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Monday, January 17, 2011

Overlooked Species Theatre Presents: Sculpins

Editor's Note: Overlooked Species Theatre is a feature in which we highlight species or species groups that seem to be, well, overlooked. A key feature of OST is blatant anthropomorphizing of the subjects, and for this we make no apologies because this is a blog and not a thesis. In this edition, we attribute extreme surliness to sculpins.  

Question, hotshot: Why is Chuck Norris afraid to fish?

Answer: Because he might catch a sculpin.

A sculpin, approximately 0.5 seconds before beating the photographer senseless
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Now, you may not know much about sculpins, but that's OK by them because they don't much care for you either. But just so you're acquainted, here are some sculpin facts: 

     - 50% of the human population of Manitoba is composed of people who had to leave
       British Columbia because they owe sculpins money.
    -  Every 5-7 years, a few sculpins get together to play cards out in the middle of the
       Pacific. The whiskey flows and inevitably there's a fight, and this is what causes
       El Nino. 
    - When orcas visit sculpins, they always call first to make sure everything's cool.
    - The cause of the 2009 Fraser River sockeye crash? A sockeye said something
       about a sculpin's mother.

OK, I made those up, so here are some non-fictitious facts. Sculpins belong to the order Scorpaeniformes, which also includes lingcod, sablefish, lumpsuckers, and the like. There are hundreds of species of sculpin- some are fresh water species, living in places like the Great Lakes and Lake Baikal, but most live in marine ecosystems, ranging from the intertidal region down to depths of hundreds of feet. The North Pacific is considered to be the stronghold of the sculpins. It's where they are thought to have originated, and it's where the largest diversity of sculpins is found today.

And yes, all anthropomorphizing aside, sculpins can be pretty tough in their own way: various species are capable of spending several hours outside of water, living in very cold water, and/or surviving the stress of being caught in trawl gear.  Even the smallest sculpins can be admirably hardnosed: here on the Pacific coast, the tiny tidepool sculpin uses a variety of adaptations to survive in the harsh and highly variable world of tidal pools, which are alternately battered by waves and left exposed by low tides, and where water temperature, pH, and oxygen content can vary wildly over short amounts of time.

Their appearances can be pretty wild. Some sculpin species look like they were created by a classroom of fourth graders, wielding naught but the most neon of finger paints, all of whom had been deprived of ritalin and none of whom were allowed to look at what their neighbor was painting. How else to describe the sea raven? Other sculpins eschew flashiness for pointiness: they can have long, sharp spines that stick out of their heads, and when caught, they may make these spines protrude and may even whip their heads back and forth in a most disagreeable fashion. Oh yes, and the spines can contain poison. But of course.

Still, all the poison head spikes in the world won't do much good against the cumulative impacts of creeping human encroachment on habitat. That's why here in B.C., several of our sculpin species are at risk. Shorthead sculpin, Columbia sculpin, and the tiny Cultus pygmy sculpin, all of which are freshwater species, are listed under the Species At Risk Act (SARA). Threats to these species include altered water quality and habitat loss due to human development activities, and competition with other species including invasive species.

Out in the salt water, some marine sculpins are well-known to recreational and commercial fishermen, as they're often caught as incidental catch. This is partly due to their less-than-picky eating habits: while small sculpins stick to a diet of small seafloor invertebrates, larger ones will try to fit just about anything into their 'uge mouths, including larger invertebrates and fish - and, as I can personally attest from an experience on a longliner, the toes of size 10 Xtratuffs.

These apparently are irresistably delicious to a large sculpin
Photo credit: Emma Point; boot contents: John Driscoll
According to some websites of unauthenticated repute, sculpins can make good eating, but for the most part they are seen as a nuisance by fishermen. Still, the internet is sprinkled with examples of what I see as evidence of humans' grudging esteem for these little fighters: sculpins have been the namesake for a U.S. Navy submarine, beer, and an apparently evil comic book guy. To state the obvious: these sorts of thing are not often named after cowardly animals. And if you need any more proof: over at Ugly Overload, they have some actual photographic evidence of sculpin fearlessness.

So, sculpins: they don't get much press and most people who know of their existence view them as a nuisance, but they're pretty cool fish that make a go of it in a tough world, and for that they deserve a bit of respect.

Or are you going to make them come over there and take that respect? The choice is yours, buddy, and you'd do well to make it easy on yourself...


  1. Although IDing these guys underwater has made me curse them many a time (DRNGFNUS=Dirty Rotten No Good For Nothing Unidentified Sculpins), may I just say after many years of watching, photographing, and IDing them in the wild: I HEART SCULPINS!!!

  2. I laughed my way through this very informative blog. Well done!

  3. Hi all,

    Eva, thanks for your encouraging comment!

    Janna - I'm no scuba diver so I've never encountered them underwater. I have seen plenty on fishing boats in the Pacific and Atlantic, and I've always had a place in my heart for 'em. Especially the longhorn sculpin in the Atlantic - you can sift through a pile of pollock, haddock, cod, and hake - all big fish, all dead as door nails - and come upon a tiny little longhorn, and it would inevitably be not only alive, but literally vibrating and just generally giving the impression that it wanted nothing more than to get even with whoever caught it. Hard to not like a fish like that.

  4. Great article - nice read and very entertaining!

  5. oh I am still laughing.... love the vision of the pile of dead fish with the thriving kickass sculpin under. so true. in our case, its after sampling through a bucket of townetted sample including seaweed, jellies, and salmonids. dang sculpins but I 'heart' them as well. thanks for the laugh.