Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Buffalos Mating . . . Underwater!

That’s right, it’s mating season for buffalos   . . .  buffalo SCULPINS that is!

Male buffalo sculpin guarding eggs. April 1, 2012. Photo: Hildering

Now that I’ve lured you to this posting with the procreation of a huge, shaggy terrestrial mammal on your mind  . . . let me show you the spawn of this wondrous fish.

The buffalo sculpin –  Enophrys bison – has earned the association with buffalo/bison due to the horn-like spine found on each gill plate (operculum). The species can be up to 37 cm long.

As is the case for many species in the sculpin family,  male buffalo sculpins guard the eggs from predators and fan them with their pectoral fins.  Sometimes they guard the eggs laid by multiple females. When you consider that a female can lay between 19,000 and 32,000 eggs, the males have a lot of fertilizing and guarding work to do!  Their guard duty lasts 5 to 6 weeks until the eggs hatch. 

A cascade of eggs below this brilliantly coloured male buffalo sculpin’s chin, April 1st. Still guarding the eggs on April 21st, see image below. Photo: Hildering

The photos in this blog – all taken on April 1st, 2012 – show you the males with their flat heads directly upon a cascade of eggs. The clusters of eggs allowed me to find this incredibly camouflaged fish much more easily than I normally could. When I saw a golden, orange or greenish shiny mass of eggs, I knew a male buffalo sculpin had to be very near by. The bright colour of the eggs suggests that they might be toxic to many species, further protecting them from predation. 

As you can see, the buffalo sculpins’ red, brown and pink colouration makes them very difficult to discern from the similarly brilliantly coloured life around them.  They will remain absolutely still so as not to give away their presence. Their relative, the red Irish lord, has the same survival strategy. (See this previous blog item for photos and information on the red Irish lord.) 

The camouflage, in addition to reducing the risk of predation by bigger fish and harbour seals, allows the buffalo sculpin to be a very successful ambush hunter of shrimps, crabs, amphipods and small fish. It has been suggested that they eat mainly algae since this has so often been found in their gut but I am willing to bet that the algae ends up in their stomachs as a result of the buffalo sculpins grabbing prey ON the algae!

Another male guarding eggs. If you look carefully, you will see the horn-like spines on the fish’s right gill plate. It is these horn-shaped gill protrusions that led to this species getting both its scientific and common name. April 1, 2012. Photo: Hildering

April 1, 2012. Photo: Hildering

The two differently coloured egg masses suggest that this male is guarding the eggs from two different females. April 1, 2012. Photo: Hildering

April 1, 2012. Same male as above photo. Photo: Hildering

Same male guarding eggs 3 weeks later. April 21st, 2012. Photo: Hildering

Same male with a new egg mass – May 6, 2012. Checked in on him on May 20th, 2012 and he was no longer guarding eggs. Photo: Hildering

Range: Monterey California to Kodiak Island, Gulf of Alaska. Most often found to a depth of 20 m but have been found to 227 m.

Spawn: February and March. 

Source: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – Biological Synopses of Nearshore Fishes 

Whoa! One male Buffalo Sculpin guarding the egg masses of at least 3 different females. February 2018. ©Jackie Hildering.

Photos below give a further sense of how varied the colouration of Buffalo Sculpins can be.

Buffalo Sculpin May 2018. ©Jackie Hildering.

Buffalo Sculpin (and retracted Painted Anemone) May 2018. ©Jackie Hildering.

4 Responses to “Buffalos Mating . . . Underwater!”

  1. Anonymous

    Amazing pictures Jackie, they are incredibly beautiful! Fish daddy’s are amazing creatures.

  2. Leah Robinson

    Nature never ceases to amaze me!! Thank you Jackie for transporting me underwater with you!

  3. Anna

    Wonderful pictures Jackie! Camouflaged sculpins are a favourite of mine (one of many!) while diving. Such a treat to get a glimpse of the next generation!


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