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Today’s news contained an astonishing (albeit rather sad) piece of news concerning the Tetraodontiforme order of fish.

In December 2021, a dead giant sunfish (Mola alexandrini) was discovered in the ocean off Faial Island (which is part of the Azores–a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic). “Giant sunfish” is the common name for this sort of sunfish–but this time it was more than a name. The dead fish was enormous. When scientists dragged it to shore and weighed it with a special forklift, they discovered it had a mass of 2,744 kilograms (6,050 pounds), which means it is the largest teleost (bony fish) ever recorded (although, obviously, some long extinct fossil species were much larger). The fish was 3.59 meters long and had a huge blunt contusion on its head which was clearly caused by a boat collision (as evinced by the fact that there were fragments of boat paint on the affected area).

Scientists are still studying the specimen (indeed, they only just released word of it to the world) and a full necropsy has not yet been performed to determine the cause of death. Perhaps a boat hit the fish after it was dead. Still, it doesn’t take Hercule Poirot to start connecting the dots (which is to say, I have a feeling the fish was killed by a fast moving boat–a fate which is all to common among the larger and faster rorquals). The death of this giant is a tragedy in its own right. Yet it is stunning to me that we only just found the largest specimen of bony fish on record. The ocean still abounds with life and miraculous secrets. It could recover… if only humankind would allow such a thing!

A few years ago, I wrote about Mola alexandrini’s close relative Mola mola, the ocean sunfish (which I misidentified as the world’s largest bony fish). Obviously I was mistaken! However that post summarizes what we know about the way both these pelagic giants live. It also addresses baby sunfish–for both species go through a larval stage when the 2 millimeter long babies (!) drift around as part of the plankton. Weighing less than a gram, the li’l baby sunfish are spherical and covered with translucent triangular spikes to deter predators. The sunfish got its name because it likes to sunbathe near the ocean’s surface (another piece of evidence in determining how the Azores giant specimen met its end), however, I think the little ones actually look like the suns drawn in Renaissance woodcuts.

I will keep you updated when (or if) we learn more, but in the meantime I hope you are struck with wonder by these magnificent denizens of the ocean (and, if you are a boater or mariner, I hope you drive your vessel with care and consideration).

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Meleager, the mythological hero who slew the Caledonian boar was famously accursed by fate, but beloved by ancient Greek artists and poets. As it turns out, this fixation outlived the ancient classical era. In the modern world, the matchless hunter is now beloved by taxonomists and biologists! Not only are turkeys and guineafowl both named after the Caledonian prince, but one of the strangest and most peculiar looking fish from the strange and peculiar order Tetraodontiformes is also named for poor Meleager.

Behold the guineafowl pufferfish, Arothron meleagris, a fish which lives in tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans. This solitary puffer browses on corals and other suchlike invertebrates of the reef. Although they can grow up to half a meter (20 inches in length) and can swim very precisely and maneuver nimbly they are not strong swimmers, nor are they especially camouflaged (although their strange outline and spotted bodies help them blend in). If it really gets in trouble though, Arothron meleagris is a pufferfish and they can expand into a disconcerting spherical scary face which seems much larger than the fish itself.

Each of those chic spots is not just a dot but also a coarse bump, so they are further protected by a kind of sandpapery armor. Interestingly, guineafowl pufferfish come in three color varieties, deep purple brown with white spots, yellow with black spots, and a piebald mixture of yellow & dark brown with both black and white spots. Accounts vary as to whether the fish change color as they go through life or whether different specimens belong to one of the three types for life. Although I feel that Meleager’s name is suitably tragic for any fish in our dying oceans (particularly coral reef fish like the guineafowl puffer which are simultaneously hunter and hunted), tracing how the fish got the name involves a transitive leap. In mythology, Meleager was killed by his own mother after slaying his uncle in a quarrel (she used a sort of dark magic and was so horrorstruck that she immediately died herself). Meleager’s sisters were so consumed by cacophonous weeping that the gods took pity on them (???) and turned the women into guineafowl. Guineafowl are named after Meleager because of their strange lachrymose wails, however they are also spotted and stippled. Ichthyologists named the fish after the bird because both share white spots on a dark brown background (we will overlook the gold form for present).

Yet even if they got their name through a roundabout way, there is something anguished and otherworldly in the countenance of the guineafowl pufferfish which speaks to me of the odd popeyed expressions of tragic masks. Perhaps I will let this fish’s looks do the talking on behalf of Earth’s oceans today.

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Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)

Longtime readers of this blog probably think that my favorite order of fish are the catfish (siluriformes), a vast order of fascinating freshwater fish which have based their success on mastering sensory perception, or possibly the flatfish (pleuronectiformes) whose predator/prey dichotomy and tragicomic frowns are featured heavily in my elegiac artwork about the decline of the oceans.  Readers who have really read closely might suspect the lungfish or the ghost knife fish.  Yet, actually, I haven’t written a great deal about my personal favorite order of fishes because they are so eclectic and eccentric that they are hard to write about.  The Tetraodontiformes are an ancient order of teleosts (rayfin fish) which apparently originated on the reefs of the mid to late Cretaceous (during the age of dinosaurs).   There are currently 10 extant families in the order, but the Tetradontiformes are not closely related to other bony fish.

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The Yellow Boxfish (Ostracion cubicus)

So what are these ten families of exciting weirdo fish? Wikipedia lists them alphabetically for us!

  • Aracanidae — deepwater boxfishes
  • Balistidae — triggerfishes
  • Diodontidae — porcupinefishes
  • Molidae — ocean sunfishes
  • Monacanthidae — filefishes
  • Ostraciidae — boxfishes
  • Tetraodontidae — pufferfishes
  • Triacanthidae — triplespines
  • Triacanthodidae — spikefishes
  • Triodontidae — Threetooth puffer

Triggerfish, pufferfish, boxfish, filefish, cowfish, enormous weird sunfish…there is such a realm of wonder, beauty, and ichthyological fascination among these groups that it is hard to know where to start (although the Mola mola, which I have written about, is a pretty good headliner).  The intelligent, colorful, and truculent triggerfish (Balistidae), in particular, are the source of endless delight.

Clown-Triggerfish
Clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum)

I will write more about all of these in turn, but, before we get into that, it is worth highlighting some shared features of the Tetraodontiformes.  These fish tend to have extremely rigid bodies which means they move differently from the quicksilver darting which other fish employ.   They rely on fluttering their pectoral, dorsal, anal, and caudal fins to move (comparatively) slowly, albeit with extreme precision. Most Tetraodontiformes are masters of armor or other defensive mechanisms (toxins, spines, pop-up bone locks, and, um, self-inflation). Because of their tropical reef lifestyle and the nature of their defenses these fish often tend to be extraordinarily colorful.

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Snipefish (Halimochirugus centriscoides)
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(tetradon nirgoviridis)

Now is not the time to get into the details of all of these fish.  Today’s post is mostly a teaser of things to come…but believe me, it will be worth it.  The Tetraodontiformes are truly astonishing.  Their colors and patterns do not just put most artists to shame, they put most 1980s artists to shame.  And their vivid beauty and astonishing appearance isn’t even the most amazing thing about them.  Stay tuned!

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The Ornate Boxfish (Aracana ornata)

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