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The Bizarre Case of the Stratospheric Skyfish

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Skyfish, also known as solar entities or rods, are well-known cryptids. If you point your camera in just the right direction at sunset, you just might catch one on film. Where do these mysterious creatures come from?

Here's a hint: it has more to do with the film and the camera than with what’s in front of the lens.


When camera technology got good enough to be used by laypeople as well as professionals, people began photographing whatever was in front of them. Occasionally, when they got the photos back, certain things were in the pictures that the people didn’t remember being in front of them at the time. These things took the form of elongated sticks, or rods, with many symmetrical appendages. Sometimes those appendages seemed to twirl around the central rod. Sometimes they appeared in grouped flurries. Whatever the details, they didn’t look of this Earth.

Theories started floating around these things, dubbed skyfish. Some said they were aliens that were invisible to the human eye. Others said they were prehistoric creatures that adapted over the years to make themselves inconspicuous in front of biological predators but hadn’t yet adapted to cameras.


Most said they were elongated images due to shutter speed or field lacing. We’ll be looking at this last set of theories. When an object or a person moves too fast for a still camera, or for a video camera, their image blurs. Most of these images are familiar to us. When a person’s hand and arm blurs in a photo, we know they haven’t mutated. They’re just waving. Less familiar objects aren’t so easy to place. If an insect or bird moves across the photo, the body can be captured as a long line, while the wings are frozen as blurs at the most visible angle of the wingbeat.

This gets more complicated with video and field interlacing. If you are very, very old – gather round and hear of olden times, millennials – you remember that sometimes when objects moved extremely fast on television they seemed to blur into lines of light and dark. It was like someone had dropped fine black stripes across a screen, while simultaneously doubling the image. This was not a mistake. It was a way to deal with fast moving objects and slow shutter speed.

Cameras took two images of an object, each one striped. Each one was called a field. These were mostly done for fast-moving objects, like cars or trucks. The images were interlaced, but one image was slightly in front of the other, so a car seemed to have four wheels. Each field was also stretched out, exactly the way it would be if it was an overlong exposure. When the interlaced film was shown at thirty frames per second, eye took in each field at the same time. The eye generally compensated for the stripes, filling in the stripes of each field. The viewers saw two images at once, but integrated it so that it looked like motion. And so viewers seemed to be watching sixty frames per second, instead of just thirty. This kept fast-moving objects from looking jerky, but it streaked them out across the screen. It did the same for other fast-moving objects, streaking out birds or insects so they looked like dark blobs with many wings - like rods.


People still get pictures of these creatures. It is quite possible that they are what Russell Crowe captured on film recently. There are some who still argue that skyfish are real. They point to fossil evidence of animals that look like skyfish, analysis of recorded evidence that indicates skyfish might be moving at near-impossible speeds, or examples of skyfish that have an odd number of appendages. If they were really the doubling effect of field lacing, they argue, there should only be even numbers of wings on each skyfish. Still, for the most part, images that look like skyfish on normal cameras are seen to be butterflies or birds in motion on high-speed cameras. It’s doubtful these creatures really exist.

Image: Flagstaff Photos

Via The DS Library, The Straight Dope, and The Skeptic's Dictionary.