This is the most photographed Tessellated Blenny in the world and likely the most observed. I am certain of this. I spent hours with this fish and its reefmates – I think I might have been obsessed. A few days after we arrived on Bonaire for our annual 5-week stay, our friends Allison and Carlos Estape (fellow fish surveyors) stopped by and told us about a site that had Tessellated Blennies (Hypsoblennius invemar) living in the barnacle shells. An abandoned, submerged mooring covered with a complex growth of sponges, barnacles and other invertebrates, this was perfect habitat for Tessellated Blennies. Enchanted by these colorful fish, we visited the site, dubbed the “blenny condo,” again and again regularly finding from 12 to 15 individuals, including one only a half-inch long.
Above: another view of the same blenny. Of all the blennies at the condo, this individual had the most developed cirri. It was also the most photogenic, sitting in a barnacle shell that was free of surrounding growth. Over five weeks, Ned and I showed it and the others in the colony to many fishwatchers and photographers – anyone who was willing to spend an hour at eight feet to look at a tiny, 2-inch fish. Although the mooring was attached to the bottom, at a depth of 26 feet, all the blennies I counted were in the top ten feet of water. Looking up, you can see how close the top of the mooring is to the surface:
Hanging out at ten feet could be tough when it was surgy, but we made a number of dawn dives, when the water was calmer and the blennies were particularly active. I was able to distinguish some of the females from the males by their behavior. In many blennies, the nuptial males are colored differently from the females and young, non-breeding males. They are usually site attached, rarely leaving their holes – I think this is because they are either guarding eggs or trying to attract females to lay eggs there. The Tessellated Blennies that never left their holes were the most vibrantly colored and strongly patterned, which led me to believe they were the males. When what I thought was a female approached, the males exhibited a very distinctive head-bobbing behavior, often leaning way out of the hole, like this one:
I could not tell the difference between the females and young males, but many were running around and getting into frequent fights with each other. When I saw a male going crazy, bobbing up and down like a mini-piston, I was certain the target of his showboating was a female, like this one that tucked itself into a shell after running around the male several times:
Ned shot dozens of photos of the Tessellated Blennies on the blenny condo but this is my favorite. I wuv de widdle toofees:
Team Blenny is on the job in Bonaire – check out the results of last year’s hunt on our newly created Bonaire Blenny Page. There are photos and hand-drawn maps with info about where we found them last year. “Like” us on our Blennywatcher Facebook page for updates about our 2014 finds.
Bonaire is a super place for fishwatching because so many different habitats are accessible as shore dives, giving divers the freedom to dive wherever (well, almost), whenever and for as long as we want. Last year, we launched the Bonaire Blenny Challenge - originally a challenge to ourselves, but as others joined, the talk at Buddy Dive became all blennies, all the time. And look! The bar and restaurant have a new name and menu. w00t!
Look! Buddy Dive Resort’s bar and restaurant makeover.
Orangespotted Blenny in abandoned worm hole on dock piling
We’re heading to Bonaire soon and that means blenny hunting! In Ned’s photographs, enlarged on a computer screen, the differences between the Orangespotted Blenny, Hypleurochilus springeri and the Tessellated Blenny, Hypsoblennius invemar are obvious but unmagnified they looked very similar. Both can be found in the same habitat: empty barnacle shells or other small holes on dock pilings and always shallow, where even the gentlest surge makes it almost impossible to lock in and really get a good, long look at them.
Tessellated Blenny, Hypsoblennius invemar, in its barnacle shell home
I found the Orangepotted right away and on just about every dock piling we visited. Of course, every time I found one, I was sure I had found the much-coveted Tessellated Blenny. Sometimes it took 10 to 15 minutes of hovering at a depth of 2 feet (did I mention the surge) studying cirri (the fleshy appendages above the eyes), colors and spot patterns to determine which blenny was holed up. The Tessellated Blenny has a distinctive, but not always evident, black spot behind the eye – using a light helped highlight that and the colors. My fellow blenny watchers agreed – it was usually easier to take pictures and sort them out back on land.
Occasionally, the fish would dart from their holes and perch out in the open. Like many blennies, they have a definite territory and favorite hangouts. After watching them a while, I could anticipate where they would stop, which gave me the chance to examine them for other differences. The Orangespotted Blenny has several dark bands toward the rear of its body that are absent on the Tessellated Blenny.
Orange-spotted Blenny (Hypleurochilus springeri) has banding near the tail
Tessellated Blenny out of its hole. Note dark mark behind the eye.
Last year, I made a Bonaire blenny map with the sites where we found different species and even found a few takers for the Bonaire Blenny Challenge. It will be fun to hunt for them again this year; we’ll post our results here so check back soon.
This is why they are called Fangblennies (video frame capture)
This is why they are called Fangblennies! Dr. William Smith-Vaniz’s 1976 monograph, The Saber-toothed Blennies, Tribe Nemophini, was a must-read when we started diving in the Indo-Pacific many years ago, but it was the cover of his publication (see below) showing the recurved canine teeth of the lower jaw, that turned these cute little reef fish into the stuff of nightmares and inspired my quest to see them for myself.
Saber-toothed, a.k.a., fangblennies, with the exception of one species in the eastern Pacific, are found in the Indo-Pacific. Unlike other blennies, most saber-toothed blennies have a swim bladder and can often be seen swimming up in the water column. They get their common name from the well developed, backward pointing canine teeth in their lower jaw that are used for defense.
The Saber-toothed Blennies, Tribe Nemophini by Dr. William Smith-Vaniz, cover image used with permission
In addition to describing these blennies, Bill collaborated on research of mimetic relationships among blennies and tested the toxicity of fangblenny bites by inducing a couple of different species to bite him on the midriff and arm – yeow! It was noted in one of his papers, “The few people who have accidentally or deliberately been bitten by a Meiacanthus experienced only mild pain, but swelling surrounding the site of the fang punctures indicated a biological response disproportional to the mechanical injury.” That’s all I needed to read to know that this was not the way I wanted to see fangs – blenny wrangling was out and stalking became the name of the game. Roger Steene has a classic shot of a blenny baring its fangs so I knew it was possible to see it, I just didn’t know it would take me 12 years!
I’ve had tantalizing glimpses of the fangs of other species, but this Petroscirtes (I’m pretty sure it is P. breviceps, the Shorthead Fangblenny) living in a bottle in Lembeh Strait, is the closest I have come. It gave me one quick snap and it was enough to get the video frame capture used at the beginning of this post. Ned is still trying to capture this with his camera but you can see from the video, how fast he’ll have to be to get it. You can watch the entire, very quick encounter on this video on our Blennywatcher YouTube channel:
Mimetic Relationships Involving Fishes of the Family Blenniidae, Springer, Victor G., Smith-Vaniz, William F.
Meiacanthus urostigma, a New Fangblenny from the Northeastern Indian Ocean, with Discussion and Examples of Mimicry in species of Meiacanthus (Teleostei: Blenniidae: Nemophini). Smith-Vaniz, William F., Satapoomin, Ukkrit, Allen, Gerald R.