In the darkest depths of the ocean, bioluminescence can make a creature stand out like a sore thumb—or tasty snack. Now, researchers have discovered that deep sea fishes have evolved a way to blend in using ultrablack skin. Their findings could inspire new synthetic black materials.
According to a study published in the scientific journal Current Biology, scientists are convinced they’ve managed to crack the curious code of ultra-black fish camouflage.
Wait, what are ultra-black fish?
They’re fish species that survive in the depths of the ocean, parts where almost no sunlight reaches. This means they lurk in complete darkness most of the time, invisible to the human eye, unless you’ve got superhuman night vision of course.
They look the part too.
Unlike common and more shallow-surface methods of camouflage like the use of transparency and mirrored surfaces, ultra-black fish rely on turning themselves black to blend in with the deep-sea darkness.
And according to the aforementioned study, there’s a pigment right underneath the fish’s skin that allows them to carry out such a feat.
But how does it even work?
When talking about visibility and light in the conventional sense, we can see the things around us because of their ability to reflect light.
But when it comes to ultra-black fish, the pigment underneath their skin has the ability to absorb up to 99.95 percent of any incoming light, leaving a mere 0.05 percent visible.
According to Karen Osborne, a co-author of the Current Biology study and a research zoologist with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, if humans could mimic this same light absorption strategy that ultra-black fish use, it would help engineers develop less expensive, more flexible, and more durable optical technology.
For instance, these ultra-black materials could be used in things like cameras and telescopes.
See all the pictures in this story? According to Osborne, she had the toughest time in the world trying to get her camera to fully capture the photos of the ultra-black fish specimens the team collected.
“It didn’t matter how you set up the camera or lighting, they just sucked up all the light,” says Osborne.
Makes sense, since these ultra-black fish are even blacker than things like black paper, electrical tape, and a brand new car tire.
According to Alexander Davis, a co-author of the study and doctoral student in biology at Duke University, each pigment underneath the fish’s skin works “like a tiny gumball machine, where all of the gumballs are of just the right size and shape to trap light within the machine.”
Back when it was first created in 2014, researchers found that Vantablack could absorb up to 99.96 percent of ultraviolet, visible and infrared light. This already makes it more black than ultra-black fish.
But in 2016, Surrey NanoSystems (the company behind Vantablack) announced that it had improved on the initial blackness and turned it so black it became impossible to measure its light absorption capabilities with any spectrometer.
So that answers the question – no, ultra-black fish aren’t blacker than Vantablack, but they’re still going to be completely invisible in the darkness.