Bizarre Marine Fish in Biscayne Bay

Two of the most bizarre marine fish that I have encountered, occurred while snorkeling with a group of students after an afternoon of kayaking in Biscayne Bay, located on the Atlantic coast in South Florida.  I have been venturing into Biscayne Bay for the past five years and have had quite the pleasure of swimming with many kinds of diverse marine life. I thought I had seen most of it all, that was, until our group came across these two strange creatures.

We stopped to rest at a small island in the bay called Sandspur Island–an uninhibited island with thick vegetarian and narrow, sandy beaches suitable for coming ashore and exploring the intertidal. We secured our kayaks and put on our gear to snorkel in the coastal shallows. There were areas of riprap that provided substrate to the familiar fish inhabitants, like pufferfish, sergeant majors, mojarras, and the occasional barracuda in the murky distance. I was crossing my fingers that we would not encounter anything that the younger students might think was scary, like a bull shark or a jellyfish.

Everyone was having a great time when I heard one of the students call out, “Miss Kim! You have to come over here and see this! There is a fish with claw-hands!” Claw-hands? What on earth are ‘claw-hands’? I’ve experienced lots of unusual things in the ocean, but never had I heard of a fish with claw-hands. And sure enough, there it was… an unusual looking fish about 35 centimeters long, with thin finger-like clawed appendages.  I had no idea what it was, but saved it to memory to settle with our specimen guidebook.  This is what we discovered:

Image of a bighead sea robin, Prionotus tribulus

Image of a bighead sea robin, Prionotus tribulus

And it was not 10 minutes later when I heard again, from another student, “Miss Kim! Miss Kim! Over here! This fish has lips!” What in the world is going on here? Is the city dumping toxic waste into the bay? I immediately thought of the episode from the tv show, The Simpsons where Blinky, the three-eyed mutant fish was discovered after the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant began dumping toxic waste into neighboring ponds and lakes. And what do you know? This fish, it had lips! The lips appeared vaguely human-like and it almost looked as if it were wearing lipstick, which made this encounter extra weird. After another log in the noggin, this one was discovered to be:

"A face only a mother could love." Image of a shortnose batfish, Ogcocephalus nasutus

“A face only a mother could love.” Image of a shortnose batfish, Ogcocephalus nasutus

About These Strange Looking Fish

Sea Robin

Sea robins are a bottom-dwelling scorpaeniform fish from the family Triglidae and can be found in warmer waters from Nova Scotia to Florida.  They are also known as the northern sea robin, common sea robin, or gurnard, specifically for the croaking noise they make if caught.  Their pectoral fins resemble bird wings and fan out while swimming. The large surface area of their fins also help the fish to glide short distances above the water surface, much like a flying fish.

This bottom-feeding fish lives at depths of 200 m (660 ft), but can be found in much shallower water in bays and estuaries. They are more active at night, voraciously feeding on shrimp, crabs, squid, shellfish, and small fish (apparently, they really like mackerel). The “claw-hands” described by my students are 6 flexible spines that were once part of the pectoral fin and are used as feeler-like “forelegs” to allow the fish to explore the sea floor in search of food.

Beware, the sharp spines of the gill plates and dorsal fins of the sea robin contain a mild poison, which can cause pain for a few days, if stung.

Batfish

The shortnose batfish is one of 60 species belonging to the family Ogcocephalidae.  This species can be found in warmer waters along the western Atlantic in south eastern Florida, Bahamas, and northern Gulf of Mexico, inhabiting sea floors as deep as 275 m (~900 ft). The batfish uses modified pectoral and pelvic fins to awkwardly walk along the sea floor.  It is related to anglerfish and like anglers, uses a fleshy appendage on its head to lure in victims, feeding on mollusks, crabs, fish, polychaete worms and algae.  When disturbed, batfish may cover themselves with sand or freeze still before scurrying across the sand like the manner of a crab.

Other species of batfish, like the polka-dot batfish can be prone to worm-like parasites called nemotodes.  It is not known why they are often infested, but could be a result of their diet.  It is possible that the batfish play a significant role in the life cycle of the nemotode.

Image Sources

“Mystery Fish at Split?” 9 November 2011. <http://tsunamiadventures.com/2011/11/mystery-fish-at-split/short-nose-batfish/>

Reef Central Forum. August 2008. <Image Source: http://tsunamiadventures.com/2011/11/mystery-fish-at-split/short-nose-batfish/>