Hairy Frogfish

It is clear that there is no shortage on weird critters in the ocean. Most of these happily bumble along the sea floor without attracting undue diver attention besides maybe the occasional researcher. But then there are those critters that stand out and are absolute favourites with divers and photographers. These superstars are on the wish-list of any diver who’s ever seen pictures of them. One of these absolute superstar critters, is the Hairy Frogfish.

Hairy Frogfish (Antennarius striatus) are one of those fish that make you stare and think “Why?”, “How?” or alternatively just “Huh?”. Besides being a Frogfish (which is reason enough to be interesting), they often are – as the name suggests – HAIRY. Yup, you’ve read that correct: a fish with hair on it. Or at least something resembling hair. To prove my point, here is a shot of a prime specimen:

Hairy Frogfish (Antenarius striatus)

Hairy Frogfish (Antenarius striatus)

In case you would be asking why, here’s is what we know: As many of the other critters I’ve written about, the main goal seems to be camouflage. This species seems to become hairy in areas with high filamentous algae growth, the hair mimics the algae and breaks up their body outline. However, Hairy Frogfish are not always hairy, they are relatively frequently seen without hair, but in that case they don’t always get recognised as “Hairy Frogfish”. As a matter of fact, their scientific name (Antennarius striatus) relates to the fact that they have stripes on their sides.

So seeing a hairy Antennarius striatus is as if you’d suddenly see a zebra covered in very long hairs….with a fishing rod growing out of its head….and a mouth so big you could fit an antelope in it…Let me just share this mental image to show you how VERY weird a hairy frogfish really is:

A terrestrial interpretation of a Hairy Frogfish..

Terrestrial interpretation of a Hairy Frogfish..

On top of it, that nightmarish zebra would also be able to change colour. Not just to a kind of grey or brown, but nearly every colour in the rainbow! I have seen hairy frogfish being yellow, red, orange, black and white. The goal again is to blend in, so the white versions are often juveniles found in areas with many dead sea urchin-shells (which are white). This white version is usually not hairy to resemble the shell fragments even more closely. My favourite colour morph is the black version, which seem to get this colour when associated with living (black) sea urchins.

Black Hairy Frogfish

Black Hairy Frogfish

Hairy close-up

Hairy close-up

The other obvious question (How???) is harder to answer. There are a lot of theories around, but I could not find a single paper describing how the process happens. So we don’t really know, but the “hairs” seem to be filaments growing from the skin. To confuse things a bit, frogfish often also have real algae growing on them. This hairy appearance is not restricted to frogfish, but can also be seen in certain species of Scorpionfishes and Ghostpipefishes. The growth of it seems to be triggered by absence / presence of certain algae, but the exact details remain a mystery.

In the minds of many divers, the hairy frogfish is exclusively associated with world-class muck sites such as Lembeh Strait or Anilao. In reality, they are one of the most widespread species of frogfish. They can be found all the way to Perth and Sydney in Australia, but have also been seen in Brazil and Blue Heron Bridge in Florida. Genetic analysis do hint at the fact that these widespread Hairy Frogfishes might actually represent multiple species, plenty of room for some more research there….

Bad luck and How to find a frogfish

A few days ago, I prepared a blog post about a very interesting experiment we had started. It had everything to be cool (at least in my mind): interesting, sciency and a nerdy acronym to go with it! Luke and I were deploying SMURFs (Standard Monitoring Unit for Recruitment of Fish) to look at the habitat preference of baby fishes. The reason it did not get published, is the ocean. The night after successfully deploying the first 15 units, the waves picked up and destroyed all of our work… Marine biology fieldwork can be pretty amazing and it can be rather challenging as well. But that’s the beauty of the ocean: it’s unpredictable. Which can be frustrating at times, but can mean fantastic surprises as well.

Cartoon life_eggs

Baby froggie

Baby froggie

Which was proven once again when we found this very cute little baby Frogfish after assessing the damage to our equipment. We don’t know which species it is, since it was still tiny (less than 5mm). It was bright red, which would lead one to falsely believe they are easy to see on black sand. Think again! Next time you dive (or snorkel, or walk) over volcanic black sand, take a close look at the sand and you’ll notice there is a surprising amount of red grains in there. An unexpectedly efficient form of camouflage…

So how do you find a Frogfish? Or other cryptic critters for that matter? They have been evolving for millions of years to be invisible and most of them are very small, so spotting them is something that takes a while to learn. Here are a few tips to make it easier:

  • Movement: Your average Scorpionfish or Frogfish does not move very much, but every now and then they do. Whether it’s a small shifting of the fins, an eyeball that rolls to follow potential prey, or a full swim, our eyes are fantastic at spotting movement. So if you see an unexpected twitch or you think you might have imagined seeing something shift in the corner of your eye, investigate it!
  • Habitat: The critters I am investigating here are usually found on sand, but there are A LOT of different types of sand. Not just the type of sand, but also what’s on it, whether it’s algae, sponges, featherstars, logs, mooring blocks or anything else that offers a minor difference in structure. Certain species of frogfish (eg. Giant Frogfish) are nearly exclusively found on sponges, while other (eg. juvenile Hairy Frogfish) like to hang out in areas with a lot of shell fragments. Sand Divers (Trichonotus sp.) love very loose sand, while Thorny Seahorses seem to prefer coarse sand with plant debris. In this post I explain where to find different species of scorpionfishes.
Sand Diver (Trichonotus elegans)

Sand Diver (Trichonotus elegans)

  • Shape: Even with their amazing camouflage, fish will be fish, which means they have (most of) the parts normal fish have. These shapes can help you find them. The distinctive thick pectoral fin of Stonefish are one of the best ways to recognize them. Pygmy seahorses are tiny and hide in big seafans, but they use their tails to hold on, which is one the things you can look for to try and find them.
Stonefish are easiest to find by looking at their pectoral fins (orange in this individual)

Stonefish (Synanceia horrida) can be found by looking for their pectoral fins (orange in this individual)

  • Position: your own position makes a massive difference when trying to spot cryptobenthic fauna. If you are high above the sand, everything blends in, these species evolved to hide from most top-down predators. Get close and get low, if there is a slope, look up the slope instead of down, silhouettes often stand out this way.
Robust ghostpipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus) mimick decaying leaf litter. Getting close and low makes finding them easier

Robust ghostpipefish (Solenostomus cyanopterus) mimick decaying leaf litter. Getting close and low makes finding them easier

  • Luck: In the end, good portion of luck can play a big role in finding that elusive critter you’re looking for. If anyone knows how to get better at this particular method of finding critters, please tell me!

The beauty of Scorpionfishes

Time to ramp up the critter section after the Winged Pipefish and juvenile Batfish. Both of the previous critters are generally considered to look pretty or at least kind of cute, which is often not the case for members of the Scorpionfish family.

Flasher Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis macrochir)

Flasher Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis macrochir)

Ever since I’ve started diving I’ve been intrigued by Scorpionfishes and I never get bored looking at them. They are well camouflaged predatory fishes that lay on the bottom (true “benthic” critters!), waiting for unsuspecting prey to pass by. Or maybe they just use that as an excuse to chill out most of the time. The benefit of this lazy behaviour is that they are easy to photograph, provided you can find them of course.

What I’d like to do with this post is prove to you how beautiful Scorpionfishes can be. They often get a bad reputation because of their venomous spines and (supposedly) ugly looks, which is demonstrated by some of their common names: Devilfish, Dragonhead-fish (in German: “Drachenkopf”), Stingfish, Waspfish, … While it is undeniably true that you’d best avoid planting your feet or hands on species of the Scorpaenid-family, they are not aggressive at all. So if you keep a safe distance, you can take all the time you want to watch and/or photograph them.

Algal growth anyone?

Flasher Scorpionfish

Once you start really observing them, you will find out that they are absolutely amazing. There are many species (>300 worldwide), but you’ll commonly encounter about 10 of them while diving in the Coral Triangle. Lionfishes are also a part of this family, but they already get loads of attention, so I won’t talk about them here. Scorpionfishes are well camouflaged, but that does not mean they look boring or always have drab colours. I’ve seen them in all shades ranging from white, to red, green, yellow, pink and black. Most species rely on their colour (which they can change) to blend in with their environment. Others grow filaments resembling algae or get covered in actual algae and/or hydroids to blend in even better.

All of this would already be enough to classify them as pretty cool critters, but there is more. The main reason I like them so much is that they look as if they have very strong and (at least so I imagine) cantankerous personalities. Their big heads and grumpy, down-turned mouths just give them that extra charisma that most fish lack. Combined with their armoured heads that have spines all over them, it makes them look like rather bad-ass bottom crawlers.

Very tired looking baby Scorpionfish

Very tired looking baby Scorpionfish

Here are some of the more commonly fond species and how to tell them apart. There is quite a lot of text, so if you don’t have time, just watch the pretty pictures:

  • Tasseled Scorpion Fish (Scorpaenopsis oxycephala): A large fish (up to 35cm), pronounced skin tassels on the chin and a long, “humped” snout. Usually found close to corals, or even laying on top of them.
Tasseled Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis oxycephala)

Tasseled Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis oxycephala)

  • Raggy Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis venosa): Similar to the Bearded Scorpionfish, but smaller (up to 20cm). The Raggy Scoropinfish has a lot more filaments growing over its body, and usually has big cirri (skin filaments) above the eyes. Furthermore, their snouts are not as long as those of their bearded cousins. They are often found near or on algae covered objects such as mooring blocks, ropes or wrecks.
Raggy Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis venosa)

Raggy Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis venosa)

  • Flasher Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis macrochir): Flashers are smaller still (up to 15cm) and have a pronounced hump on their back. Devil Scorpionfish share this feature, but are larger and have an even bigger hump. The inner surface of the pectoral fins of Flashers are bright yellow to orange with a dark, black band on the edge (which also sets them apart from the Devil Scorpionfish). You’ll find Flasher Scorpionfishes on sandy and rubbly areas.
Flasher Scorpiofish (Scorpaenopsis macrochir)

Flasher Scorpiofish (Scorpaenopsis macrochir)

  • Whiteface Waspfish (Richardsonichthys leucogaster): A small scorpaenid (max 10 cm), which is often red to brown, with a white face. Their dorsal fins have deep incisions, setting them apart from other Waspfishes. They are usually found on sand or mud bottoms.
Whiteface Waspfish (Richardsonichthys leacogaster)

Whiteface Waspfish (Richardsonichthys leacogaster)

  • Ambon Scorpionfish (Pteroidichthys amboinensis): These guys take camouflage to the next level, with even more algal growth and hairlike filaments growing on them than the Raggy Scorpionfish. They have very long, arching cirri above the eyes, and big pectoral fins, which are often transparent. Ambons are small (up to 12cm) and are only found on sandy and muddy substrates, often in areas with a lot of algal growth.
Ambon Scorpionfish

Ambon Scorpionfish (Pteroidichthys amboinensis)

  • Indian Ocean Walkman / Spiny Devilfish (Inimicus didactylus): This is one of my favourites, it is a medium sized (max 18cm) fish mostly made up of spines and other sharp bits, with a big, upturned mouth and eyes that are elevated. The front of their pectoral fins has evolved into 3 “fingers” which they use to walk over the bottom. Like the Flasher Scorpionfish, the inside of their pectoral fins is brightly coloured and used as a warning signal to potential predators. They spend a lot of time buried in sand or rubble near reefs, with only the eyes, mouth and spines sticking out.
Indian Ocean Walkman (Inimicus didactylus)

Indian Ocean Walkman (Inimicus didactylus)

  • Stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa): Stonefishes often get confused with Scorpionfishes, but there are some key differences. To start with, they are WAY better camouflaged than any Scorpionfish around. Chances are, if you found it yourself (as opposed to your diveguide), it was mostly likely NOT a Stonefish. They get a larger than most scorpionfishes here (up to 35cm). The best ways to ID them are: a completely upturned mouth on the TOP of its head, a shape that does not even closely resemble a normal fish (a crumpled up cardboard box or a big blob are better comparisons), and very large, thick pectoral fins. To make finding them even harder, they often bury themselves in the sand, just like the Spiny Devilfish. Stonefishes are found on sand and rubble close to coral reefs.
Stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa)

Stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa)

Enjoy the selection of photos (most of them by Luke Gordon) and next time you go diving, take your time to really look at any scorpionfish you might find.

Winged Pipefish

As the research that I am doing looks at some of the strangest critters you can find in the ocean, it seems only right to give them a space on this blog. The little guy who kicks of the page is a little known pipefish: the “Winged Pipefish”.

Adult Winged Pipefish

Winged Pipefish

While doing surveys on the Critters@Lembeh housereef, I found a large (15cm) Winged pipefish (Halicampus macrorhynchus) chilling out on a patch of rubble. I have seen this species a few times before on dives in Indonesia, and always liked it a lot, even if you don’t hear or read about them very often. Maybe I like them just because it’s less of an in your face – “take a picture of me now, I’m AWESOME” – kind of critter than some of the more popular ones, but they still manage to be pretty cool creatures. As with most other pipefishes, little is known about their life history and behaviour. Besides the original description, I found a grand total of 0 (=zero) scientific papers that focus on the ins and outs of this amazing fish…

Juvenile Winged Pipefish

Juvenile Winged Pipefish

So here is what we do know: The juveniles are beautiful, mimicking algae or bits of seagrass. The tiny juvies have got large appendages resembling wings, hence the name. The wings don’t serve many other purposes besides looks (more on that later). They can be found on sand or rubble, often in areas with a lot of plant debris or seagrass. I think they are cutest juvenile pipefish you can find, but they are a very rare find, in 12 years of diving I only ever managed to find a single one.

With age the wings appear to get smaller (they grow into them). In big adults the only things that can be seen are small skin flaps on the side. The adult pipefish still look quite amazing, and can display all kinds of colours, ranging from brown to yellow to pink. At this stage, they are more commonly found on coral rubble or coral reefs.

The biggest adults can get overgrown with algae and are extremely well camouflaged, like the one on the housereef. The big ones I’ve seen were always on coral rubble and looked kind of gritty and tough (as far as pipefishes can look tough).

Halicampus macrorhynchus

Halicampus macrorhynchus

For those if you interested in finding or photographing one of these guys, Winged Pipefish range from the Red Sea to as far as Hawaii and Panama. Look in rubble, sand or seagrass patches between 3m and 25m.

Spot the pipefish...

Spot the pipefish…

Oh, and the function of the skin flaps and wings? It is assumed that they help to break up the shape of the fish, making it even harder to find for predators or divers.