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Unusual Reef Fishes

For millions of years, the seas have been a virtual laboratory for the process of evolution. The results of nature's experiments can be found throughout the world's seas. Perhaps nowhere else on Earth has so many strange and unusual adaptations taken place. The coral reef is a showcase for these bizarre creatures. Fish species here have developed many different shapes and abilities. There are fishes here that do not even look like fish. There are the eels, long skinny fish that look more like snakes. There are pufferfish that actually expand like balloons to avoid being eaten by predators. There are the seahorses, which are one of the most unusual fish designs on the reef. And believe it or not, it is actually the male seahorse that gives birth to the young. There are even seahorses that look like seaweed. Camouflage has evolved into an art form here on the coral reef. There are fishes that look like rocks and fishes that look like plants. Even experienced divers can be fooled by some of these ingenious disguises. The art of venom has also reached new heights on the reef. Many undersea residents have developed strong venoms as a means of protection. Some species carry enough venom in their bodies to kill several men. Below is a listing of some of these strange and unusual residents of the coral reef.

Longspined Porcupinefish (Diodon holacanthus)
Longspined Porcupinefish
(Diodon holacanthus)

The members of the porcupinefish family have evolved an interesting means of defense. When threatened by a predator, they fill their bodies with water until they swell like a balloon. This makes them too large for the predator to swallow. Porcupinefishes also have the added protection of a spiny covering on their body.

Papuan Toby (Canthigaster papua)
Papuan Toby
(Canthigaster papua)

Pufferfishes comprise another group of inflatable fishes. The Papuan toby is one of the most beautiful of the puffer species. It is shown here in its natural state. Besides the beautiful colors and spots on this species, there is a large black spot near the animal's back fin. This resembles an eye and helps draw the attention of predators toward the fish's tail and away from its head.

Stonefish (Synanecja horrida)
(Synanecja horrida)

The Stonefish is without a doubt one of the ugliest fish in the sea. This fish gets its name from its stone-like appearance. This excellent disguise allows it to blend in with the background as it waits for its prey, small fish, to wander close enough to gobble. In addition to its gruesome looks, the stonefish has sharp, venomous spines that contain enough venom to kill a man.

Oscellated Frogfish (Antennarius ocellatus)
Oscellated Frogfish
(Antennarius ocellatus)

Frogfishes get their name from their grotesque, almost frog-like appearance. Their strange looks help to camouflage them as they wait to catch their prey. Frogfishes have a specially modified dorsal spine with a fleshy growth at the end. They lie motionless and use this spine like a fishing rod. When a curious fish gets too close, it is swallowed up instantly by large, powerful jaws.

Mushroom Scorpionfish (Scorpaena intermiss)
Mushroom Scorpionfish
(Scorpaena intermiss)

Scorpionfishes are characterized by their bizarre appearance and the numerous spines that cover their bodies. Similar to the lionfish, these spines contain venom strong enough to cause a very painful wound and even more serious injury to those who may have allergic reactions. The strange appearance of the scropionfish helps conceal them as they wait to ambush their prey.

Smooth Trunkfish (Lactophyrs triqueter)
Smooth Trunkfish
(Lactophyrs triqueter)

Trunkfishes are members of the boxfish family. They get their name from their modified scales, which form a bony armor of plates that enclose their body. They can easily be identified by their triangular shape. The smooth trunkfish grows to about 12 inches in length, and is commonly found in the waters of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Spotfin Lionfish (Pterois antennata)
Spotfin Lionfish
(Pterois antennata)

Lionfishes are among the most beautiful fish species on the coral reef. But as is often the case in nature, this beauty is actually a warning of danger. The sharp spines of the lionfish are coated with a venomous mucous and are capable of delivering a painful sting. The venom of some of the larger species is strong enough to kill a man.

Dragon Wrasse (Novaculichthys taeniorus)
Dragon Wrasse
(Novaculichthys taeniourus)

This juvenile dragon wrasse has a foreboding appearance, but is actually quite harmless. The strange horns and spines are nothing more than an elaborate bluff designed to protect the juveniles. The colors fade to brown and the ornate decorations disappear as they mature. The adults have a much more plain appearance and look nothing like the juveniles.

Flying Gurnard (Dactylopterus volitans)
Flying Gurnard
(Dactylopterus volitans)

Sounding more like a circus act, the flying gurnards are easily recognized by their large, wing-like pectoral fins. Contrary to their name, they do not actually fly. Their large fins help them to swim low over the sand as they search for food. Flying gurnards are found in the shallow water reefs along the eastern coast of North America, from Massachusetts to the Caribbean.

Turkey Moray Eel (Gymnothorax meleagris)
Turkey Moray Eel
(Gymnothorax meleagris)

The moray eel is one of the largest eel species. They are efficient predators feeding mainly on fish. Moray eels have razor sharp teeth and are capable of inflicting a painful bite. Larger species can remove the fingers of careless divers. In spite of this fact, these eels are usually timid in the wild. Some can even be hand fed by careful divers.

Wolf Eel (Anarrichthys ocellatus)
Wolf Eel
(Anarrichthys ocellatus)

The wolf eel is not really an eel, but an eel-like fish with large, powerful jaws. As ferocious as the may appear, they are not dangerous. Their strong jaws are used for cracking the shells of sea urchins and other invertebrates. They will also feed on some small fish. Wolf eels can be found in rock crevasses throughout the Pacific from the Sea of Japan to southern California.

Northern Seahorse (Hippocampus erectus)
Northern Seahorse
(Hippocampus erectus)

The seahorse is probably one of nature's most curious fish designs. It is a shy creature, and is found in a variety of sizes and colors throughout the reef. Seahorses have a very unusual method of giving birth. After the eggs are fertilized, the male carries them in a special abdominal pouch. Here they are incubated until they are ready to hatch.

Leafy Sea Dragon (Phyllopteryx eques)
Leafy Sea Dragon
(Phyllopteryx eques)

The leafy sea dragon is a rather unique species of seahorse. This fish has evolved an elaborate system of camouflage by growing leafy extensions on its body that resemble seaweed. They can often be found floating in clumps of seaweed. They feed mainly on small shrimps. Leafy sea dragons are found in the waters of southern and western Australia where they feed mainly on plankton and algae.

Trumpetfish (Aulostomus maculatus)
(Aulostomus maculatus)

Trumpetfishes are characterized by their elongated bodies and small, upturned mouths. They are often seen hovering in a vertical position with their heads pointed downward. This allows them to hide among corals as they search for prey. They feed on small fish and invertebrates by sucking them suddenly into their small mouths. Trumpetfishes are common throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Orangespotted Filefish (Oxymonacanthus longirostris)
Orangespotted Filefish
(Oxymonacanthus longirostris)

Filefishes are closely related to triggerfishes. The longnosed filefish gets its name from its elongated snout. It uses this to feed on coral polyps and worms. The bright spots help to camouflage this shy and timid fish as it grazes on the coral reef. As with most filefish species, the longnosed filefish is found in the waters of the Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions.