Sheepshead Fish are a True Ocean Oddity

April is National Humor Month, so here’s some evidence that nature can tell a good joke. Meet the sheepshead fish. I can tell you all about where it lives, how big it gets, all the usual statistics. But wouldn’t you rather know about those teeth?

Sheepshead fish eat all kinds of things – from soft-bodied marine worms to clams and barnacles – so they need teeth that can accommodate this dietary range. Teeth like ours, as it turns out (although I’m not sure we could crunch up a clam shell). They also have a bonus feature we lack –  extra rows behind the front teeth.

Crazy teeth aside, they are a pretty attractive looking fish, with vertical black and silver stripes that have earned them the nickname “convict fish.”

Photo credit: Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Photo credit: Virginia Institute of Marine Science

These odd little fish are actually quite common – ranging from Cape Cod to Florida. In spite of the impressive looking chompers, they only get to be about 30 inches long, and 15 pounds. I hear they are tasty and popular with recreational fishermen, but I’m not sure I could get past those teeth.


Ocean Oddity: Sea Cucumber Feasting on Plankton Buffet

Brian Skerry snapped this feeding sea cucumber in New England’s chilly waters, off the coast of Maine. To learn more about this real-life sci-fi creature, we spoke to Dr. Rick Hochberg of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, who filled us in on the details. Based on this extreme close-up of the animal’s mouth and tentacles, Dr. Hochberg guesses that this is a Psolus fabricii, commonly called the scarlet psolus.

“The color of this subtidal sea cucumber is generally scarlet to orange (at least around the oral tentacles), but the body may be somewhat brownish. They can grow to about 8 inches long and are often found associated with hard substrata (rocks, reefs) where they spend their time feeding on suspended food in the water column (e.g., plankton). The picture shows the animal bending one of its ten oral tentacles toward its mouth to clean off the microscopic food that is caught by the extremely numerous and fine, mucus-coated tentacles.” Yum!

Did you know that June is National Zoo and Aquarium month? If you want to see creatures like this marvelous sea cucumber close up, now is a great time to pay a visit to your local aquarium. Here in New England, we have one of the country’s finest – the New England Aquarium, where Brian Skerry is an explorer-in-residence. Support these important institutions with a visit to the NEAq, or your local aquarium this month.

Ocean Oddity: Right Whale Baleen

Alien species? Even better: this is an amazing close up shot of the baleen of a right whale.

The right whale opens its mouth while it feeds, using its baleen to skim out the nutrient rich zooplankton it needs to maintain its super thick blubber layer. Right whales feed near the surface, making it possible for Brian to capture this fantastic image.