There’s a whole lotta fish procreation going on in the NE Pacific Ocean right now. This might be a surprise to those who think mating is more of a spring-fling-kinda-thing.
It may be a further surprise that, for many marine fish species here, the males are the protectors of the next generation. The females leave after laying the eggs and the males remain, guarding the fertilized eggs from predators and often also fanning the eggs to ensure they are well aerated.
For a lot of these fish species, the male chooses the nesting site and entices multiple females to lay eggs there so that he can fertilize them. He then has the work of guarding these multiple egg masses and may need to be on the alert for sneak fertilization attempts by other males.
For species with nests of multiple egg masses, you can often tell how many females have laid eggs there because individual females have different coloured eggs. Therefore, the colour of fish eggs is not a good characteristic to determine the species that laid them. Instead, do a quick scan, chances are a piscine papa is somewhere near the eggs, staring at you.
Through the photos below, meet some of these fabulous fish fathers. No deadbeat dads here!
[Note that this is in no way a comprehensive list of NE Pacific Ocean fish species in which the males guard the eggs.]
The encounter documented below shows how my dive buddy and I recently had a whitespotted greenling come after us, so intent was he on protecting his egg masses. I was very slow in cluing in that this was why he was swimming around us and deserved getting a little nip in the head. Notice how small he is relative to us and yet how this did not deter him in trying to get rid of us.
Male Whitespotted Greenling shortly after he nipped my big head in his intensity to guard his egg masses. ©Jackie Hildering
Dive buddy Jacqui Engel pointing at the male Whitespotted Greenling before I clued in and got out of his territory with eggs. Image shows how small the fish is compared to us and how big his drive to protect the egg masses must be that he would pursue us like he did. ©Jackie Hildering
Here he is intensely guarding eggs. ©Jackie Hildering
Whitespotted Greenling (Hexagrammos stelleri)
- Maximum recorded size: 48 cm
- My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: September to December
Most often Kelp Greenling eggs are in the empty shells of giant barnacles as shown below. Although they are a bigger member of the Greenling family, male Kelp Greenlings do not appear to protect their eggs quite as vigorously as Whitespotted Greenlings. They appear to have a really long breeding season in our area.
Male Kelp Greenling. ©Jackie Hildering
These are the eggs that the male Kelp Greenling in the above image was guarding. The eggs are most often laid in giant barnacle tests (shells) like this. ©Jackie Hildering
Kelp Greenling (Hexagrammos decagrammus)
- Maximum recorded size: 61 cm
- My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: October to March
- Below, slideshow of courting
Red Irish Lord
Oh Red Irish Lords how I love thee. There is no better ambassador for how colourful life is in these waters since they are brilliant shades, yet astoundingly camouflaged. Red Irish Lords are often easier to find when guarding their eggs since these are less camouflaged. They most often egg guard with their heads positioned right atop the eggs, remaining absolutely motionless. It is commonly believed that the fathers guard the eggs but apparently it is more often the mothers but that the parents may take turns. Source: DeMartini and Sikkel 2006: ” Red Irish Lord exhibits primarily maternal and facultatively biparental guarding of the spawn.”
Red Irish Lord guarding an egg mass – note the very different coloured eggs in the following images. ©Jackie Hildering
Red Irish Lord guarding egg mass. ©Jackie Hildering
Another Red Irish Lord guarding egg mass. Note the variation in the colour of the fish too. More photos showing the diversity of colour at this link. ©Jackie Hildering
Red Irish Lord (Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus)
There are Buffalo Sculpin males guarding eggs at this time of year too but more mating appears to be happen in April and May. Usually, Buffalo Sculpins are even harder to spot than their Red Irish Lord cousins but the variably coloured, bright egg masses give away their location. They too have a strategy of staying right atop the eggs and remaining motionless when faced with annoying human divers.
Male Buffalo Sculpin guarding two egg masses – each from different females. ©Jackie Hildering
Male Buffalo Sculpin guarding egg mass. ©Jackie Hildering
Buffalo Sculpin (Enophrys bison)
- Maximum recorded size: 37 cm
- My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: January to May
- Previous TMD blog item on the species: Buffalos Mating Underwater
Soon we will be participating in the Vancouver Aquarium’s annual Lingcod Egg Mass Count. Armed with an underwater slate, we will join divers along the Coast in helping determine the health of lingcod populations by looking at the number and size of the egg masses and if they are being guarded by males. And oh what fastidious fathers lingcod males are! The dedication to protecting the egg masses does vary from male to male but, generally, they do not leave their watch until the eggs hatch which can be more than 24 days. They could be guarding masses from multiple females separated by more than 7 m, and if laid by a female 5 years old and older, the egg masses can be the size of a watermelon and weigh up to 14 kg! That’s a lot to protect! (As is also the case for many rockfish, the older the female lingcod, the more eggs she lays). My best lingcod story is that I was marking down “unguarded” on my slate only to have it knocked out of my hands by the male that was very much guarding the egg mass I had been observing! Lots more info on this species at my blog item Lingcod – Fastidious Fanged Fathers.
Lingcod male guarding egg mass. Photo is a bit fuzzy but the battle wound reveals the perils of egg guarding and/or competition for females. ©Jackie Hildering
Lingcod male guarding egg mass (with a couple of shrimp on his back). ©Jackie Hildering
Lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus)
- Maximum recorded size: 152 cm
- My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: January to April (Vancouver Aquarium’s Egg Mass Survey is from early February to the beginning of April).
- Previous TMD blog item on the species: Lingcod – Fastidious Fanged Fathers
Here’s a case where it is not just the male that guards the eggs. Mr. and Mrs. Wolf-Eel take turns wrapping their long tails around the large egg mass. I hope to one day have the opportunity to get a better image than this but, as a strategy for survival, the egg mass is often deep within the wolf eel couple’s den. Lots more information on this remarkable species at my previous blog item Wolf-Eel – No Ugly Fish!
Mr. and Mrs. Wolf-Eel sharing duty in taking care of the egg mass. Female on left and male on right. ©Jackie Hildering
Wolf-Eel (Anarrhichthys ocellatus)
- Maximum recorded size: 2.4 m
- My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: October to January
- Previous TMD blog item on the species: Wolf-Eel – No Ugly Fish!
I’ve only once been lucky enough to find a male of this huge sculpin species guarding eggs. They can apparently be very aggressive guarders but this very successful male (he was guarding the eggs of several females) was very tolerant of my presence. They have been documented to mate throughout the year. My one encounter with a male cabezon guarding eggs was in May.
Male Cabezon guarding egg masses from multiple females (egg masses different colours). ©Jackie Hildering
Cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus)
- Maximum recorded size: 99 cm
In all these years of diving, I have yet to find a male Painted Greening guarding eggs so that I know for sure the eggs are from this species. Yet something else to be on the lookout for!
Painted Greenling. ©Jackie Hildering
Painted Greenling (Oxylebius pictus)
- Maximum recorded size: 25 cm
And, the stuff of dreams . . . to one day chance upon a male grunt sculpin while he is releasing the hatching eggs from . . . his mouth! For more on that, see my previous blog item Grunt Sculpin – Little Fish, BIG Attitude. The females apparently also do take on shifts in taking care of the eggs.
Grunt Sculpin. Most often found in empty barnacle tests (not cups!) ©Jackie Hildering
Grant Sculpin (Rhamphocottus richardsonii)
You need not be a diver to see the eggs of the following two species.
While carefully lifting up rocks in the intertidal during the Spring, you might
come across these egg masses and possibly even the male guarding them.
I have never seen scalyhead sculpin eggs while diving, likely because they are hidden away and because they are much smaller. The image of the eggs below was taken during a beach walk where students ensured they put the rock back as best they could to reduce the chances of the eggs drying out. Notice the different colours of the looney-sized egg masses? The eggs in this nest are from at least 4 females.
Very interesting in this species is that fertilization is internal.
Male Scalyhead Sculpin in a giant barnacle test. ©Jackie Hildering
Photo taken while on a beach walk. Egg masses found under a rock and they are from at least 4 different females (each female’s eggs have a different colour). ©Jackie Hildering
Scalyhead Sculpin (Artedius harringtoni)
- Max size: 10 cm
- My observations of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: Spring.
- One study showed that the eggs hatched after 11 and 15 days. This study also documented courtship where the males rolled their heads in a circle and flared their orange branchiostegal membranes (on the underside of their throat) which apparently are only orange during mating season. Females were seen to have no response or to snap their heads horizontally in rapid succession, sometimes also quivering. During breeding season the males are also reported to have red-brown spots inside their mouth and a brown anal fin with small yellowish-white spots. (Source: Ragland, H., & Fischer, E. (1987). Internal Fertilization and Male Parental Care in the Scalyhead Sculpin, Artedius harringtoni. Copeia, 1987(4), 1059-1062. doi:10.2307/1445578)
- Previous TMD blog item on the species: Who’s Your Daddy
If you find an ice cream scoop mound like this, you have likely found the eggs of the black prickleback and the guarding male is likely very near. When taking students on beach walks, I emphasize the importance of not displacing animals by using this species as an example. Fish like the black prickleback are adapted to being able to wait out the tide in very little water and if the well-intentioned pick up the fish to put him in deeper water, they could be moving papa away from the eggs he was guarding.
Male Black Prickleback guarding egg mass in a tide pool. ©Jackie Hildering
Black Prickleback (Xiphister atropurpureus)
- Max size: 32.7 cm
- Records of egg guarding on NE Vancouver Island: Spring