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Singing for sex, and other political anomalies

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Our Sunday Comics columnist learns some human and political lessons from the frogfish and toadfish of Florida

Jim Gabour
8 June 2014

Exactly a year ago today, sitting on a beach on the Florida panhandle, I wrote an article entitled:  “Sex changes, groupies, and drag queens - all in the family”.  It started this way: 

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.

And today, yes today of 2014, it happened again.  And it was only just now when I looked back for the previous article that I realized I am writing on the anniversary of those first odd speculations, and all of a sudden I had found myself doing the same thing, looking at that same book again.

But this time falling into frogfish and toadfish.  Of a similar kind, they are.  And we.

Yes, we.  For one thing, these fish walk.  

This is a Hairy Frogfish, walking about an Indonesia sea bottom, from Daan van Wijk’s movie “Impressionesia”.   Actually, they can walk in this fashion, one fin forward and then its opposite number, or they can move both fins forward simultaneously, bouncing in leaps.  However, the frogs can only do this in sprints or over short distances.  Through all their various modes of appearance, there are no known frogfish marathoners. 

But they at least have their very own website.

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When they are not on the bottom, frogfishes can swim normally, using their tail fin, or by forcing water out through their gills using the streams as propulsion.  This gives them the flexibility of at least three means of transport.

But frogfishes really don’t like to move about.  They would rather wait in place, looking like anything but a frogfish so that they will not be recognized as prey, and let their own quarry come to them by looking edible.  This duality is also a human trait:  don’t look like what you are so that your enemies won’t detect you, but at the very same time send out magnetic vibes to attract weaker members of the species upon whom you prey.  In the study of animal evolution this is known as “aggressive mimicry”.  In Washington, D.C., this is known as “being a Republican”.

Ironically enough, the frogfish’s two principal predators are clownfish and damselfish.  John Boehner and Ted Cruz don’t do well with either Democrats or women.

To avoid being consumed by them, frogfish can also blow themselves up like pufferfish to seem larger than they are, and they can completely change colors, the new appearance lasting anywhere from days to several weeks.  The political parallels are obvious in this case.

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BTW do notice that, at the very end of the video piece above, the Hairy Frogfish breaks out its fishing rod, called an “illicium”, shakes loose its lure (the “esca”), and wags it about, seeking the attention of victims.  There are many shapes and colors within a single species, some looking like small fish, or shrimp, or worms.  The Hairy, again above, hangs out a trio of worms.  The wild thing here is, if another fish actually bites off their living body part bait and escapes, the frogfish can blow it off and regenerate another.  

These are not, however, brilliant fish.  They often eat each other, cannibalizing individual frogfish being attracted by the very same lures that they themselves use for preying on other species.

They eat with a sudden opening of the jaws, pulling the prey into the mouth along with water.  These are serious predators.  The volume of the mouth cavity can enlarge twelve-fold to take in larger prey,  and frogfish can also expand their stomachs to swallow animals up to twice their size. This happens in 6 milliseconds, the fastest animal reaction on earth. 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Frogfish#p00z9mg5

This is less time than it takes a muscle to contract, so how it does this is a mystery.  And you were disdaining frogfish as slow and inept, were you?  Waddling about on its fins or blowing water out its gills to get about?  Not when it comes to sustaining itself.  Not when it comes to consuming.

Most frogfish can control position in their environment with the use a gas bladder for buoyancy.

This ability is especially useful during reproduction, which is free-style.  That is to say the females pop out up to 180,000 eggs at a time and the males just hang out in the fishy singles bar hoping to  fertilize with a wink and a nudge.  Scientists do not know what stimulates this action but speculate it could be either the phase of the moon or the female scent.  Some of the obscure Danish researchers indicate a probable piscine preference for Chanel’s Frogfish Number Five.  But, frivolous animism aside, every bit of data so far acquired indicates that the female in these trysts is always larger, and sometimes ten times larger, than the male.  And yet their pay scale is 45% lower than the males.

Consider the above spate of occasional facts.  There can be no doubt that the prehistorically-ugly Frogfish has both a place in contemporary American politics, and in pick-up bars.

Of course there are subculture exceptions to the rule.  For instance there is the Psychedelic Frogfish (Histiophryne psychedelica).   

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Then, again proving this relatively minor fish as an international cultural phenomenon, there is the Spongebob Squarepants acquaintance.

There is a remarkable amount of assimilation of the frogfish literature into world culture.  And if you decide to delve deeply enough into the subject, you can earn a doctorate of frogfish.

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Oddly enough, with Toadfish both the English common name and scientific name Batrachoididae refer to their toad-like appearance, though the root word, “batrakhos”, is actually Greek for “frog”.

And frogs and toads are quite different, one of the big differences being that frogs are aquatic where adult toads prefer dry ground.  This may refer to the fact that toadfish are predators who favor sandy or muddy substrates, places where their coloration helps them avoid detection and ambush their prey.

