Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Queer Fish

The story below predates the book, Strange Fish and Their Stories, which Verrill wrote in 1938.

Queer Fish

A. Hyatt Verrill

Popular Science, Nov 1900; researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, Nov. 2011.

Probably no other division of the animal kingdom numbers among its members so many queer, strange and grotesque forms as the fish. One of the best known of peculiar fishes is the common "Sculpin," whose huge, repulsive mouth, goggle eyes and wing-like fins are familiar to nearly everyone who has fished in fairly deep water along the Atlantic coast. A cousin of the sculpin but much rarer is the "Sea Raven." This fish is also known as "deep-water sculpin," "rock toad-fish," "puffing grubby," etc., and is readily distinguished from the common sculpin or "grubby," by its brilliant red or orange color, greatly elongated fins, warty body and especially by its peculiar habit of inhaling air until swollen to an enormous size. These two fishes are members of the Gurnard family, and although treated with contempt and considered unfit to eat in this country, are held in great esteem abroad as food fish.

Another common but exceedingly peculiar fish is the "Puffer," "Blow-fish," or "Swell-fish." This creature is dark olive or greenish above and yellow or orange below, with large bulging eyes and a peculiarly shaped mouth filled with protruding and queerly shaped teeth. The skin is slightly warty and is covered with small granular spines. When captured or in danger this odd fellow swells to an enormous size, until he looks for all the world like a rough, yellow balloon, and if placed in the water while in this condition will float belly upward in a most helpless manner. The "Porcupine-fish," or "Sea-hedgehog," found in our southern waters is a relative of the "Puffer" and differs from him only in possessing long and sharp spines in place of tubercles.

The "Trunk fish" and "Cow fish" are also relations of the puffer, and are familiar to most visitors to Florida and the Bahamas. These fishes are named from their peculiar shape; the "trunk fish" being somewhat triangular in shape, with a hard bony armor, while the "cow fish" has in addition two sharp spines or horns projecting from his forehead. We are all familiar with the "Toad-fish," the "Goose-fish," and the "Angler," those huge, grotesque creatures with immense mouths and flat bodies, who lie in wait for unsuspecting fish, which, attracted by the waving filament attached to the head, fall victims to the capacious maw of their enemy. Although the above appear grotesque to our eyes, yet the strange forms are no doubt of great value to the owners, in many cases serving to protect them when lying at rest among the weed-covered rocks on the ocean's bed.

The most remarkable examples of protective form and coloration among fish, however, are found in certain species inhabiting the "Sargassum" or "Gulfstream weed," floating on the surface in the mid Atlantic. These queer fish are so nearly the color and form of the weeds among which they dwell, that they are with difficulty distinguished from their surroundings. Even their fins have taken on a form especially adapted to their needs and closely resemble hands, and in fact the owners use them as such, crawling about among the tangled growth, more like a terrestrial animal than a fish.

Peculiar form is not the only queer thing found in the fish-world, however, as many species, of a form not at all peculiar, possess habits or coloration so strange as to merit a place among the queerest of queer fish. Among those of odd habits may be mentioned the "File-fish," "Unicorn-fish," etc., creatures that although not particularly striking in form,—aside from the long and sharp spine on the head,—have the remarkable habit of standing on their nose while at rest, or feeding and swimming on their side when in motion. Their shape and teeth are such that any other position would be next to impossible, and as a result their color,—usually blue or olive,—is arranged in longitudinal stripes which serve to still further protect them while resting upright among the rocks and seaweed. These fish seem to be more than necessarily protected from injury, for, in addition, the sharp spines on the head,—and sometimes the throat as well,—are so constructed that when erected they become locked in place and cannot be depressed until the owner so desires. This peculiar arrangement is cleverly managed by the aid of a supplementary spine, or trigger, from which fact they are sometimes known as "Trigger fish." They are common in all intertropical seas and several species are found off the coast of New England. One of the largest and most striking examples of this class is the "Old wife" or "Turbot of Bermuda and the West Indies."

Still other fish, which are neither grotesque in shape, coloration or habits, are so brilliantly or beautifully colored or formed that they may well be classed as "queer." Such are the "angel fish" and "parrot fishes." The first are most gracefully shaped creatures, which, with their long trailing fins and delicate green, blue or saffron tints, present a most beautiful sight as they swim lazily about amid the gorgonias and corals of the Bermudas, now shining like polished steel or silver, anon scintillating as though studded with gems, or presenting the sheen of watered silk, as the sunlight, streaming through the clear water, strikes their rainbow-colored scales. In the same localities the parrot fishes sport their gorgeous hues of green, scarlet, blue and amethyst, while slipping stealthily among the rocks; the green parrot fish changes instantly from red to green or particolors, according to his surroundings, in a remarkably chameleon-like manner.

This brilliant fellow is not the only fish possessing the power of "changing his spots" at will, by any means. Some of our commonest fishes have been found to not only change the shape and color of their markings according to the locality in which they may happen to be, but more remarkable still, have actually been found to have an entirely different color while sleeping from the one we are accustomed to seeing them wear. Among these are the "Tautog" or "Blackfish" and the common "Flounder" The former while swimming about during the day is attired in a rather pretty costume of greenish-gray, barred and mottled with dusky black, whereas, during the night, and while resting on the bottom, he assumes a nightgown of dull dusky hue, or, if retiring among eel grass, is safely protected during his slumber by a costume of closely set bands of dark and light color, which blend perfectly with his surroundings. The common "Scup" or "Scuppaug" also assumes a night livery of black and silvery stripes while among the eel grass, in place of his bright pearl coat of day. Observations of these strange habits can only be carried on when the subjects are confined in an aquarium, and even then caution must be exercised, as upon the first noise or flash of light, our finny friends awake and reassume their customary colors.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.