Image Credit: My iPad and I

Need some nightmare fuel? Have a look at the sheepshead fish (scientific name: Archosargus probatocephalus), a marine inhabitant that gets as much attention in dentistry as it does in ichthyology circles.

First identified in 1792 and found in states including Florida, Texas, and Louisiana, sheepsheads are a popular catch for two reasons: they’re delicious, and that giant, gaping maw full of actual teeth makes for quite the conversation piece. After all, it’s not every day you find a Lovecraftian monster flopping around on the floor of a boat.

“They eat a lot of hard-shelled invertebrates,” says Rob Robins, Ichthyology Collections Manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “The incisors at the front are used to pry loose food from a substrate, and the grinding teeth are used to bust them up.” According to Robins, the teeth found in the sheepshead aren’t materially different from human dentition. “Teeth are teeth,” he says. The fish has three rows of molars on top and two on the bottom and can deliver enough force to crush through a crab.

Aside from their pearly whites, sheepsheads—also known as “convict” fish for their black stripes—are conventionally built, typically growing 14 to 18 inches long and roaming the deep until they become food for larger predators. They’re sometimes confused with the Pacu, an Amazon fish with jagged teeth that snacks on the nuts falling from nearby trees. In a testament to the power of Internet fear-mongering, it was once erroneously reported the Pacu liked to attack human testicles.   

Sheepsheads have no such ambitions, though they are persistent. “They have something called an ascending process that allows them to essentially shoot their mouth out from their head and obtain their prey,” Robins says, which we infer to mean there’s no escape from this thing. Fortunately, they’re not known to bite humans—unless, he says, they’re provoked.

Provoked? “Well, if you painted your fingertip like a barnacle and put it in the fish’s face, it’s a possibility.”

So is never sleeping again. Listen closely for the sound of a captured sheepshead gnashing its teeth:

And have a look at some glamour shots: