STEM Logo

Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#659: Bountiful and Beautiful Butterflyfish

As a youngster, I preferred going out into the fields with my butterfly net rather than playing baseball. I was never very good at the sport (although I'm rooting for my hometown Cubbies against the Mets). I was pretty good at catching "bugs" of the insect variety (but don't take "bugs" of the crustacean variety these days). Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that all three of my uncles were entomologists. Both my maternal grandmother and my mother said that in the afterlife they would return as butterflies to look over my sisters and me, probably to make sure I made my bed. I rarely do.

However, as an adult, I no longer catch insects and pin them inside my collecting boxes. Instead, I focus my camera on the marine equivalent... the beautiful butterflyfish. Unlike the angelfish I wrote about last week, our waters do have a local species... the scythe butterflyfish. Although it is more common to the south of us, it has extended its range into our normally cooler waters during past El Niño events. Actually even south of the border they are known from deeper, cooler waters so our normal water temperatures are bearable. I have even filmed youngsters at places like the Empire Landing Quarry, suggesting they are reproducing here.

But tropical and subtropical waters aren't limited to just a single species from this fabulous fish family. Destinations like the Red Sea, Palau and the Philippines abound with them. Remember, given the high biodiversity present in each of these warm water destinations, each species must stand out from the rest to ensure they mate with the proper soulmate! Not all of these fish seem to understand that, as you will read shortly! On to a few of the lovely flutterbys... er butterfly fish... I filmed in Egyptian waters.

The masked butterflyfish is a brilliant yellow, but tries to hide its identity with a small gray mask over its eyes. They were pretty common individually and in pairs, but may also form large groups when spawning. Reminds me of the love-ins from the 60s... even though I can't really "remember" them. During the day they may be seen resting under coral heads, but become more active late in the afternoon when they seek out the tasty polyps of soft and hard corals. I'm guessing this is probably a pretty "spicy" diet given the stinging cells or nematocysts of the corals.

Different field guides often use different common names for the same species. Depending on which one I consulted, the polyp or exquisite butterflyfish's diet was similar to that of the masked butterflyfish. However, it would also add sea anemone tentacles and snail eggs for variety. Like most butterflyfish, it has a band running vertically across its eyes to confuse predators. I guess they think it is some kind of criminal.

The Red Sea raccoon or striped butterflyfish is similar to a species I filmed in Palau. Coral polyps figure in its diet as well, but they also chow down on small crustaceans and worms. I like a tasty shrimp, but have balked at trying worms... even if they are chocolate covered! This one appears to have a slight species identity crisis. Apparently it occasionally mates with the threadfin butterflyfish, which looks nothing like it. However, the offspring from such couplings are sterile and cannot reproduce. This is the marine equivalent of a female horse and male donkey getting "it" (whatever it is) on and producing a mule.

When not messing around with the previous species, the threadfin butterflyfish is usually seen swimming about solo or with a mate of its own kind. They are a bit territorial. Threadfins like many of the same munchies as the previous species, but apparently are a bit more health conscious since they will also add a little seaweed salad. I try to eat vegetarian at least one or twice a week. It's amazing how much weight you can gain from veggies... just look at elephants!

I'm heading over this week to give a talk on identifying the fish in our kelp forests. I'm only including about 70 local species. Given the much higher species diversity on coral reefs, when I give talks about their fish I may go on for hours. Given our warm waters the past 18 months, we are seeing more species coming up from Mexico including the whitetail gregory (or damsel) and blue-bronze chubs. Given the reality of global warming (yes, it's a fact, Jack), perhaps we'll eventually see more species of beautiful butterflyfish and even an angelfish or two. Sounds good to me.

© 2015 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

To return to the list of ALL of Dr. Bill's "Dive Dry" newspaper columns, click here.


The masked and polyp butterflyfish; and the "naughty" raccoon and threadfin species.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2015 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia