Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#323 Don't Be So Sarcastic... Fringehead!

This week I'm going to do something I don't believe I've ever done before. Today's column will be about the most interesting fish I've never seen. That's right, there are fish in southern California waters that this marine biologist has never filmed or even observed. Since I prefer writing about critters I have, you might be asking why would I do this? Have I finally run out of subjects I'm familiar with? Of course not.

The fish de jour is the sarcastic fringehead. Just the name itself is enough to make this fish interesting. Although I've never seen it, even during my dives in mainland waters, I've been researching the species for an upcoming DVD... and wondering why it hasn't appeared in Catalina waters (at least to my knowledge). Fringeheads are very strange looking creatures as you can see from the images provided by two excellent mainland photographer friends, Kevin Lee and Ken Kopp. Their behavior (the fish, not the photographers) is also of great interest to divers, marine biologists... and, hopefully, you my readers!

When I began working on my upcoming DVD about the clinid family of fish, fringeheads and orangethroat pikeblennies were included in that family along with the kelpfish by all of the field guides I consulted. Through e-mail I learned from Dr. Milton Love of UCSB and Dr. Jeff Williams of the Smithsonian that the former members of this once tightly knit family have been re-evaluated by ichthyologists (fishy people) and assigned to three different families. I guess that suggests the former "family" was a bit dysfunctional upon closer inspection. The previous grouping was based on the best understanding of scientists a few decades ago. Today we have techniques such as molecular genetics that allow biologists to make more definitive classifications based on the actual genetic structure. Hopefully my dive buddy Annie will keep me informed of such changes in the future based on her lab work!

Using these new and more precise techniques, the fringeheads and pikeblennies are now in the family Chaenopsidae; the island kelpfish in the family Labrisomidae; while the giant and other kelpfish remain in the now torn-asunder Clinidae. You won't be tested on that. Although this classification scheme is based on more definitive characters than anatomical parts or internal organs, it is still determined by the human mind... and (gulp) subject to future revision... but hopefully not before I finish my new DVD!

Getting back to sarcasm... er, the sarcastic fringehead, these fish are known from San Francisco to northern Baja California in water as deep as 240 feet. Although listed by guides as "occasional," they may be abundant in some locations... just not our island. They prefer soft bottom habitats such as mud or sand. These fish are often found with their heads sticking out of holes, crevices, abandoned burrows and empty snail shells. They will also make discarded bottles and cans into tidy little homes. In most locations fringeheads are usually not seen outside their dwellings, but in other areas they may roam free to feed.

The sarcastic fringehead has a very long dorsal fin with two blue spots ringed in yellow on it. The body is usually a brown to gray in color, often mottled with shades of red or green, although males can appear nearly black. It is the largest of the fringeheads, reaching up to a foot long. This group is known for their huge mouths. In an unusual pattern of sexual dimorphism, the males have bigger mouths than the females (sorry, ladies of the human persuasion... I couldn't resist). The sexes also differ in that the feathery cirri on top of the head are much larger in females than in males.

Fringeheads are ambush predators, propelling themselves out of their holes to snatch unsuspecting critters. They have very sharp teeth to assist in holding "uncooperative" prey. It is said that some species of fringeheads have very poor eyesight, and may even mistake a rock for food. Whew, some of my culinary productions may look like rocks, but... If the fringehead does leave its hole to feed, it usually re-enters by backing in tail-first. Hope they use their rear view mirror!

Sarcastic fringeheads have a very long spawning period from January to August. I guess they need some time to rest in late summer and fall. Females lay their eggs in abandoned burrows and other hiding places, leaving the male to babysit until they hatch. The boys take their job very seriously, and aggressively defend the nest. Other males encroaching on their territory may be warned with the defender's mouth wide open in a threat display. Those who do not heed the warning may be bitten... and that even includes SCUBA divers! These fish are said to live at least six years.

So why haven't I seen these unusual fish in our waters? Certainly I would notice them if I had. This poses a great question for biologists interested in marine biogeography, or the geographic distribution of ocean critters. Two possible explanations come to mind. Since the eggs are laid on the bottom, it is possible they do not hatch into larvae long-lived enough to disperse far in ocean currents. After all, the San Pedro Channel poses a barrier even for some marine species... not to mention the highly intelligent and beautiful mermaids I've spent my life searching for. Another possible explanation is their preference for exposed coastlines like the mainland. Perhaps they don't find suitable habitat here on our protected leeward coast. I may just have to spend more time diving Catalina's backside to test this. Of course the mermaids also seem to prefer habitats a bit more luxurious than my humble condo. Sigh, the story of my wife... er, life.

© 2009 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!

Sarcastic fringehead in the open and in its burrow (top, courtesy of Kevin Lee); male threatening another
with open mouth, and biting down on an uncompliant competitor (bottom, courtesy of Kenn Kopp).

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