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Let’s get back to triggerfish! This is Xanthichthys mento, a small triggerfish  (well, for triggerfish, I mean) which grows to a size of 20 cm (11 in) in length and hails from the mighty Pacific Ocean.  This triggerfish has a tiny anxious mouth for eating zooplankton.  Although triggerfish in general delight me, I am highlighting this particular species for three reasons: 1) it’s bright red/blue/yellow color scheme and endearing expression are wonderful; 2) the common/English name of Xanthichthys mento is the “crosshatch triggerfish–what could be more appropriate for artists?; and 3) it is the middle of the night, and I need a quick visual post.  I hope Xanthichthys mento provides a winter splash of color for you! I promise a better post tomorrow!

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Halloween this year featured scary clowns…but I just realized that I forgot to include one of the best posts on this subject before October ended.  This is Balistoides conspicillum, the clown triggerfish, one of the most beloved of all aquarium fishes because of its wild white spots and bright orange greasepaint mouth (along with sundry yellow/white stipples, squiggles, stripes and some translucent cornflower fins).  I promised I would showcase some Tetraodontiformes (my favorite order of fish), and there could hardly be a showier fish in the ocean!

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Don’t let this fish’s comic good looks deceive you though:  it is not some oceangoing fop.  Clown triggerfish live on coral reefs throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific (and maybe in the Caribbean part of Atlantic, during these days of irresponsible hobbyists) and the adult fish prefer a solitary life at the edge of the reef where it drops off into the endless blue of the ocean.  The top of deep underwater cliffs is their favorite home, presumably so they can stare forbodingly into the depths like a melancholic hero from Romantic art. This means that clown triggerfish must cope with all of the denizens of the reef…and with pelagic outsiders who live by different standards than those of the bustling underwater “cities”.

Clown triggerfish stand up to other fish, even much larger ones, with an arsenal that includes strong muscles, nimble maneuverability, cleverness (they are reputed to be some of the smartest fish in the ocean), a locking “trigger” bone to make them hard to pry out of caves, and, oh yeah, a terrifying mouth filled with sharp rock-like teeth.  Their diet of tunicates, spiny sea urchins, large arthropods (crabs and lobsters), and bivalve mollusks such as clams necessitates formidably strong jaw muscles.  Apparently clown triggerfish can just bite right through lobster armor and clamshells. True to their common name, these fish sometimes become prankish with their owners and, at feeding time, they have been known to grunt comically and squirt water onto their favorite humans.   If they like a person they can be fed by hand or even caressed, but it is a risky venture since, obviously,  they can use their mouths for more than biting through clams.

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Adult clown triggerfish grow to be half a meter in size and they can live for up to 20 years in captivity.  When they spawn, the triggerfish dig a shallow nest in the coral rubble and lay eggs in it.  Together the couple fiercely guards the eggs until the babies hatch, then all parties go their own ways.  Juvenile clown triggerfish have a diamond shape and are completely covered in white spots (their other markings appear as they mature).

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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.

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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)

 

 

Orange-lined Triggerfish (Balistapus undulatus) photo by

Orange-lined Triggerfish (Balistapus undulatus) photo by

Today we bask in the tropical glory of a brilliantly colored (albeit temperamental) fish from my favorite family of fish, the Balistidae. This is the orange-lined triggerfish (Balistapus undulates). This aggressive reef fish is the only member of its genus (possibly because it attacked and destroyed all of its relatives). It lives throughout the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific with all manner of horrifying sharks, marine crocodiles, and fishing humans, but it seems to care little and is noted not just for its extravagant color but also for its brash highly territorial character.

Balistapus undulatus (from fishes of Australia.net)

Balistapus undulatus (from fishes of Australia.net)

The orange-lined triggerfish is an omnivore. It mostly eats invertebrates such as mollusks, sponges, echinoderms, and corals (the fish crunches off the rocklike coral tips with its fearsome beak—which it also uses to bite through mollusk shells) but, when the opportunity arises it also eats marine algae and other fish. When it takes bites out of divers it is probably defending its territory and not expanding its diet. Triggerfish have eyes which move independently of each other so they can keep track of everything going on in their lively reef habitats. For the same reason, they have excellent color vision. They are long-lived and clever. Different individuals have different personalities and habits.

Balistapus undulatus off the Similan Islands of Thailand (photo by Thierry Rakotoarivelo)

Balistapus undulatus off the Similan Islands of Thailand (photo by Thierry Rakotoarivelo)

The fish is green with brilliant orange stripes and orange/yellow translucent fins. It grows to 30 centimeters (1 foot) long. Like other triggerfish, it has a powerful erectile spine in its dorsal fin. This spine lies in a groove in the fish’s body but can be locked in place when the fish is threatened. If the fish is in open water this means that a predator must swallow a nasty spike, but if the triggerfish is near coral or rocks (which it nearly always is) it can wedge itself beneath and then lock itself inextricably in place. A predator must try to pull the triggerfish out while contending with the sharp beak.

The juvenile orange-lined triggerfish is triangular so that it is unpleasant to swallow and even more effective at wedging itself in crevices

The juvenile orange-lined triggerfish is triangular so that it is unpleasant to swallow and even more effective at wedging itself in crevices

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