To absorb all that light, it’s not enough to have tons of black pigment, Johnsen says. The key is the skin’s surface.

If a fish’s skin is simple and smooth, light photos bounce right off into the waiting eyes of a hungry predator.

But the more complex the surface structure, the more likely photons will get trapped, ricocheting around like they’re in a pinball machine.

In recent experiments, Osborn examined the surface structure of seven species of super black fish, acquired from the wild.

She found tiny packets of melanin, the same black pigment found in humans, arranged in dizzyingly complex microscopic structures a very difficult game of pinball. Light doesn’t stand a chance.

According to Johnsen and Osborn’s study, some super black fish achieve up to 99.9 percent light absorption.

In other words, only one out of every thousand photons escapes.

The Blackest BlackThat puts super black fish in some very dark company—they’re within shooting range of the blackest creatures known to humankind.

Australasia’s birds of paradise currently hold the record for the “blackest black,” their plumage clocking in with a maximum absorption rate of 99.95 percent.

Scientists believe the complex microstructures on the males’ feathers evolved because a blacker black helps accentuate the bird’s brightly colored spots—with the ultimate goal, naturally, of impressing the ladies.

Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University, was impressed by the “novel mechanism” that these deep-sea fish use to absorb light.

“In bird feathers and in butterfly scales, you basically have microscale cavities that trap the light,” Prum explains,

but super black fish use their own internal optical mechanism for absorbing light via pigment granules.

This unique structure is of interest to scientists working to create a synthetic super black for products such as cameras, telescopes, and solar panels, especially as current production techniques are costly.

Maybe the threadfin dragonfish, with its winning smile and luminous purple photophore, will unlock the next big technological innovation.

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