Sex changes, groupies, and drag queens - all in the family


Our Sunday Comics columnist dips his toes into the water and considers the social and sexual flexibility of the parrotfish, finding resonances with his own kind

Jim Gabour
2 June 2013

INLET BEACH, FL – I am reading a reference book that smells like banana and coconut oil, stale beer and lobster shells. The Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Tropical Fishes is a necessary element here, what with the mile-long close-to-shore sand bar that funnels so many Gulf species through the narrow gap leading back out into the open sea. I invariably carry it down to the beach, along with my cooler, to while away the soothing daylight hours spent fishing and snorkeling and gazing at perfect blue/emerald salt water.

Today I read, get caught in an evolutionary plot, keep reading, and find something applicable to many of my questions about my own kind.

I read about the order Perciformes, a large group of uniformly spiny-rayed fish, and specifically about the family Scaridae: Parrotfish (also, rather less poetically, called “pollyfish”). Their outward teeth do indeed look like the referenced bird’s beak. They are not large creatures, mostly measuring around twelve inches, though the especially showy Rainbow Parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia) and the Green Humphead (Scaridae Bolbometopon, also called Bumphead) each can register four feet, beak to tail. They are, however, the largest herbivorous fish in the Atlantic, eating only algae off coral.

And there comes their first amazing bit of hidden interaction with humans. Parrot fishes use their teeth to grind the coral that they ingest into minute particles, which pass through their bodies and back out, creating new sand. Since individual fishes of the species can produce as much as a ton of sand a year, having a reef full of resident parrotfish actually leads to the formation of small islands and sandy beaches. In actuality, many of the island beaches in the Caribbean frequented by the bejeweled and alligator-tanned denizens of the Upper West Side of Manhattan consist almost exclusively of minute bits of coral repurposed by the digestive tracts of Scaridae. Witness “The Parrotfish Poop Song”.

The wearing of sand-proof flip-flops in such areas is highly recommended for those with scatological phobias.

But further, while grazing on algae embedded in coral, parrot fishes also play an important role in the growth of the coral reef itself. That is because the algae that is their food source could smother the coral if the fish didn’t eat it. And thus all the other human food fish, including Florida’s incredible spiny lobsters, that need the reefs to survive, would be extinct.

* * *

Here let us pause for a brief ichthyological moment to ponder the last six paragraphs and their appearance on this website. Just why, you might ask, here in the midst of literal world-shaking discussions of the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures, why would an aging for-the-moment-untanned two-legged mammal of limited oceanic experience such as myself be so interested in describing a tropical family of brightly-rouged, beach-pooping vegan fishes?

Because, my doubting friends, I have now discovered, with the aid of the Guide, that some of these very creatures get it all, as far as passage through existence. They live a fishy alternative lifestyle that is not only completely intriguing and sexually fulfilling, but imminently practical. And perhaps, just perhaps, relevant to the human condition.

That said, back to our Feature Presentation.

* * *

First and foremost, it is sex that sells every product known to contemporary man. Particularly on flat-screen TVs. With their vibrant high-definition color. It is there that the parrotfish deserves its moment in prime time [see also: Reproduction in Reef Fishes. R. Thresher. T.F.H. Publications. 1984. Mature readers only, please].

Consider: some parrotfish get to start life as stylish females, then change to become even more spectacularly-colored males later in life. These crossover, cross-dressing fish are then identified by the term “supermale”, a dominant individual who usually swims accompanied by a half dozen or more young adults, predominantly female.

But if this seems a little too “West Side Story”, it should also be noted that the system actually works, to no one’s denigration. If a harem loses its dominant supermale, the group's largest female will, in a matter of weeks, completely and irrevocably change sex, with resultant gaudy new colors and the exclusive right to mate with the remaining ladies. From whose numbers the new “he” will choose a single mate.

Spawning occurs in shallow waters. Thousands of eggs are released into the water by the females and the males fertilize them with sperm at their whim. The eggs then attach to the plankton where they will remain until they hatch. The no-longer-ovoid new arrivals swim around the coral and begin feeding. And develop into a male or a female. Or both.

Paralleling/contrasting human development, there are even supermales among the species Scarus vetula, a species known commonly as the Queen Parrotfish. The Audubon Guide again notes that: “Beautiful and abundant, the Queen Parrotfish is often seen in groups of one supermale with several young adults, most of which are probably female.” And in the same areas of the Caribbean a separate species called the Princess, which is actually more brightly colored than the Queen, flourishes, though destined to never ascend to the throne.

I can attest to the fact that the idea of a male, who was once a female, being designated as a Queen holds all sorts of backwards and forwards human repercussions, especially in my neighborhood of New Orleans, and the French Quarter. But even the Christian site “Answers in Genesis” seems to find no fault with this sexual flexibility, proclaiming: “These unique features were likely part of the original parrotfish kind when they were created on Day 5 of Creation Week.” The site does not remotely suggest that this same liberal approach to gender be applied to humankind.

