Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#318: Painted Greenlings... Nature's Artists at Work

When I lived in Chicago, I often took the train downtown and went to the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, the same street that the beautiful Wrigley building is on. I used to love to see the wealth of great art on exhibit there, and had certain favorites like Salvador Dali and Ivan Albright whose works I viewed each visit. Despite being a scientist, I am not entirely a "left brain" individual. I have a very creative side, even artistic as those who have visited my home comment, and posses "right brain" skills as well. Three Danny Peterson originals grace my walls, and might be very valuable some day.... right, Danny? The only thing I don't have is the money to collect other art. Therefore I must appreciate the art-like quality I see in the marine world when I dive.

There is a fish species that we don't often see in the waters of the SE leeward end of our island, for it is generally too warm for them. I usually only see it here at deep, colder water sites like Ship Rock, the West End, Little Farnsworth and Farnsworth Banks. I'm referring to an artist of the undersea world known as the painted greenling (Oxylebius pictus). Most greenlings are cold water forms found further north, but we do see some like the lingcod and occasionally the kelp greenling here in southern California. On two of my very deep dives I also saw another greenling, the short-spined combfish at about 180 feet. However none of its relatives have the beauty of the painted greenling. This species is also known as the convict fish because of the stripes, but I have yet to meet many scientists other than Dr. Milton Love who call it that.

The painted greenling is considered occasional from southern California to British Columbia, and rare as far north as the Bering Sea off Alaska. It has also been spotted as far south as central Baja, but they are rare south of La Jolla. In our region, at the southern end of its range, the waters may be a bit too warm for its comfort. Therefore it is primarily observed at cooler, deeper sites.

Their habitat in the central part of their range is on shallow rocky reefs, but they may be found at depths over 300 feet. Dr. Love states they frequent depths of 50-100 feet here but about 20-70 feet in central California. I have filmed them in shallow waters in the colder northern Channel Island as well as on the offshore oil rigs. These normally solitary fish actively move about from one resting spot to another. They are somewhat territorial, remaining in the same general area most of their life. Males appear to prefer higher relief habitats while the females and young are often found at the interface between rocky reefs and sandy bottoms.

Normally painted greenlings have five to six dark (usually reddish) bands encircling a lighter colored body and the fins. There are also two bands that begin at the pointed snout, and extend through the eye towards the gill region. They frequently have a multitude of white spots on the body as if some clumsy artist flicked a paintbrush at them.

However, during their mating season, the males may turn very dark and the bars of the females turn brown. In the northern part of their range this may occur in summer, but it is not uncommon to see them courting in winter in southern California. At this time the behavior of the males also changes a bit. They act just like high school males hopped up on hormones. The males aggressively guard the eggs and will charge and nip at divers if they approach too closely.

This species may reach 10 inches in length, with the females generally larger than the males. This is not uncommon in fish since eggs take up more body space than sperm. When you may produce nearly 30,000 eggs per season, this is understandable! They are believed to spawn at dawn. Eggs are laid in clusters of over 2,000. A male may guard several different clusters in the same nest. Hmmm... come to think of it, that kind of behavior isn't limited to high school! They reach a length of about four inches after a year. Males are sexually mature at two years and females at three.

Painted greenlings feed during the day and are inactive at night. Their diet consists primarily of small invertebrates like crabs, shrimp and amphipods. Dr. Milton Love said they also like curried tofu... but he was just trying to be funny and see if his readers were still awake! Are you? The only predator he lists is Brandt's cormorant. I must admit this is one fish I've never tried munching on... the filets are too small for anything but an appetizer.

© 2008 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 and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. 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!

Painted greenling in non-breeding "plumage" (L) and in mating colors (R).

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia