Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#197: A Courting We Will Go... Crazy!

Weeks ago I wrote about a "find" that really excited me. Yes, I know... I'm like a kid and get excited pretty easily. I'm referring to the two female orangethroat pikeblennies I finally filmed after searching for them for years. I generally don't like to write about the same species so close together, but I got excited again a few weeks ago when I found and filmed a group of males at the same dive site... the sandy bottom off the reef at Hen Rock. And the boys were equally excited... although not by my presence, which they merely tolerated. They were thrilled by the prospect of meeting lady pikeblennies. In fact, this encounter reminded me very much of our own "Horny Corner" here in Avalon where the kids hang out.

When I filmed the previous pikeblenny, I assumed she was a she because she was fairly camouflaged. I had only seen pictures of the males, but they looked quite different. Males are larger, darker in color, and have a prominent dark dorsal fin which they use in courtship displays to attract the female. They also have the orange colored throat pouch that gives the species its common name. However it isn't just their body anatomy (or morphology) that distinguishes them as I soon found out!

I dropped down onto the sandy bottom at about 45 feet. I was in the same area as I'd seen the female weeks earlier. I rested on the bottom, waiting for the sand to settle out of the water. I didn't have to wait long, for in a minute or two I saw the heads of three male pikeblennies slowly extending from their abandoned worm tube homes. The three were within 10 feet of one another (and me). I remained quiet and used slow, steady movements of my camera (and body) to position myself to film each one of them from as close as a foot. Within a few minutes the boys accepted me as one of their own... as long as I didn't compete with them for their lady friends. No problem. I may prefer slender ladies, but these were barely twigs.

The boys soon started strutting their stuff. They would extend themselves 4-6" above the opening of their hole. Then they would flare out their dorsal fin and bob up-and-down in an attempt to draw the attention of the as-of-yet unseen (at least by me) females. This was interesting to me since these courtship displays made the males much more obvious to potential predators. It was quite evident to this well-trained scientific mind that such behavior was counter to their survival. Amazing the danger our male hormones can put us in! Im glad we have few predators topside... the kids at "Horny Corner" would have to be much less obvious. I'm sure many of us adults would appreciate that!

One male became especially agitated as I watched. In fact, its behavior suggested it was completely under the control of whatever sex hormones are operational in this species. Better living through chemistry? I'm not so sure! This male bounced up and down so "violently" that it seemed to literally thrust itself up and out of its tube. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the reason. A lady pikeblenny was slowly approaching this particular male. What did he have that the other two didn't? Inquiring (scientific) minds want to know!

The male went berserk, moving along just above the sand and jerking his body in all directions. Several times he almost hit the female with his head and she retreated a bit, seeming somewhat confused. I know I prefer it when a female is direct and open about her interest, but gentlemen... there are limits. However, this female seemed to have high tolerance or strong desire because she slowly moved alongside him into his tube. The couple spent some time together inside the tube. I assumed they were trying to mate discretely. The male would "neck" with the female, wrapping his head and upper body around hers.

After a few minutes of this trysting, the female moved out of the worm tube, leaving the male to do the hard work of raising the kids... as so many other fish species seem to do. The world of ichthyology appears to be a very liberated one. I stayed with the pikeblennies for 50 minutes of the 70 minute dive. It was well worth it to get the video footage you see represented in the stills here. I wonder if the other two males, who did not mate (at least while I was there) realize how lucky they were not to get stuck with child support by a run-away bride?.

© 2006 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, " "Playful Pinnipeds: California Sea Lions," "Belize It or Not: Western Caribbean Invertebrates, Fish and Turtles" or "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Close-up of male with orange throat displaying to attract female, overly enthusiastic male displaying
out of tube, female approaching displaying male, the heads of male and female sticking out of tube.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2006 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia