No. 25–Strange Fish

Most folks who wet a line from time to time are at least somewhat familiar with perhaps eight to ten or so estuarine fish species commonly caught locally. More experienced anglers should be able to identify at least a dozen more to include bait fish and others that don’t bite on hooks but are caught in cast nets. There are, however, a considerable number of species that range from the curious to the bizarre that are only occasionally or rarely seen.

I get a couple of what the heck is it calls each shrimp casting season from folks describing a toothy, six or so inch long, cigar shaped fish with a lizard like head. They are describing, aptly named, our local species of lizardfish. Ive maintained a few of these guys over the years feeding them live grass shrimp and small minnows. They are primarily a lie-in-wait predator that will bury in the sand. Their motley brown coloration serves them well when lying in ambush amid oyster shells. A search of the web revealed quite a number of species, some quite colorful, inhabiting temperate to tropical waters around the world. Also found was the USS Lizardfish, a WWII submarine. As best as I could determine, regional estuaries are home to Synodus fotens, the inshore lizardfish.

Another odd looking little fish occasionally ensnared in cast nets is Selene vomer AKA the lookdown. Lookdowns grow to sixteen inches in coastal waters where they spawn. They are one of the many species whose young seek shelter in salt marsh estuaries. They are delicate little creatures with thin silvery bodies, a high forehead which dramatically slopes down to the mouth with its lower jaw angled upward and extending slightly beyond the upper. The high placement of the eyes gives it the appearance of looking down on the world. The long filament extending from the dorsal fin is thought to help camouflage the young amid the marsh grass.

Some years ago my net produced a creature with an entirely different visual perspective than that of the lookdown. What I was to later learn, in those pre-internet days, was a southern stargazer, Astroscopus y-graecum, all but disappeared into the sand upon placement in its new aquarium home. Only the eyes and uppermost part of the mouth were visible. About four inches long, the animal was light brown with white spots, had a large flat toped head where the eyes were situated and to which was attached a mouth which can best be described as resembling the business end of a standard post mounted mailbox. Aquarium visitors were rarely able to spot the stargazer in its concealment mode and I took great delight in their startled reaction when it would explode from the sand to inhale an introduced prey animal.

While all creatures are beautiful in their own way, the polkadot batfish, Ogcocephalus cubufrons, is admittedly one of the least aesthetically pleasing fish to look upon that I have encountered. It is, nevertheless, an intriguing animal because of the way it is engineered. It has a broad flat body that when viewed from above, minus the tail end, has an arrowhead shape. Its skin, no scales, is dark brown and warty and it has polka dots on its feet. Feet on a fish??? Well sort of, they’re actually pelvic fins that have evolved to act as hind legs as the fish walks. The forelegs are the pectoral fins which are flexible stalks situated underneath the body to raise it up for walking.

Try this to get an idea of what its amazing head looks like from the side. Make a fist with your curled fingers facing you, extend your forefinger and leave your thumb in place. Your forefinger represents the rostrum that extends over lower face, the eye would be approximately at the tip of your thumb, and your second finger is a greatly shortened and otherwise modified dorsal fin that makes flicking movements as a lure to bring prey to the mouth represented by your ring and pinky fingers.

A second species of batfish known as the short-nose, Ogcocephalus nasutus, is said to inhabit local waters but I have yet to come across one. There are a number of other species of batfish world wide as well as another WWII vintage submarine as a namesake.

What continues to astound me as my studies continue is the incredible variety of life forms that have evolved to inhabit today’s oceans, coastal waters and estuaries. Just as spectacular is the fossil record of species no longer in existence due to the inability to adapt to a host of natural environmental changes wrought across the eons. In researching this month’s column I learned that there is concern for the future viability of batfish species inhabiting the waters of Australia and New Zealand due to commercial fish trawling. Very little is known regarding their numbers, distribution or ability to sustain the population as the fishery continues to take its toll. The ability of the species to successfully adapt to current conditions is most unlikely.