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

Posts tagged ‘fish’

Fishy Fathers

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.]

Whitespotted Greenling

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 White-Spotted Greenling shortly after he nipped my big head in his intensity to guard his egg masses. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

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 White-Spotted Greenling before we clued in and got out of his territory with eggs. Image shows small the fish is compared to us and how big his drive to protect the egg masses that he would come after us. © 2013 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

Male White-Spotted Greenling intensely guarding eggs. © 2013 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

Kelp Greenling

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 © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Kelp Greenling. ©Jackie Hildering

Eggs the male Kelp Greenling was guarding. Most often in giant barnacle tests (shells) like this. © 2013 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.”

Another male Red Irish Lord guarding an egg mass - note the very different coloured eggs from the previous image. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Red Irish Lord guarding an egg mass – note the very different coloured eggs in the following image. ©Jackie Hildering

Male Red Irish Lord guarding egg mass. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Red Irish Lord guarding egg mass. ©Jackie Hildering

Red Irish Lord (Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus)

Buffalo Sculpin

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. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Buffalo Sculpin guarding two egg masses – each from different females. ©Jackie Hildering

Male Buffalo Sculpin guarding egg mass. © 2013 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

Lingcod

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 focus a bit fuzzy but the battle wound reveals the perils of egg guarding. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

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 

Wolf Eel

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. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

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! 

Cabezon

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). © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Cabezon guarding egg masses from multiple females (egg masses different colours). ©Jackie Hildering

Cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus)

  • Maximum recorded size: 99 cm

Painted Greenling

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. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Painted Greenling. ©Jackie Hildering

Painted Greenling (Oxylebius pictus)

  • Maximum recorded size: 25 cm

Grunt Sculpin

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 AttitudeThe females apparently also do take on shifts in taking care of the eggs.

Grunt Sculpin. Most often found in empty barnacle tests (not cups!) © 2013 Jackie Hildering

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. 

Scalyhead Sculpin

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. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Male Scalyhead Sculpin in a giant barnacle test. ©Jackie Hildering

Egg masses from at least 4 different female scalyhead sculpins (each female's eggs have a different colour). © 2013 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

Black Prickleback

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. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

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

Sources:

Wolf-Eel – No Ugly Fish!

Don’t say it, please don’t say it. This is not an ugly fish. It hurts when people say this about Wolf-Eels. Such is the way when there is misunderstanding and disrespect for something you love. There is no ugly in Nature – only perfection. If the features of an animal appear foreign to you, it is because it fulfils a role in Nature that is truly awe-inspiring; possibly even beyond your imaginings.

Mr. and Mrs. Wolf Eel on February 16, 2013 near Port Hardy. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Mr. and Mrs. Wolf-Eel near Port Hardy ©Jackie Hildering.

I hope to make this point by sharing with you why the Wolf-Eel  is “designed” as it is and how very wrong many of us are in our perceptions about this species. The Wolf-Eel (Anarrhichthys ocellatus), which can be as long as 2.4 m, is not an eel. Wolf-Eels belong in the Wolf Fish family (Anarhichadidae). They are desperately misunderstood. Wolf-Eels are not dangerous nor “mean”. The opposite is true. They are reclusive, anything but ferocious, quite sedentary and slow moving.

Mature male wolf-eel - about 2.2 m long. © 2008 Jackie Hildering

Mature male Wolf-Eel, about 2 m long. Can be 2.4 m ©Jackie Hildering.

Yes, they have large, fleshy, ossified heads and the species has sharp teeth but this is so they can do what so few marine species can – they can feed on spiny sea urchins, snapping them effortlessly into pieces without suffering a single puncture. They also feed on other hard-shelled animals like shellfish and crabs. Even the roofs of Wolf-Eels’ mouths are impenetrable with ossified, tooth-like projections (see photo below).

Each wolf-eel has distinct spots around their eyes which helps recognize them as individuals. © 2012 Jackie Hildering

Mature males are bigger and have fleshier heads. Each Wolf-Eel has distinct spots around their eyes which helps recognize them as individuals ©Jackie Hildering.

The upper jaw of a wolf-eel. Impenetrable to even urchin spines! © 2005 Jackie Hildering

The upper jaw of a Wolf-Eel. Impenetrable to even urchin spines! ©Jackie Hildering.

To my knowledge there has never been an attack on a diver UNLESS, and here comes the predictable thing, we choose to habituate them. Wolf-Eels spend a great deal of time on the ocean bottom in dens where, as divers, we have the enormous privilege of  “visiting” the same spot and seeing the same individuals for years. It is not just their address that makes them recognizable as individuals. Each Wolf-Eel has a unique pattern of black spots near their eyes.

Grandpa Wolf-Eel on February 16, 2013 near Port Hardy. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Grandpa Wolf Eel near Port Hardy ©Jackie Hildering.

Some divers choose to feed them, leading to the Wolf-Eels associating us with food and that’s where accidents can happen and where the wild behaviour that lets animals survive, becomes compromised. It also makes them tragically easy targets for any spear diver wanting to poach them. There is no legal fishery for this species but there is a demand for them in the Asian market which is why there are also attempts to farm Wolf-Eels i.e. aquaculture. Not surprisingly, Wolf-Eels might also be defensive when accidentally caught by anglers. I found one account from 1959 where a commercial fisherman was bitten and “The teeth penetrated the hip-waders and broke the skin on both sides of the ankle.”

Mature male bearing the scars of battle. © 2011 Gord Jenkins.

Mature male bearing the scars of battle ©2011 Gord Jenkins.

The mature males do carry battle wounds supporting that they don’t just hang out in dens waiting for a snack to come by, but rather that they will occasionally duke it out with other male Wolf-Eels.It was long thought that Wolf-Eels always mate for life but, this is not always the case. The males do compete for females who will sometimes opt to swap dens and go live with the competitor. Sound like any other species you know? Wonder if it happens at mid-life? 😉

Wolf-Eels have long-lasting pair bonds, coming together when they are around 4-years-old and having their first clutch when they are around 7. In aquariums, their life expectancy is known to be at least 28 years. Both male and female juveniles are brownish orange and look even more eel-like, lacking the big head of the adults. As adults, the females are smaller and a darker brownish grey (both remarkably camouflaged for when they are in their rocky dens).

They do also sometimes need to do battle for den space with a Giant Pacific Octopus.  This is likely another driver for the male’s having such fleshy heads – they are better able to survive the wounds inflicted by such battles.

Clearly, another unique feature about this species is their eel-like body. They are the only member of their family that have this body shape. The long tail serves in locomotion, powering them forward with big, slow, s-shaped waves while being stabilized with the long dorsal and pectoral fins (see video below). Having a long tail also allows them to den-up, curling up and around in narrow spaces between rocks and . . . wait for it . . . it lets them hold onto their eggs.

Mr and Mrs Wolf-Eel tending their egg mass © 2005 Jackie Hildering-

Mated pair tending their egg mass. Note how much darker and smaller the female is ©Jackie Hildering.

Female Wolf Eel guarding eggs. March 2016 @Jackie Hildering.

Female Wolf-Eel guarding eggs. ©Jackie Hildering.

Mating apparently most often occurs between October and December, with the female releasing eggs after the male prods against her swollen abdomen. He then wraps around her to fertilize the 7,000 to 10,000 white to yellow eggs that she will mould into a ball shape. This mass does not need to adhere to anything because the parents will take turns wrapping their tails around the mass, holding and turning it for good aeration until the +/- 3.5 cm young hatch some 13 to 16 weeks after fertilization.

Juvenile wolf eel. © 2010 Jackie Hildering-

Juvenile Wolf Eel ©Jackie Hildering.

The juveniles settle into the adult sedentary lifestyle between the ages of 6 months and 2 years (presumably dependent on food supply and den availability). One juvenile is even known to have travelled a minimum of 1,000 km; having been tagged in Port Hardy, BC and found back in Willapa Bay, Washington two years later. It was long thought that Wolf-Eels always mate for life but, this is not always the case. The males do compete for females who will sometimes opt to swap dens and go live with the competitor. Sound like any other species you know? Wonder if it happens at mid-life?

The Wolf-Eel is indeed akin to us in so many ways. It is a homebody that likes crunchy snacks and prefers that they come right by the front door; they are great parents and are docile unless fighting for home or partner. They invest in durable relationships and – they are only as strange looking as we terrestrial bipeds would appear to them.

And if all of that is not enough for you, see the photo below for the indisputable reasoning for by Wolf-Eels are NOT ugly fish!

Statler the Muppet is cute and loveable. Ergo - so are wolf-eels. Case closed!!

Statler the Muppet is cute and loveable. Ergo – so are Wolf-Eels. Case closed!!

 

Range: Sub-tidal to 226 m; Baja California (Mexico) to the Aleutian Islands (Alaska); west to Russia and south to the Sea of Japan.

Mr. and Mrs. Wolf Eel on February 16, 2013 near Port Hardy. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Mated pair near Port Hardy ©Jackie Hildering.

Me and a mature male wolf eel.

Me and a mature male Wolf-Eel ©2012 Norris Colby.

Mature male wolf-eel. © 2007 Jackie Hildering

Mature male Wolf-Eel ©Jackie Hildering.

Mature male wolf-eel. © 2007 Jackie Hildering

Mature male Wolf-Eel ©Jackie Hildering

For these and more images of the Wolf-Eel, please see my gallery at this link. 

Remarkable video of a mature male Wolf-Eel eating a Giant Pacific Octopus by Andrew Eve.

Sources:

Very Rare Fish Find: King-Of-The-Salmon (Trachipterus altivelis)

King-of-the-Salmon at ~1.5m long. Photo: September 2017 by Collin Jay Johnson; near Tattoosh off Neah Bay Washington; depth ~100 fathoms.


Update August 2019: King-of-the-Salmon sighted in the shallows in Telegraph Cove, British Columbia on August 19th. Sighting and photos by Greg and Kim Ashton. Photos below.


Update September / October 2017: There have been 4 known King-of-the-Salmon washed shore in southern British Columbia / northern Washington. See details and photos below.


Here’s a finding to enhance your sense of wonder about the sea and how little we know about its inhabitants.

On March 23rd, 2012 Darren and Joanne Rowsell found this dead specimen on the beach at Lady Ellen Point, Port McNeill, British Columbia, Canada. When the photos landed in my inbox, I almost fell off my chair recognizing how rare a find this was. It’s a King-of-the Salmon (Trachipterus altivelis). The adults feed in the open ocean at depths of 900+ m (3,000 feet) so they hardly ever wash ashore and I had never seen one before.

Darren Rowsell with the King-of-the-Salmon found on March 23rd, 2012 near Port McNeill. Photo Joanne Rowsell.

Easy to see why the King-of-the-Salmon belongs to the ribbonfish family. Photo Joanne Rowsell.

The King-of-the-Salmon belongs to the ribbonfish family (Trachipteridae). You’ll note from Joanne’s photos that the species is indeed very ribbon-like. It is extremely thin and maximum confirmed length is 2.45m (Savinykh and Baitalyuk. 2011). The long, high, crimson coloured dorsal fin is also very reminiscent of a ribbon, tapering down the full length of the fish’s back. These fish move in a snake-like fashion, undulating their long bodies.

The unique common name of the King-of-the-Salmon originates from Makah First Nation legend. This fish was believed to be the “king” that would lead salmon back to their rivers to spawn.

King-of-the-Salmon. Photo Joanne Rowsell.

To kill one was believed to bring bad luck, causing the death of the salmon.  The Makah, like other fisherfolk, must occasionally have caught one on their lines or in their nets.

When one of these very rare and unique fish does wash ashore, it usually draws a lot of attention. See the video and photo below for a large King-of-the-Salmon found near Oak Bay, British Columbia on September 21st, 2017. A second one was also found near Oak Bay a few days later on September 26th. A third was found on a beach off Hood Canal, Washington on October 3rd, 2017. And a forth was found in Sidney, British Columbia on October 29th, 2017.  (See photos below).

King-of-the-Salmon’s dorsal fin extends all the way down its back. Photo Joanne Rowsell.

The species range is believed to be from the Gulf of Alaska to Chile.

Smaller King-of-the-Salmon do feed closer to shore and their diet is known to include copepods, annelid worms, fish scales, and fish larvae. Larger individuals feed on copepods, krill (euphausids), small pelagic fish, young rockfish, squid, and octopus. I presume that stomach content studies have allowed science to determine that the predators of the King-of-the-Salmon include the Bigeye Thresher Shark (Alopias superciloosus), and the Longnose Lancetfish (Alepisaurus ferox).

See video below of one swimming. From Dr. Gavin Hanke of the Royal BC Museum: “King-of-the-Salmon swim by passing a sine wave down their dorsal fin – they can get a fair bit of speed just by doing that. They can also reverse using the same fin flutter. They slowly turn by putting a curve in the body. However, in the first few seconds of the linked video you can see that they also swim in a more typical fishy way (using eel-like body oscillation) when they need a burst of speed or a really quick turn.”

And that appears to be all that is known about the King-of-the-Salmon – yet another one of our remarkable marine neighbours.


Sources:


King-of-the Salmon found near Oak Bay, British Columbia on September 21, 2017 by Ben Clinton Baker. It will end up on display in the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea in Sidney, British Columbia. Photo: Oak Bay News. Click here for the story.  Below, video of what is presumably this individual when still alive. Credit: Peter Rowand. 

 

Second King-of-the-Salmon found near Oak Bay in September 2017. Photo: Emily Walsh, September 26, 2017.

 

Third found: 1.8 m long female King-of-the-Salmon found on October 3rd, 2017 off Hood Canal, Washington by Chris and Randi Jones. As relayed to Randi by Dayv Lowry of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife “this is the first reported occurrence of this species in Hood Canal ever, and the only other one found in Puget Sound was discovered on a beach back in the 1990s near Tacoma.”

 

Same fish as in the photo above. Female King-of-the-Salmon found off Hood Canal, Washington
 on October 3, 2017 by Chris and Randi Jones. It was 1.8 m long (71′) and 3.3 kg (7.25 lb) and necropsy found that “there was nothing in the gut to indicate it had eaten recently”.  and Photo: Lisa Hillier; Washington Department 
of Fish & Wildlife. 

 

Fourth King-of-the-Salmon found in the fall of 2017 in southern British Columbia / northern Washington. This one was found on October 29th near Sidney British Columbia 100 m north of Reay Creek. Report and photo by Josh Grant. Coordinates: 48°38’03.3″N 123°24’22.7”W

 

 

Sighting of a King-of-the-Salmon August 19, 2019 (at least 70 cm long). Greg and Kim Ashton relayed how “We had just tied up our boat in the marina and were walking to shore when Kim spotted what at first we thought was an eel, but quickly realized it wasn’t but some type of fish we had never seen before. It was in five to six feet [~2m] of water and then swam up into shallower water . . . I was amazed at how it seemed to be looking at us and how brightly colored chrome-like its body was . . .”. Video of this individual (below) reveals this individual may not have been healthy.

King-of-the-salmon found near Salem, Oregon in 2006. 1.83 m (6 foot) long and the head was about 23 cm (9 inches) wide. Source: Salem News; July 23, 2006; "Strange Fish Found on Beach Near Seaside" Click here to read the story.

King-of-the-Salmon found near Salem, Oregon in 2006. 1.83 m (6 foot) long and the head was about 23 cm (9 inches) wide. Source: Salem News; July 23, 2006; “Strange Fish Found on Beach Near Seaside”
Click here to read the story.

 

Plankton life stages of the King-of-the-salmon. Source: http://access.afsc.noaa.gov/ichthyo/LHDataIll.cfm?GSID=Trachipterus!altivelis
Credits:
A: Matarese, A.C., and E.M. Sandknop. 1984. Identification of fish eggs. In H.G. Moser, W.J. Richards, D.M. Cohen, M.P. Fahay, A.W. Kendall, Jr., and S.L Richardson (eds.), Ontogeny and systematics of fishes. Spec. Publ. 1, Am. Soc. Ichthyol. Herpetol., p. 27-31. Allen Press, Lawrence, KS, 760 p.
B: Charter, S.R., and H.G. Moser. 1996.Trachipteridae: Ribbonfishes. In H.G. Moser (ed.), The early stages of fishes in the California Current region. CalCOFI Atlas 33, p. 669-677. Allen Press, Lawrence, KS, 1505 p.
C and D: Matarese, A.C., A.W. Kendall, Jr., D.M. Blood, and B.M. Vinter. 1989.
Laboratory guide to early life history stages of Northeast Pacific fishes. NOAA Tech. Rep. NMFS 80, 652 p.

 

Buffalos Mating . . . Underwater!

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

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.

Male Buffalo Sculpin guarding eggs. April 1, 2012. Photo © Jackie Hildering. 

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 to aerate them and stop growth of algae / bacteria.  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. 

Another male guarding eggs on April 1, 2012. 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. Photo ©Jackie Hildering. 

Same male as in the image above. Photo ©Jackie Hildering. 

Many of the photos below show how you the males lie with their flat heads directly upon a cascade of eggs. The clusters of eggs laid in the Spring allow me to find this incredibly camouflaged fish much more easily than I normally could. When I see a golden, orange or greenish shiny mass of eggs, I know a male Buffalo Sculpin has 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 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!

A cascade of eggs below this brilliantly coloured male Buffalo sculpin’s chin, April 1st., 2012 See below. He as still guarding these eggs on April 21st and was guarding other eggs on May 6th, 2012.
Photo ©Jackie Hildering. 

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

The same male guarding eggs 3 weeks later. April 21st, 2012.
Photo ©Jackie 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 ©Jackie 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. 


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


The following photos of male Buffalo Sculpins guarding eggs are intended to show how varied both the colouration of the fish and the eggs can be.  

April 28, 2007. ©Jackie Hildering

 

January 2, 2008. ©Jackie Hildering

 

April 7, 2012. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

April 22, 2012. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

May 19, 2012. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

Buffalo Sculpin May 2018. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

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

 

April 7, 2019. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

April 7, 2019. ©Jackie Hildering.


 

April 7, 2019. ©Jackie Hildering.

Holy Mola!

Something very unexpected landed near the Port Hardy seaplane base on October 20th, 2011 – a dead Mola mola. This is the largest of the world’s ocean sunfishes and looks like a cartoon character rather than a relatively fast-moving, deep-diving fish whose design has been perfected by millions of years of evolution.

Chad Chrighton, the pilot who found the Mola mola near the seaplane base. Photo credit: Mike D’Amour (North Island Gazette).

This fish species is aptly named since Mola means “millstone” in Latin and indeed this fish looks like a huge, flat, gray circle and has rough skin.  It appears to have no body, only a giant, round, flat head with a small beak-like mouth. It is propelled by two pointy fins (dorsal and anal) and is steered by a wide, rounded, rudder-like tail. 

Photo credit: Erika Grebeldinger.

Mola mola are found in all temperate and tropical seas and are relatively common in the open ocean off our coast; often getting misidentified as sharks. They were believed to be passive drifters who travelled only at the surface, wherever the current took them. However, satellite tracking studies have revealed that they dive deeper than 600 m and travel an average of 10 to 20 km per day, the same distance traveled by open-ocean shark species. 

Matthew Drake measuring the Mola mola. To give you get a sense of size, Matthew is 2m tall (6.5′).

They are certainly a rarity on the inside of Vancouver Island however and I greatly appreciate that Matthew Drake let me know about this find and that he undertook a necropsy of the giant together with Louisa Clarke and Natasha Dickinson. (I only recall there being a similarly sized one on the beach in Port Hardy in 2005). 

This Mola mola measured 2.00 m wide, from beak to tail fin, and 2.06 m long, from the tip of one pointy fin to the other. It may have weighed more than 200 kg. Remarkably, this is small for its kind. Mola mola hold the record for being the largest bony fish on earth with an average mass of 1 tonne. The largest Mola mola ever recorded was 2,235 kg and 3.10 m by 4.26 m (it was struck by a boat near Australia in the early 1900s). Note that the whale shark can be more than 9 times bigger than this but, it is not a bony fish. 

Mouthparts. Photo credit: Mandy Norrish.

Matt and the team concluded that the Port Hardy Mola mola was female which meant that she could have up to 300 million eggs in her one ovary. This is another record for the species: having more eggs than any other animal with a backbone.  Another astounding fact is that the larvae could grow to be 60 million times their weight at hatching.

The investigation also revealed partially digested jellyfish in her gut, which is the typical prey of Mola molas. Their diet also includes small fish, eelgrass and crustaceans and they are able to spit out and pull in water and food with their unique mouthparts. As with all species that feed on jellies, a conservation concern is that they mistake plastic bags for their food. However, there was no evidence for this being the cause of death for this particular Mola mola.  

Maybe parasites were a factor in her death? The team found lots of skin and intestinal parasites! Some of the round worms in the guts were even still alive. Parasites are common for Mola molas. In fact, it is now believed that the behaviour of “sunning” at the surface (hence, ocean “sunfish”) might be so that birds can feed on the skin parasites and that jumping more than 3 m out of the water might help dislodge some parasites too. Mola molas are also found associated with drifting kelp patches, where small fish can clean away the pests.  

HOLY MOLA you never know what you are going to find in our amazing marine backyard. 

All the information collected was reported to oceansunfish.org and the mouth parts are on display in Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre. 


 

Beware!  Fabulous Mola mola parasite pictures below! 

Advance only if you are NOT about to eat lunch and/or if you a biology-type like me who can view these kinds of photos in rapturous fascination anytime!


Sources: 

Her intestines were an astounding mass of worms. Likely the species include the parasitic flatworm, Nematobibothrioides histoidii which is thread-like but can grow to be over 12 m (40′). No one apparently knows just how long they can become, in part because dissections/necropsies on Mola mola are rare events. Photo credit: Natasha Dickinson. 

Parasites near the eye. Photo credit: Mandy Norrish.

More great ectoparasites. Photo credit: Matthew Drake. 

Her single ovary. Can have 300 million eggs. Photo credit: Natasha Dickinson. 

 

In the Eye of the Lord (the Red Irish Lord that is!)

The Red Irish Lord (Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus; up to 51 cm) is a fish of incredibly stunning diversity of colour. Right down to its flecked, bulging eyes, this ambush predator is a master of camouflage. 

The remarkable eyes of the Red Irish Lord. Note flecking on the lens. Photo: Hildering.

But how can you be camouflaged when you’re a fish of insane red and/or orange colouring? When you live in the rich, cold waters of the Northeast Pacific where Nature has doled out colour so liberally, you fade into the background even when so vibrantly coloured.  

You can be camouflaged yet insanely coloured, if your world is colourful too. Photo: Hildering.

They are a favourite species for we underwater photographers since, as ambush hunters, they remain still even when annoying divers are flashing lights in their eyes or when a crab is sitting on their heads (see below).

What inspires me to now share a blog item on this sculpin species, is the awe I felt upon seeing the diversity in colour among the Red Irish on yesterday’s dive. We found four individuals among the pinks, reds, yellows and oranges of sponges, soft corals, hydroids and anemones and of course, we missed many more as they were too well-camouflaged! 

I hope that your sense of wonder is also stimulated in realizing that the Red Irish Lords are able to change their colour, pattern and shading to match their surroundings! 

Below, meet the four I saw yesterday. 

First Red Irish Lord we found. Not so brightly coloured as the surroundings were also brown/green. Photo: Hildering

Bright surroundings = brightly coloured individual. Photo: Hildering.

Individual number 3, hoping the crab inches down just a bit further so that s/he can feed (and that the annoying photographer would go away!). Photo: Hildering.

This was such a remarkable photo / learning opportunity but my camera was fogging up. Arg! Photo: Frustrated Hildering.

And the 4th remarkably coloured individual on yesterday’s dive (camera lens still foggy). Photo: Hildering.

For more Red Irish Lord photos see this link (includes images of egg guarding) and the Facebook album at this link. 

 

Lingcod – Fastidious, Fanged Fathers!

Every year, our local dive club does several dives for Ocean Wise’s lingcod egg mass survey from around the end of January to March 10th.

Lingcod male guarding eggs

Lingcod male guarding an egg mass (generally – the larger the egg mass, the older the female that laid it). Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

The survey is the result of concerns about the overfishing of this fish species and is conducted just after the spawn (January to February) when females leave the males to guard the egg masses from predation by species like sea stars. There are very few deadbeat dads in this species!

