Natural History

Quick Change Artists

Fish like the parrot-, trumpet- and hogfish use color change for protection.

Story by Suzanne Gerber

Photos by Barbara Shively

Of all the fish in the sea, the parrotfish may be the most recognizable. Technically, these common reef dwellers (and favorite of snorkelers and divers) are members of the Scaridae family. A number of years ago, marine biologists believed there were some 350 different species of Scaridae – until they realized that parrotfish have so many different color phases that there were actually only 80 species. That’s a lot of color changing!

stoplight

Parrotfish are so named because of their bright colors and beak-like teeth, similar to their avian namesakes. The biggest bloke in the family is the bicolor parrotfish, which can grow up to three feet (90 cm) long. You can tell where a parrotfish is in his life cycle by his coloration. As juveniles, the spotlights are dark red-brown, with three rows of white spots running the length of his body. While both are basically a mottled red-brown with spots, the female will sport a yellow top half with a green/black bottom. The males’ colors are brighter – green scales with pink tips and fins that could be a flamboyant blend of pink, purple, green and blue. Just under the mouth there is a green band with a splotch of pink underneath. All parrotfish, regardless of size or phase, have bright orange eyes.

But what’s fascinating about them is the whole sex-change process. Parrotfish are born with both male and female sex organs and can start life as either gender. Those that were born male will always remain as an initial-phase male and will never have a chance to be a dominant male – ironically, that is a role played by fish that start off female and morph into a supermale (usually when another supermale dies as a way to insure there will always be a stud). These large fish, also called terminal-phase males, have bright, distinctive markings and colors, which attract the females. (In courtship, the supermales’ colors grow even more brilliant.) Sex change in parrotfish ensures there will always be a male to reproduce with all the females.

Parrotfish spawn year round, with a spike in summer. Spawning occurs in deep water, always at dusk. A supermale will mate with a group of females, and when the deed is done, the fish return to their much shallower homes, leaving their tiny eggs to mature on their own. Three days after hatching, the first hint of the pouty mouth appears.

Parrotfish behavior is also intriguing. Herbivores, they munch on corals and algae found on reef rocks. They use their powerful bird-like teeth to bite off chunks of coral, getting their nutrition from the coral polyps and a symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae). After being ingested by the parrotfish, it’s crushed by special teeth in the throat, digested, then returned to the same reef in the form of powdery white sand. And this is no small deposit: a single parrotfish can produce up to one ton of coral sand per acre of reef each year ( just over 1.4Êmillion pounds of sand per square mile of reef annually!)

Parrotfish also have a clever, self-protective way of sleeping. While a few hide or attempt to bury themselves, most secrete a mucous membrane that envelops them as they sleep, hiding their scent from predators. It takes them about 30 minutes to produce this bubble, and it takes them roughly the same amount of time to break free of it in the morning.

Trumpetfish

These masters of camouflage (Aulostomus maculatus) get their name from their long, thin snout and matching body. It’s a true but little-known fact that they’re actually related to the seahorse. Depending where in the reef – and where in the world – they are, trumpetfish usually show up in a mottled reddish brown outfit, though they can just easily be grayish-black or yellowy-green with blue or purple heads. (In Hawaii, where they’re called nŸnŸ, I’ve seen them completely lemon-yellow.)

They’re often spotted swimming vertically in the water column, snout down, to hide themselves in nearby sea fans, sea rods, whips, gorgonians and sponges. It’s not uncommon to see them accompanied by a small oval fish, such as a tang or small grouper, hunting alongside. Trumpets can grow to over a yard (1m) in length, with a head that’s often one-third that size. To my mind, there’s almost nothing cuter than a juvenile trumpetfish – about six inches long and nearly as slender as a pencil.

trumpetfish

A similar species – which can be confusing to new underwater humans – is the cornetfish (Aulostomus strigosus), which is thinner and slightly less common in the Turks & Caicos region. Trumpetfish are voracious eaters, and can be very clever when it comes to catching dinner (this is where the color changing comes in handy). Trumpetfish will “shadow” large herbivorous fish and use them as camouflage till they find the perfect moment to attack. They’ll hang completely vertical, swaying with the current, then, moving very slowly, will suck up anybody passing beneath unawares. Because it can stretch its mouth to the diameter of its body, even larger critters aren’t safe. But their meal of choice is small cardinalfish, such as wrasse.

Like many other fish, trumpets undertake an elaborate mating ritual, another situation in which its color-changing comes in useful. Like their cousin the seahorse, trumpets dump the bulk of reproductive burden on the males. After producing eggs, females transfer them to the males, who fertilize them and transport them in a pouch until they are born.

Hogfish

A member of the enormous wrasse family, this fish (Lachnolaimus maximus) is also named for a prominent body part – a pig-like snout, which it exploits impressively to root around the ocean floor for food.

A hogfish’s color is determined by his age, habitat and gender. In general, males are more brightly colored, ranging from gray-brown and dusky to dark with yellow pectoral fins. Juveniles and females tend to be pale gray, brown or slightly reddish brown, with a paler belly. One hallmark of all hogfish is their bright red iris.

The hogfish we see in TCI are typically around 12 to 18 inches, yet they can actually grow to lengths of eight feet (2.5 m) and weigh in at a hefty 22 pounds (10 kg). They are believed to live up to 11 years.

hogfish

Because of their snouts, hogfish are generally bottom feeders, utilizing their strong jaws to dine on mollusks, hermit crabs and sea urchins. In their youth, favorite snacks also include crustaceans and echinoderms.

Hogfish, like so many of its marine kindred, are hermaphrodites. The born-females, upon reaching sexual maturity at around three years of age, can (and often do) mutate into males. The male will gather together a “harem,” and spawn only with their ladies. Spawning occurs late in the day, as the lovers congregate and often make a mad dash toward the water surface. Eggs are released into the ocean and left alone to hatch – about 24 hours after fertilization. A few weeks later, the hatchlings are mature juveniles and find themselves a suitable home (like sea grass). Juvenile hogfish are adorable, with a more oval profile and more slender bodies. Note: Although the hogfish is a prized food fish, it has been linked to ciguatera poisoning.

New York-based Suzanne Gerber writes about scuba, travel and health for a variety of publications. Book your next dive trip at www.worldofdiving.com.

Avid underwater photographer Barbara Shively discovered Grand Turk diving in 1997 and has returned every year since. It has become her passion to share the beauty of the coral reefs with friends and family through her photographs. See her work at: shivelygallery.home.comcast.net.



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