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John Denton: Illuminating the History of Lanternfishes

Education posts

On September 30, 2013, the first graduates of the Richard Gilder Graduate School will receive Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Comparative Biology at the inaugural commencement for the program, the first Ph.D.-granting program for a museum in the Western hemisphere. Over the next week, we're profiling the newly minted Ph.D.s. 

Though John Denton grew up in Gainesville, in north central Florida—“about as far as you can get from the beach” in that seaside state—he’s always been interested in marine life. So it makes sense that while working toward his Ph.D. degree from the Richard Gilder Graduate School, from which he will graduate September 30, Denton studied deep-sea fishes called lanternfishes and the evolutionary relationships between the different species.

MHOL lanternfishes

Learn more about lanternfishes and the deep sea in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the Museum. 

© AMNH


Lanternfishes are bioluminescent, meaning they generate light through a chemical reaction within their own bodies. They also “compose most of the biomass in the deep sea,” Denton says, noting that these small but fascinating fishes have the most elaborate bioluminescent systems of any deep-sea organism: not just a headlight, but also body photophores, or light-emitting organs, arranged in rows along the body and, in certain species, bioluminescent tail-organs called stern-chasers that produce a flash of chemically created light, perhaps to distract predators as the fish darts away.

Lanternfish John Denton

Some lanternfish species, including this short-headed lanternfish, have photophores—or light-emitting organs—in rows along their bodies. 

Courtesy of John Denton


A graduate of Harvard, Denton received his master’s degree from Stanford University, where he studied quantitative methods he would later apply to his work at the Museum.

John Denton Trawling image RGGS

John Denton conducting fieldwork off the Kona Coast of Hawai'i, in the summer of 2011

Courtesy of John Denton


His Museum adviser, Melanie Stiassny, professor in the Richard Gilder Graduate School and Herbert R. and Evelyn Axelrod Research Curator in the Division of Vertebrate Zoology (Department of Ichthyology), “has done the most recent morphological work on lanternfishes,” while he used quantitative and molecular methods—“math, molecules, and fish,” he jokes—to round out the analysis.

In order to study lanternfishes, which are found in oceans around the world, Denton also conducted fieldwork in the Pacific: he joined a team from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association [NOAA]) aboard a ship off the Kona Coast of the Big Island of Hawai`i, where they trawled at night from dusk to dawn, gathering deep-sea organisms including lightfishes, dragonfishes, cookie-cutter sharks, and more, in their nets. Denton also spent time trawling off the coast of American Samoa with NOAA; in addition, he studied fossils of lanternfishes in various museums, including the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

John Denton in class taught by John Maisey

An RGGS course taught by Curator John Maisey; John Denton is second from right (in yellow shirt).

© AMNH/D. Finnin


Denton defended his dissertation in August 2013. He is now an Axelrod Research Postdoctoral Fellow in Vertebrate Paleontology and will be working with John Maisey, curator in the Division of Paleontology, to elucidate the Chondrichthyan (shark) tree of life.

Read more profiles of the graduates on the Museum's blog.

Click here to read more about the Richard Gilder Graduate School. 

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