Again, regular parrotfish males breed with as many females as they can find in the reef and on singles sand bars, but the supermale mates with only one female in his lifetime, even though he may have a retinue of as many as a dozen other young adult female groupies following him about. Why? Are the supermales more sensitive to their sexual partners, since they know what it means to be a female? Does this mean that daytime TV host Ellen DeGeneres is right about the historical repercussions of physiology in gay relationships? Would the syndicated vaudevillian psychologist Dr Phil truly be inspired to ask “Does your spouse need man camp?” to a supermale parrotfish?

Which brings this discussion to yet another overriding trait of the species: parrotfish are flamboyant to a fault. Their development is of unvarying complexity, starting at birth with a series of changes in color termed “polychromatism”. Basically, they adopt a series of startlingly different colorations in each separate stage as they grow older. Juveniles, young adults, adult females and males, and supermales are all completely different colors in every species. Supermales exhibit extravagant greens and blues. Females can often show stark black and white intermingled with a deep ruby red. And the Redtail Parrotfish can change colors within seconds, back and forth, like a chameleon.

Almost all species of this fish are sequential hermaphrodites – when they are born they have both sets of sexual organs already stored in their bodies – which facilitates the trick of starting as female and then later in life becoming male. However, a few like the Stoplight Parrotfish (Sparisoma viride), mature directly as males without the initial feminine sexual diversion. These directly-developing males have coloring of the basic adult, and often display the standard promiscuous behavior of the species, breeding with any consenting female that may pass. Basically, they practice Caribbean speed-dating.

Some Mediterranean parrotfish females (Sparisoma cretense) do not change sex at all, and the ones that do, change from female to male only while still immature, undoubtedly with their decision-making processes still imperfect. Females who are already breeding, however, do not change to males, thus assuring that their brood will have a firm Mother image. Ichthyological social workers report a lower rate of same-sex marriage failures in this species.

The Marbled Parrotfish (Leptoscarus vaigiensis) is the only species of parrotfish known that refuses to change sex. The sexual preferences of the Marbled is thought by many scientists to have evolved in British territorial waters, possibly influenced by interspecies cribbage tournaments with island-dwelling humans at English retirement communities in the BVI.

Oddly enough, most members of this species are daytime creatures, shunning both clubs and extended pub hours. Though the BBC claims some few -- reported to often be solo-mated supermales -- become nocturnal, dawdling alone in caves and shipwrecks. For reasons unknown, some of the largest parrotfish also procreate en masse at a certain time each month, often around the time of the full moon, in reef channels and passages.

But basically Scaridae is a Starbucks® sort of social group, as spawning often takes place in early morning when the females release eggs in the warm waters, to be fertilized by the sperm released by males. These large sexual aggregations may consist of as many as 100 stimulated individuals. Algae café latte is considered, of course, de rigueur as an essential part of the breeding process.

Some species of parrotfish have also been found sleeping in large groups. These robust creatures can live 40 years or more, at which point they presumably become life insurance representatives, and/or begin sleeping alone.

At night they burrow in the sand or hide in crevices. Some species secrete a clear mucous cocoon around themselves while they sleep, which masks their scent, helps protect them from predators like sharks and moray eels, and keeps parasites from attaching to the enclosed fishes’ skins. Completely covered in protective pajamas, they doze unworried and stress-free. Under such non-anxious conditions, females of the species seldom require wrinkle cream, and older males are said to have little use for scale replacement or libidinal enhancement.

Humans also offer few threats. As a matter of course, parrotfish are not commonly eaten by two-legged residents of the continental US, but Scaridae are relished and happily consumed in Polynesia and Hawaii. In past centuries Pacific island populations considered the bright fish to be taboo, a food source to be eaten solely by Royal Family or by human females wearing thongs with a total coverage area of less than four cubic centimeters. The vast majority of parrotfish did not consider this unreasonable.

I am reconsidering my karmic options for reincarnation.

As I riffle through pages before putting the Guide back on its shelf, I hit the Cs, and note that at some point I may need to learn a bit more about the social possibilities inherent in a cuttlefish, which is described as spineless, destined to live a short life, having an exceptionally high brain-to-body-mass ratio, and possessing a ongoing obsession for oral sex with inadvertently-chosen females.

I immediately recognize my freshman-year college roommate. A cuttlefish, in every way. From New Jersey. I haven’t heard from him in years.

The radio just announced that water temperature today will get into the high eighties. Which makes for a slight chill when you first get in, then becomes quite warm and comforting as you move about and acclimate. So I will swim out to the bar this morning, stand in parrotfish poop, and muse on my own fate as a misguided mammal.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData