Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 15, 2009

Craters of the Moon Fish

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:53 pm

Birds do not have the corner on the nest market. As a matter of fact, some fish rank right up there with the feathered tribe as nest makers. Members of the sunfish family, such as bass, bluegills and true sunfish, put quiet a bit of effort into making sure their nests are just right. Their egg-holding structures are at least on par with killdeers, terns, and gulls because both creatures work with a similar sandy substrate. The colorful little Pumpkinseed Sunfish is a prime example of his type – and yes, I did mean to say “his.”

As soon as the water temperatures creep into the upper 60’s F the male Pumpkinseeds seek out the shallow shoreline waters and begin to construct depressions in the sandy bottom.  They push away the overlaying sediment in order to expose the harder gravel layer beneath. By employing vigorous tail sweeps, a dimple-like crater of 4 – 16 inches  diameter is carefully constructed. Often the nests are built within a field of aquatic vegetation and their work is easy to spot against this verdant background (see here). More commonly, however, multiple male “Punks” get together to create a crater field resembling a lunar surface (see above). O.K., the moon isn’t covered with water, but if that comparison bothers you then you need to go somewhere else for a while.

The lunar reference is a valid one. Pumpkinseeds are technically known as Lepomis gibbosus which means “scaly gilled fish shaped like a full moon.” These decorative little fish are not actually full moons, but they are like one. Their nesting grounds are like lunar surfaces but they are not actually,… well…never mind.  The common name Pumpkinseed is probably more descriptive anyway, because I’ve never seen a full moon with fins! Then again, fish don’t come from pumpkins either. Let’s just stop thinking for a moment, shall we?

In truth, these fish don’t really look like either comparative entity – they are more peacock-like. A male in full breeding wear (see below) is a wonderfully colored fish with spots of orange, sky blue, black, yellow, and red. Distinctive radiating blue lines arc over the gill flaps and call attention to the jet black gill flaps which terminate in bold dashes of reddish orange. These gill decorations are crucial to their masculine duties.

Once the fish finishes with his scooping task, he then patiently waits over his nest (see below) and prepares to intercept passing females. The girls, attracted to the brightly garbed males, spend little time at any given nest site. They arrive out of nowhere, tip up at a 45 degree angle, and start laying eggs. The pair will get together for a second or two as the males release clouds of sperm to fertilize the tumbling eggs. Then, the whole thing is over just like that. The male kicks the female out (girls are from Venus, you know) and switches to bachelor parenting mode. He will accept a few more egg donations if offered, however, but the final buzz off remains the same.

For the next few days, the proud father aggressively guards his precious cargo and fans them until they hatch. Every curious by-passer is investigated and pushed away with a vigorous display involving  an impressive flaring of the gills. You can see a piece of this action in this short video clip (see here). I’ve slowed down the sequence in case you missed it the first time (you might also enjoy the super slow sound effects as well).

As a father, the Pumpkinseed dad is as dedicated as any of his avian counterparts. He’ll watch over his little tribe for as long as 11 days before finally letting them out into the big bad world. If a young fish wanders away, he’ll grab it in his mouth and shuttle it back to the safety of the nest space.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this whole male nesting/parenting thing is that the urge to eat small fish is turned off for a while. These finny males, contrary to the accepted norm that guys think with their stomachs, forego their natural instinct to snack. Even when one of the hatchlings is actually in his mouth, a male resists all temptation and eventually spits the potential meal out. You can imagine how embarrassing it would be, not to mention species-stupid, to accidentally eat one of your tiny children. After the breeding season, this restriction is lifted and woe unto the small child fish that returns to thank dad on Father’s Day.

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