:

Chantelle Botkin, Carla Escobar, and Amanda Grasis

University of Arizona

Marine Discovery (Ecol 450)

Fall Semester, 2000

Estimated time to do the activity

1 hour

Extensions can lengthen the amount of time. See "Beyond the Activity", below.

Goals of Activity:


Goal A
Classify deep-sea fish as fish that truly exist and are not invented, fanciful monsters or aliens.

Goal B
Identify at least 3 characteristics that are essential to deep sea fish and their survival.

Goal C
Name at least 2 constraints that deep-sea fish must deal with on a daily basis.

Goal D
Gain an interest in marine life and the tremendous diversity that exists.


National Science Education Standards. (NSES)

Two content standards that this lesson plan covers:


Standard 4: Life Science

Essentials (Grades 4-5)

4SC-E1: Construct classification systems based on the structure of the organisms.

    • PO 1. Construct a simple classification system based on physical characteristics.

Note: This standard is achieved through the presentation of the deep-sea fish images and the discussion following, which attempts to help organize the characteristics that allow animals to be classified as fish (i.e. emphasize the presence of fins, gills, bioluminescent organs, spines, teeth, shapes, etc. in these deep sea fish).

Standard 1: Science as Inquiry

Essentials (Grades 4-5)

1SC-E2: Create a model.

    • Design a model to illustrate a system.

Note: This standard is achieved through the activity. Designing your own deep-sea creature allows for inquiry and creativity. The student presentations that follow allow students to explain their reasoning for classifying their organisms as fish and the adaptations that allow the organism to exist in the deep sea.

Materials Needed

  • colored construction paper
  • styrofoam balls
  • string
  • scissors
  • pipe cleaners
  • markers
  • toothpicks
  • tape/glue
  • beads
  • straws
  • presentation materials (projection screen, fish images, etc.)


  • Have the ability to present/project the pictures of the deep-sea fish (i.e. PowerPoint presentation, overhead color pictures, laser disc, Video Projection Unit, etc.)
  • Be familiar with basic information on the deep-sea and the creatures that live there. See "Background Information", "Web Resources" and "References."
  • Have materials and supplies ready for the students to create their fish for a smooth transition.

Step-by-Step Procedure for the Activity

1. Begin the lesson by engaging the students to think about the deep sea and who may live there, while also assessing their prior knowledge on the subject. For example, "What fish do you know of that live in the deepest part of the ocean?" Go on briefly to explain just how deep the fish they will be seeing actually live. A comparison of a coral reef fish or a whale habitat depth may be helpful. Another useful question is: "What is it like in the deep sea?".

2. Start the presentation of the pictures. Download the pictures from this website or various other sources including books, videos, etc. You can either print them onto an overhead or create a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. We preferred downloading the images from the website to create a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. See "Background Information."

3. During the presentation, make sure to point out the important characteristics of each fish that allow it to survive in the deep sea.

    • Point out bioluminescent characteristics that allow deep sea fish to produce light, the only source of light in the deep sea, where there are no electromagnetic wavelengths absorbed. In addition, bioluminescence can be used for defense and/or mating.
    • Point out self-defense characteristics (spines, venom, etc.)
    • Point out any other obvious features and question the students on the importance of each feature. (e.g. large mouth, large body, lots of teeth, flagella, etc.)
    • Emphasize the fact that scientists are just beginning to uncover the diversity of deep sea fish, so most information is unknown and waiting to be discovered.
    • Mention the high-pressure and ever-changing temperature conditions (mostly cold) that these fish must face.
    • Make sure the students understand that these animals actually exist in the seas and oceans right now. They are not monsters, fake, make-believe, or extinct.
    • Ask questions that have students compare and contrast between deep sea and shallow habitats and between deep sea fish and invertebrates.

4. On the board or overhead, have the students come up with a list of essential characteristics that a fish must have 1) to be classified as a fish, and 2) to survive as a fish in the deep sea.

5. Once the list has been created, split the class into groups of 3 or 4.

6. Have each group create their own original deep-sea fish using the materials provided. Each fish must possess the necessary characteristics talked about above for life in the deep sea and to be a fish. Other added features must have an explainable advantage for life in the deep sea. Have them name their made-up species.

7. Ask each group to present their fish, highlighting the essential characteristics that make it a fish and explaining its adaptations for life in the deep sea and the significance of other features that the fish may have. The rest of the class can question the group members about why they are shaped the way they are or why they have a certain bead on them, etc. The "how, why, when, where" questions are extremely beneficial. Ask them to compare and contrast between the various groups’ fish for similarities or differences.

8. Hang the fish up in the classroom.

Images, work sheets, additional web pages

See links within website.

Items for discussion or conclusion

  1. What are traits or adaptations found in deep sea fish that allow them to live in the deep sea? Why?
  2. How do traits and adaptations play a role in survival and evolution?
  3. What are the differences between the needs, and consequent physical and behavioral characteristics of humans and deep sea fish? What are the similarities?
  4. Imagine that all species had the same traits and characteristics. What problems might this create in the natural world?



When the groups present their fish, the teacher can gauge their level of comprehension by having the students compare and contrast the characterisitics that define "common" fish and define deep sea fish.

Other assessment ideas include:

  • Have each student, at home, make their own fish to turn in. Put limitations on the activity, such as making their fish out of food products.
  • Have students research a specific deep-sea fish, and then write a paper on that fish.
  • Give a quiz on the essential characteristics of deep sea fish.


Beyond the Activity
Further activities which relate to and extend the complexity of the experiment.

Expanding on the principles achieved in this lesson can be accomplished by discussing:

  • Pressure and Temperature: Integrate physics — e.g., the egg-drop experiment, aluminum-can inversion lab, water rising in the tube experiment, etc. All have to do with the effect of changing pressure and the effects it can have on objects; thus indicating the effect pressure changes can have on fish (and humans).
  • Colors and Light: Which wavelengths absorb at different depths, why fish are often brightly colored (at various depths), experiment by having the students hold blue cellophane over their eyes, briefly, and look at different colors. It will give them a better idea of which colors are absorbed in the water and why some fish that appear bright on land, may be less obvious in the water (e.g. red appears black in low light).
  • Science is not complete: It is a never-ending process with many avenues still up for exploration. Too often, students think science is "the truth," rather than a process.
  • Conservation of the sea and ocean: How humans are threatening marine life, what can be done, how students can make a difference.
  • Evolution/Adaptations: The patterns and similarities between other animals both in the water and on land.
  • Deep Sea Bacteria: Why and which bacteria can survive, in the deep sea, and specific adaptations.

Web Resources
A web address with information on the topic of the activity.

Web Address

Deep Sea Bestiary


Creatures from the Deep


Deep Sea Creatures


Deep Sea Creatures


Additional References



Ellis, Richard. Life, Death, and Exploration in the Abyss. Alfred A. Knopf:1996.


Warrant, Eric. The eyes of deep-sea fishes and the changing nature of visual scenes with

depth. The Royal Society, London: 2000. Vol. 355, 1155-1159.


Ocean Drifters. National Geographic: 1993. ISBN: 0-7922-2939-8.