Some of the most beautiful and conspicuous animals we encounter in the plankton images are leptocephalus larvae. Eels, bonefish, ladyfish, and tarpon form a diverse superorder of fishes (Elopomorpha) that all begin their planktonic lives as leptocephalus larvae, which are characterized by long and laterally compressed bodies that are almost completely transparent. This type of larva is known by scientists to be relatively primitive, meaning that leptocephalus larval forms have been utilized by fishes for millions of years – probably since the Cretaceous period.
Tarpon and bonefish larvae are slightly modified from the classic leptocephalus form. Unlike the eel leptocephali, tarpon and bonefish larvae are thinner vertically and have a well-developed caudal fin, which they use to swim.
Most leptocephalus larvae (sometimes referred to as “leptos”) have a large set of teeth that protrude outward. For a long time, the diet of leptos was a complete mystery because their guts appeared to be empty. We now know that they rely on particulate matter, also known as “marine snow”, as their primary food source (Miller et al. 2013). Our in situ imaging work has revealed that leptos are quite abundant, particularly in the northern Gulf of Mexico, and have a variety of complex behaviors that may help them survive in a realm of intense predation pressure. We recently published a paper presenting evidence that the morphology of these leptos indicates that they likely serve as Batesian mimics of cestid ctenophores, which are strikingly similar in appearance (Greer et al. 2016). By resembling an animal with low nutritional value that predators avoid (the cestid ctenophore), the leptos gain protection from predators. The only perceivable morphological difference is that leptos have a head and a dark backbone with myomeres (muscle strands) that are visible when viewed through a shadowgraph imager, while cestid ctenophores lack these features. For a fish predator relying on vision in a complex ocean light environment, it may not be able to tell the difference, which could explain why predation rates on leptos are much lower than expected (Miller et al. 2015).
Leptocephalus larvae are fascinating, and we are just beginning to unlock some of the secrets of their biology and ecology through imaging. By combining the data produced from imaging them in their natural environment with other techniques to assess diets and predation pressure, we hope to learn more about these animals and what processes impact their survival during their time in the plankton. After all, some of these leptos eventually grow up to do this:
Greer AT, Woodson CB, Guigand CM, Cowen RK (2016) Larval fishes utilize Batesian mimicry as a survival strategy in the plankton. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 551:1-12
Miller MJ, Chikaraishi Y, Ogawa NO, Yamada Y, Tsukamoto K, Ohkouchi N (2013) A low trophic position of Japanese eel larvae indicates feeding on marine snow. Biol Lett 9:20120826
Miller MJ, Dubosc J, Vourey E, Tsukamoto K, Allain V (2015) Low occurrence rates of ubiquitously present leptocephalus larvae in the stomach contents of predatory fish. ICES J Mar Sci 72:1359-1369