by Johnny Rader
After the most recent red tide event, many people were left wondering about the numerous, diverse, and sometimes strange sea creatures washing up on shore. At Sanibel Sea School, we received many emails and phone calls with creature identification requests. Today we are going to answer one of the most commonly asked questions – what are the spiky fish I’m seeing everywhere?
Most people believe them to be a type of puffer, which makes sense considering their appearance. However, these belong to an entirely different group called the burrfish. No, these fish aren’t cold (“burrrr!”), they are named this way because of the spines, or burrs, that cover their bodies.
Although they belong to the same order as pufferfish and have similar morphological characteristics, they have claimed their own family – the porcupine fish, or Diodontidae. This family is characterized by having two fused teeth, the ability to inflate, and the presence of spines. Some species’ spines are always raised, while others’ only stick out when they are inflated. The fused teeth are used to eat invertebrates, while both the spines and the ability to inflate are used mostly for protection against predators.
In this region of Florida, the most common species we find is the striped burrfish. Are you finding these fish elsewhere? It’s possible, because their range extends from Brazil all the way up to Maine, but they are much less common in the outer reaches of this area. Striped burrfish like to inhabit seagrass beds, where they use their powerful beaks to eat hermit crabs, barnacles, and other hard-shelled invertebrates. Their spines are always raised, and they can inflate to twice their relaxed size! A great defense mechanism, if you ask us.