The fish are named for their characteristic method of predation. Anglerfish typically have three long filaments sprouting from the middle of the head; these are the detached and modified three first spines of the anterior dorsal fin. In most anglerfish species, the longest filament is the first (the illicium). This first spine protrudes above the fish's eyes, and terminates in an irregular growth of flesh (the esca) at the tip of the spine. The spine is movable in all directions, and the esca can be wiggled so as to resemble a prey animal, and thus to act as bait to lure other predators close enough for the anglerfish to devour them whole. The jaws are triggered in automatic reflex by contact with the tentacle.
Some deep sea anglerfish of the aphotic zone emit light from their esca to attract prey. This bioluminescence is a result of symbiosis with bacteria. The bacteria enter the esca from the seawater through small vents. In the confines of the esca they can multiply until their density is such that their collective glow is very bright.
In most species a wide mouth extends all around the anterior circumference of the head, and both jaws are armed with bands of long pointed teeth, which are inclined inwards, and can be depressed so as to offer no impediment to an object gliding towards the stomach, but to prevent its escape from the mouth. The anglerfish is able to distend both its jaw and its stomach (its bones are thin and flexible) to enormous size, allowing it to swallow prey up to twice as large as its entire body.