It’s not surprising that out of all the thousands of species of fish that live in the world’s oceans, the one that is named after a musical instrument would reside right smack dab in the middle of Music City, USA. I was delighted to discover this one day while taking my family to the Aquarium Restaurant at the Opry Mills Mall in Nashville during one of their many visits. As you walk into the main dining area, your eyes are immediately drawn to the huge floor-to-ceiling aquarium that hosts a wide array of colorful fish. Tesselated eels, moray eels, black-tip reef sharks and unicorn fish are just a few of the residents visitors are drawn to. However, the prize winner for big kahuna within the tank goes to Gibson guitarfish.
Gibson, according to the restaurant staff, has called the Aquarium Restaurant at the Opry Mills his home for the past fifteen to twenty years! He likes to spend his time cruising on the bottom of the tank, hang out with a gang of cownose rays and forage for food. Even though I never had the chance to ask a staff member just how long Gibson was, I would wager that he stretched a good five to ten feet. Pretty amazing that one fish can live and grow that long. Not only has Gibson grown in length in size….he has also grown in the hearts of the wait staff and marine biologists who keep the Aquarium restaurant running as well as the hearts of all the visitors who come and see him each year.
I Ain’t Got No Strings
Specifically, Gibson is a certain species of guitarfish called a Shovel-nose Guitarfish (Rhinobatus productus). If someone attempted to literally smash a shark and stingray together; they would end up with a guitarfish which is actually closely related to the two. These fish belong to the batoid group which also includes sawfish, electric rays, skates and stingrays. They are aptly-named after the well-known string instrument because their long, shovel-like snout and triangular-shaped body closely resembles the heart and soul of rock and roll. However, guitarfish come with no strings attached. Instead, sharp, thorny-points of cartilage project out of their back and run down the body’s midline towards the tip of the tail. Guitarfish range in color from brown to dark olive on top and white underneath. Females, once they reach adulthood, are larger than males, can reach lengths of up to 1.7 meters and weigh as much as forty pounds.
Home….Home on the Seabed
The shovel-nose guitarfish can be found from central California down to the southern Gulf of California in Mexico in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The shallow waters surrounding beaches, inlets and estuaries are preferred guitarfish real estate. A cozy nook buried halfway in sand or mud, with the occasional sea grass penthouse are where guitarfish make their home. Divers have observed guitarfish swimming between depths from 13 to as deep as 91 meters beneath the ocean surface. They spend the majority of their time swimming or resting on the bottom of the seabed foraging for food. They prefer to dine on various invertebrates including worms, crustaceans, molluscs and even certain species of small fish. Their jaws have the ability to grab and crush the hard shells of invertebrates such as snails and clams before consuming the juicy flesh that lies within. Unlike sharks, guitarfish are not aggressive towards humans.
Like the Lone Ranger, guitarfish prefer to spend their lives alone. However, the love chum will chomp from time to time and around midsummer, males and females will congregate in shallow waters to mate. From June to October, it’s Girls Only as just the female guitarfish gather together to give birth to their offspring. Guitarfish have a lot of “kids”, or pups, each year. In just one litter, they can produce as many as 28 pups after nearly a year of gestation (11 to 12 months). The pups measure between 15 to 24 centimeters when they are first born. Guitarfish can live over fifteen years; the girls mature at seven years and the boys mature at eight years.
On the IUCN red list, guitarfish are classified as Near Threatened (NT). Having the general characteristics of slow reproductivity, long lifespan, long gestation period and maturing later in life all make the guitarfish vulnerable to overfishing in certain areas of the Eastern Pacific. Female guitarfish that are expecting can become victim to bottom-dwelling gillnets from fishing boats when they gather together to give birth. These batoids are regularly fished off the coast of Baja, California and the Gulf of California in Mexico. Shovelnose guitarfish, unfortunately, can also be a product of bycatch in areas where commercial fisheries are common. Other threats these fish may face in the future are changes in habitat to accommodate shrimp farm facilities. Currently, no actions in conservation have been taken specifically for the management and preservation of the shovelnose guitarfish.
It’s amazing to note the wide array and diversity of different species of animals within just one group. You have sharks and stingrays on one hand and then you have a guitarfish on the other! These fish are all so different from each other yet, through certain characteristics, they are related. Therefore, next time y’all come down to Nashville, stop by the Aquarium Restaurant at the Opry Mills Mall and say hello to Gibson and all of his friends. Take time to stand at the main tank, gaze into the depths of diversity and appreciate all of the similarities and differences your eyes will see.
- IUCN Red list (December, 2009). http://www.iucnredlist.org
- Arkive. “Shovelnose Guitarfish (Rhinobactus productus)”. Arkive. www.arkive.org. Web. Accessed February 25th, 2015.