The barreleye (Macropinna microstoma) has extremely light-sensitive eyes that can rotate within a transparent, fluid-filled shield on its head. The fish’s tubular eyes are capped by bright green lenses. The eyes point upward (as shown here) when the fish is looking for food overhead. They point forward when the fish is feeding. The two spots above the fish’s mouth are are olfactory organs called nares, which are analogous to human nostrils. Image: © 2004 MBARI
Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute recently solved the half-century-old mystery of a fish with tubular eyes and a transparent head. Ever since the “barreleye” fish Macropinna microstoma was first described in 1939, marine biologists have known that it’s tubular eyes are very good at collecting light. However, the eyes were believed to be fixed in place and seemed to provide only a “tunnel-vision” view of whatever was directly above the fish’s head. A new paper by Bruce Robison and Kim Reisenbichler shows that these unusual eyes can rotate within a transparent shield that covers the fish’s head. This allows the barreleye to peer up at potential prey or focus forward to see what it is eating.
Deep-sea fish have adapted to their pitch-black environment in a variety of amazing ways. Several species of deep-water fishes in the family Opisthoproctidae are called “barreleyes” because their eyes are tubular in shape. Barreleyes typically live near the depth where sunlight from the surface fades to complete blackness. They use their ultra-sensitive tubular eyes to search for the faint silhouettes of prey overhead.