The variety I most often see just outside the sandbars of the Florida panhandle is the Gulf Toadfish, which the Florida Museum of Natural History says was discovered lurking about our shores in 1880.  They list other English language common names for the gulf toadfish, including dogfish, mudfish, and oysterdog.  But it also occurs elswhere in the world under names like lahtikonnakala (Finnish), Mexikansk paddefisk (Danish), rozpusznik swiszczacy (Polish) and the only one I could attempt to pronounce or translate: sapo de boca blanca “toad of the white mouth” (Spanish).   

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Barracuda love to eat gulf toadfish.  Humans, not so much.  I have seen them in New York’s Chinatown, but no one in my neck of the woods will touch them, especially since Gulf Toadfish have venomous spines.   Plus they have been linked to ciguatera poisoning in humans.  And, sorry fish-lovers, but face it:  they are just plumb ugly, no matter how much decorative curly parsley you place about them. 

Bringing me finally to the point – thank you for your indulgence -- in this discussion, yet another human-fish connection.

In this case, again the similarity relates to mating practices.  You see, toadfish are well known for their ability to "sing", Males use the inflatable swim bladder (same as the positioning organ in frogfish), but this time as a sound-production device.  And they use it to call in the babes.  For, ummmm… procreational purposes. 

The boys are always optimistic, making nests before the girls arrive.  You see, even among these toads, having a serious crib is all-important to bringing in the potential mates.  The bachelor pad completed, males then attract females by "singing", that is, releasing air from their mouths by contracting muscles on the swim bladders. The sound, described variously by humans as somewhere between a 'hum' and a 'whistle', can be up to 15 minutes long, and is invariably loud enough to be clearly audible from the surface.   

The eggs are sticky on one side like a postage stamp, so the female can mail them to the boys by simply attaching them to the sides of their nests.  And with their singular operatics, each male attracts numerous females to his nest, so the eggs within may have many different mothers.

The male then guards the nest against predators, for three to four weeks, without eating.  Even then, the kids continue to hang around dad, until they are large enough to fend for themselves. This degree of parental care is very unusual among fishes.  And single dads everywhere.

As a source of further metaphor, the Gulf Toadfish, which spawn in February and March, are said to have particularly adapted to human fishing grounds and consequent fishing practices, quite frequently choosing to live in discarded beer cans and bottles which have become lodged in the bottom.   From the mouths of these containers, they prey on other fish.  Finding victims using a beer bottle as camouflage.  Sound familiar?

Then there are the rituals of the Oyster Toadfish, another particularly vocal denizen of the deep. When handled by fishermen – and they can survive out of water for as long as 24 hours -- they grunt at their human captors, and are said to snap viciously.  This, rather than linking to human sexuality, again parallels more directly with human politics.  I am suggesting a corresponding relationship with other modern Republicans,  specifically Republicans from the great American state of Texas.  Specifically, the grunting and snapping they do when out of their element.  When they are amongst thinking constituents.

The Oyster variety of this fish species has a distinctive "foghorn" sound that is indeed vigorously employed by males to attract females in their own April-October mating season. They are out there right now, utilizing their sound-producing muscles, again the fastest known vertebrate muscles. Their calls  can be heard for great distances underwater.  Following the foghorn sound, the female comes into the nest, and lays her extremely large eggs.

In 1998, NASA sent astronaut John Glenn and a couple of Oyster Toadfish into space on Flight STS-95 to investigate the effects of microgravity on the development of otolithic organs – sort of the inner ear of vertebrate fish. They wanted to know if all that singing and hearing changed in outer space, if the fish still knew who they were, where they were, and what they wanted. 

The study found little difference between terrestrial development and that same activity in space.   Basically, the detailed multi-million-dollar scientific report said that toadfish – described in a Science Daily article as the “ugliest and laziest fish known to inhabit the waters of the northeast” -- still get horny and sing for sex when they are weightless.  Now, there is a fact that I and much of the civilized world had been waiting for with – dare I say? – baited breath. 

I wonder if the tightly-franchised Russian rockets will continue to deliver oyster toadfish to the International Space Station in the New Cold War?

Outer space was of course the destiny of the Oyster Toadfish, quite as unattractive as its name.  On the other end of the scale is the Splendid Toadfish (Sanopus splendidus), a striking exception to the typical drab coloration exhibited by of most members of the toadfish family.  

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So – and please do pardon the blunt non-PC language -- if  the incredibly ugly Gulf and Oyster Toadfish can get laid, these “splendid” singing gents must do quite well.  I predict imminent reproduction.

* * *

I now close my first edition National Audubon Society Field Guide to Tropical Marine Fishes of the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, the Bahamas and Bermuda (Alfred A Knopf, NY, 1997) with some trepidation.  I suppose I have sussed out the plot of that book once again.  It is a tome of some depth, offering insights into many different mysteries.  This time I merely went looking for the identity of the ugliest fish I had ever seen in these waters, and have instead come away with another set of life lessons related to my own species.  An unintended but fulfilling process. 

All this from a pair of fish named after unrelated amphibians.

I suppose summer dalliance is indeed good for something after all.

Now, if I could only eat the ugly things.

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