Three-dimensional midwater camouflage from a novel two-component photonic structure in hatchetfish skin

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Abstract

The largest habitat by volume on Earth is the oceanic midwater, which is also one of the least understood in terms of animal ecology. The organisms here exhibit a spectacular array of optical adaptations for living in a visual void that have only barely begun to be described. We describe a complex pattern of broadband scattering from the skin of Argyropelecus sp., a hatchetfish found in the mesopelagic zone of the world's oceans. Hatchetfish skin superficially resembles the unpolished side of aluminium foil, but on closer inspection contains a complex composite array of subwavelength-scale dielectric structures. The superficial layer of this array contains dielectric stacks that are rectangular in cross-section, while the deeper layer contains dielectric bundles that are elliptical in cross-section; the cells in both layers have their longest dimension running parallel to the dorsal-ventral axis of the fish. Using the finite-difference time-domain approach and photographic radiometry, we explored the structural origins of this scattering behaviour and its environmental consequences. When the fish's flank is illuminated from an arbitrary incident angle, a portion of the scattered light exits in an arc parallel to the fish's anterior-posterior axis. Simultaneously, some incident light is also scattered downwards through the complex birefringent skin structure and exits from the ventral photophores. We show that this complex scattering pattern will provide camouflage simultaneously against the horizontal radially symmetric solar radiance in this habitat, and the predatory bioluminescent searchlights that are common here. The structure also directs light incident on the flank of the fish into the downwelling, silhouette-hiding counter-illumination of the ventral photophores.

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Rosenthal, E. I., Holt, A. L., & Sweeney, A. M. (2017). Three-dimensional midwater camouflage from a novel two-component photonic structure in hatchetfish skin. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 14(130). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2016.1034

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