The data collected provide insight into the abundance and reproductive success of Lingcod in British Columbia and include: depth of the egg masses; their size (grapefruit, cantaloupe or watermelon sized); if the eggs are being guarded by a male; and their state of development (new, eyed or rotten). We are very fortunate that our area appears to have relatively abundant and large egg masses. At the end of this blog, you’ll find my 2.5 minute slide show of their life history. 

 

Male Lingcod with my buddy with her slate, having just recorded depth, size and condition of the egg mass. Buddy is Natasha Dickinson. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

But let me first take you on a wee retrospective journey.  

My understanding of the behaviour of these magnificent fish has now evolved  to where I now take photos of the extremely territorial males guarding their large orbs of fertilized eggs, but it certainly wasn’t always that way for me. The following is a much exaggerated perspective from when I was a very new diver doing their first Lingcod egg mass survey.

In 1999, I had only ever done 14 dives and had never even seen a Lingcod while diving. So, in preparation for the survey, I consulted my trusty field guide and felt well-prepared knowing the information below:

Lingcod male guarding egg mass (lower right). ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Lingcod male guarding egg mass (lower right). ©Jackie Hildering.

 

LINGCOD (Ophiodon elongatus)

  • Size: To 1.5 m and 37 kg.
  • Description: Large head, mouth and teeth; dark blotches on a slender, tapering, mottled body.
  • Habitat: Adults on rocky reefs and in kelp beds to 2,000 m; juveniles on sand and mud bottom.

However, nothing could have truly prepared me for meeting the awe-inspiring and highly dedicated Lingcod Fathers for Future Generations Club.

Serious teeth. ©2012 Jackie Hildering.

Serious teeth. ©Jackie Hildering.

That first experience with the survey in 1999 led me to writing the following tongue-in-cheek “updated” field guide information in my dive log.

LINGCOD (Megadontos fishious)

      • Size: &%$#@ huge!!!!!
      • Description: Teeth sharp, large and fear inducing; species camouflaged for added surprise value; ability to make themselves appear even larger and more menacing by fanning out huge gill plates (opercula). Note: Wise for divers to retreat if this behaviour is observed.
      • Habitat: Adult males found anywhere that groups of dive slate carrying divers like to congregate.
      • Comment: Egg masses are said to have eyes at some stage of their development but no living diver can confirm that this is the case!

This is an awe-inspiring fish species indeed. I have even had a male knock my dive slate out of my hands during a survey. Ironically, I was recording “absent” under the column for whether a male was guarding the egg mass!

Huge egg mass and male Lingcod with battle wounds. It is so meaningful to me that we are likely often documenting the same males year upon year. The males apparently court, mate and guard near the same rocks every year.  ©Jackie Hildering.

 

Huge female Lingcod. After age ~4, females grow twice as fast as males. By age 10 to 12, they are twice the size of males of the same age. Bigger females lay larger egg masses – up to 500,000 eggs! More on the life history in my slide show below. ©Jackie Hildering.

Note that the common name of Lingcod is confusing as they are not a cod nor a ling (another fish species).

For detailed information on the survey, survey reports and on the biology of Lingcod click here for the Ocean Wise webpage. 

Okay, maybe not looking so serious here. :) ©2012 Jackie Hildering.

Okay, maybe not looking so serious here. 🙂 ©Jackie Hildering.

 

Guarding egg mass. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

So much to protect. ©Jackie Hildering.

Sharks Among Us #2 – The Bluntnose Sixgill Shark

[Update February 2019 – Another pregnant female Bluntnose Sixgill Shark has been found – February 5th, in Coles Bay, North Saanich, southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Original blog about a pregnant female found in 2011 follows after the first two photos.]

Photo #1: Dead pregnant Bluntnose Sixgill Shark, found  – Coles Bay, February 5th, 2019 ©Ron DeVries.

Photo #2: Dead pregnant Bluntnose Sixgill Shark, found  – Coles Bay, February 5th, 2019 ©Ron DeVries.


Original blog:

The awe-inspiring images below are of a pregnant female Bluntnose Sixgill Shark (Hexanchu griseus) that was found dead on a beach in Alberni Inlet on low tide in February of 2011. She was necropsied by Department of Fisheries and Oceans staff and there were no obvious indications of how or why she died.

The information has been generously shared by federal shark biologist with the Pacific Biological Station, Romney McPhie. 

4.2 m pregnant female Sixgill Shark – February 2011.

This female Sixgill was 4.2 metres and was estimated to weigh 569 kg (1254 lbs).  As a viviparous shark species, she carried her embryos through the entire 12 to 24 month gestation period (species does not lay eggs / egg cases).  She may have given birth to some prior to her death and still had 28 pups inside her.  If she did indeed give birth, these pups would likely survive.

Sixgill Sharks have been reported to be up to 4.8 metres in length with females being larger than males (females to 4.8 m and males to 3.5 m).Age fo sexual maturity is estimated to be between age 11 to 14 for males and between 18 to 35 years for females. It is believed that life expectancy may be up to 80 years of age. 

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) 2007 assessment report on the Bluntnose Sixgill puts into perspective how rare an opportunity it is to learn about a pregnant Sixgill.  It relates that the number of pups carried by females is known from only three previous credible accounts (ranging from 47 to 108 pups which are 61 to 73 cm in size).

The Bluntnose Sixgill Shark is an extremely cryptic species that can dwell at depts up to 2,500 m.  So little is known about them and (sigh)  they are “near threatened” globally and are a species of “special concern” in Canada.

I have had the incredible privilege of seeing a Bluntnose Sixgill Shark while diving and felt like I was in the presence of greatness. They are living fossils, perfected by 200 million years of adaptation. They are amazingly graceful with large, luminous and intensely green eyes.

They are of absolutely no threat to humans and, like all sharks, have an essential role in marine ecosystems.  As top-level predators, sharks strongly shape food webs and the loss of such predators has proven to have profound effects on the number and diversity of other species.

The unique teeth of Bluntnose Sixgill Sharks. Photo by Romney McPhie.

We however are a threat to them.  It is reported that in just three years (2006 to 2009), 1,341 Sixgills were bycatch in longline fisheries. There is no information on the survival rates from bycatch nor is population size and reproductive rate known for this species.

Please read more about the biology, threats and conservation of Bluntnose Sixgill Sharks:

  • Government of Canada Management Plan for the Bluntnose sixgill shark (Hexanchus griseus) and tope shark (Galeorhinus galeus) at this link. 
  • Species at Risk Public Registry at this link.

Sixgill Shark eye. This one died as a result of longline bycatch and was brought into Alert Bay in July of 2007. It was rumoured to be one of 12 sharks caught by only one local fishing boat. Photo: Jared Towers.

 

Kelp Greenling Colour and Courtship

While diving this morning, I came across a kelp greenling couple while they were courting (Hexagrammos decagrammus to 60 cm).

In addition to being fascinated by the courtship behaviour, I was struck by the intense colouration, especially of the courting male.

Male kelp greenling. Normal colouration. ©2013 Jackie Hildering

Male kelp greenling. Normal colouration. ©Jackie Hildering

Mature male and female kelp greenlings look very different but I had never fully realized how the males’ gender specific colour intensifies during courtship.
Their bodies become much paler while the heads remain dark blue.

Courting male on left (note how much lighter the body is than the head); female on the right. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Courting male on left (note how much lighter the body is than the head); female on the right. ©Jackie Hildering

My 1.5 minute video below shows the courtship behaviour. After that there is a photo of eyed kelp greenling eggs.

Kelp greenling eggs in a giant barnacle shell. See the eyes?! © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Kelp greenling eggs in a giant barnacle shell. See the eyes?! ©Jackie Hildering

It’s Raining Fish?!

Juvenile yellow-tail rockfish.

Recently, I noticed a lot of splashing in a tideline off Telegraph Cove, BC. I share my observations with you via the little video clip at the link below.

You’ll note that it looks like big rain drops are hitting the water.

I discovered that what was creating the splashing were juvenile yellow-tail rockfish feeding on zooplankton. The zooplankton, including a small species of krill, had been concentrated at the surface by the big tidal exchange. There had been almost a 4 metre exchange between high and low tide (more than 12 feet).

I also discovered a very unique larval fish in the tideline that day but will share that discovery in a future “The Marine Detective”.

Click here for the video of the yellow-tail rockfish feeding in the tideline.

Enjoy!