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SCORPIONFISH
The Masters of Disguise

Text and photography by Andrea & Antonella Ferrari

 

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Ambon scorpianfish, Pteroidichthys amboinensis, Indonesia, Pacific Ocean Image #: 129378

Look and Don't Touch

Now you see them, now you don’t – but, in fact, they’re everywhere. From shallow coral rubble flats to deep oceanic walls, from bare-looking muck bottoms to rich coral growth, there isn’t a single reef niche where you won’t be able to spot, sooner or later, a scorpionfish. If you look hard enough, of course, and above all if you don’t put your hand on one first: because these exquisitely colorful ambush predators are as cryptic (ie camouflaged) as they are venomous. Relying on finely ornamented somatolithic (ie shape-breaking) liveries to escape predation, they are also able to rapidly raise their syringe-like dorsal and pectoral fin rays to inject an often atrociously painful dose of venom in the flesh of the disturber. So you’re forewarned – look and don’t touch! However, in the unlucky case you’d happen to be impaled by a scorpionfish, remember that the immediate application of barely bearable heat (very hot water, or a jet of very hot air from a hair dryer) will bring immediate relief, as heat tends to destroy the proteins which make up the venom of these beautiful and unsung reef fish. Scorpionfish proper are closely related to Lionfish, Paperfish and Rhinopias – all belonging to the Family Scorpaenidae , while their closest cousins are the possibly even more dangerous Devil Scorpionfish and Stonefish, belonging to the Family Sinanceiidae.

Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder

It takes a well trained eye to spot scorpionfish lying in ambush among the corals. Their finely ornamented livery and its usually reddish tones (appearing brown or even blackish underwater) contribute in breaking up their grotesque shape, while the broad fins and especially the very large head commonly sport tendrils and skin flaps which further help in deceiving the casual observer (and the occasional fish passing by, which is usually swallowed alive and whole in one big lightning-fast gulp). Once they’re lit by a torch’s light or the strobes’flash, however, they usually transform themselves in a veritable riot of pinks, reds, brown, whites and oranges, often accented with blue or green – an underwater photographer’s dream come true! Usually very confident in their ruse, they’ll barely move in not directly touched or harassed – allowing divers and photographers to approach them within inches, especially when encountered during night dives. This can be very useful when shooting macro details of their eyes, fins or skin surfaces, allowing the creation of almost abstract, intriguing and extremely colorful patterns. What is written above only applies to reef-dwelling Scorpionfish proper, whose gaudy liveries help them in getting lost among the corals’maze: smaller species found on sandy, mucky or coral-rubble bottoms usually feature much more subdued and less colorful liveries, often augmented by hairy appendages, which are however as good as the brighter ones in camouflaging the fish to perfection. Small Scorpionfish species dwelling in naturally degraded habitats, always large-mouthed and often sporting a roundish, lumpish body ornamented in very sombre tones, are a challenge to underwater researchers and photographers and some of the most incredibly cryptic animal species to be found anywhere on Earth, rivalling some better-known land species inhabiting rainforests. On the other hand, another fascinating facet of the Scorpionfish group is again represented by the showy, incredibly ornamented members of the Rhinopias family – some of which count as the most grotesque, strangely beautiful and vividly ornamented inhabitants of tropical waters. Rabidly looked for by underwater photographers worldwide, who are strangely fascinated by their strangely boar-like snout, their grumpy expression and their extreme variety, Rhinopias are strictly Indo-Pacific benthic predators, quite difficult to spot but usually observed while brazenly sitting out in the open, obviously relying on their extraordinary camouflage to escape detection. Never forgotten once seen, Rhinopias truly are one of the “Holy Grails” of underwater photography.

A False Mouth to Eat You Better

Most scorpionfish species are rather difficult to identify underwater, and the habitat in which they are observed usually offers the best clue to their identity. Coral reef-dwelling species such as the Smallscale or Tasselled are usually large and quite robust – reaching about 30cms in length – and quite more colorful, while those found among algal growth, on silty bottoms and on coral rubble flats are generally smaller and less boldly patterned. All however generally display the same shape – a very large head with laterodorsally mounted, largish eyes, a wide terminal mouth, and broad fan-like pectoral fins which are used to secure the animal to its perch. Regardless of the species they belong to and the environment they are observed in, all scorpionfish display a highly evolved cryptic livery, which truly makes them – together maybe with the members of the Frogfish family – the true champions of marine camouflage. This is one of the main reasons for the great confusion in their exact classification at the moment – correct species description usually has to rely on internal details rather than external (color, pattern) ones, since two specimens belonging to the same species may actually appear quite different when observed in different environments. One apparently common feature to the livery of large reef-dwelling Scorpionfish species such as oxycephala is however the presence of a clearly-defined “false mouth” pattern mirroring their real one and specularly placed on their nuchal area, right behind the eyes: this sharp, unmistakable marking might play a function in confusing possible prey when it is getting inadvertently close to the sit-and-wait predator. Given their solitary habits and their choice of environment, scorpionfish are neither purposely fished by man nor endangered anywhere – despite the fact that their flesh, although full of sharp bones, is quite good eating, being used in several cuisines all over the world to add a special touch to fish soups and the like.