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Sarcastic fringehead is 95 percent temper, 5 percent fish

Do you have a family member with a cranky demeanor and a big mouth? If so, your relation has an alter ego underwater in the La Jolla Ecological Reserve in the form of a fish called a sarcastic fringehead (Neoclinus blanchardi). I consider fringeheads the black sheep of the blenny family to which they are kin. As a group, blennies present a sweet disposition and wear a perpetually surprised expression. Not so the sarcastic fringehead, with its pugnacious personality and malevolent mug. At a foot long, it is the largest representative fringehead species, though I’ve yet to see one extend past about 5 inches.

A sarcastic’s smooth, scaleless body is generally brownish-gray and mottled either red or green. The long fin that traverses the length of the back from head to fin is bedecked with spines, two of which are adorned with ocelli (eyelike colored spots like those seen on peacock feathers and butterfly wings). Two ocelli are a luminescent turquoise or sapphire blue. An outsized head sports a bluntly rounded snout, cheeks with pale spots or patches and fleshy lips. Just above each bug eye, wavy fringelike appendages (cirri) sprout from the head like false eyelashes. The yawning jaw extends back well past the eye, a characteristic that led to naming the fish for its seeming satirical grin. In males, the rear of the jaw reveals a strip of bright cadmium yellow. Overall, a fringehead’s bulbous head doesn’t look like it belongs to its slender, somewhat compressed body, which would look right on an eel.

I looked back to see 4 inches of livid sarcastic fringehead pummeling my leg.

I find sarcastics in holes, burrows and empty shells, but sometimes they find me. One time I was observing something while hovering just above the mud bottom in the submarine canyon off the Shores when I felt a faint bumping against my shin. Hmmm. I looked back to see 4 inches of livid sarcastic fringehead pummeling my leg. Apparently, I got too close to his burrow. I immediately evacuated the area, impressed by his fearless bravado against an intruder of my size.

Look at a fringehead’s silhouette and it’s pretty obvious the fish is not designed for distance swimming, like a tuna or sardine. For this mostly sitting fish, swimming by-and-large means short, darting movements, frequently involving speedy directional changes. An ambush predator, a sarcastic patiently awaits passerby prey, then dashes out in a surprise attack, likely on a crustacean, which makes up the bulk of the diet. Upon return to its abode, a fringehead prefers to back in, which eliminates the need to turn around, an important consideration for an animal whose head houses all the defense weaponry. When predators come calling, a sarcastic’s scary-big head, enormous mouth and needle-like teeth make up for any deficit in swimming ability. Intimidating displays include flexing the head and body, snapping the jaws and spreading the gill covers, which makes the head look even bigger and more menacing. If a sarcastic’s looks and displays fail to impress, the trespasser may be surprised by a vicious, gaping-mouth attack followed by a hot pursuit. I know I was impressed enough to move along.

Two males disputing a nesting site display cavernous open mouths to each other. . .

Spawning ranges widely from January to August. Females lay eggs in abandoned mud holes and under rocks. The male’s job is to guard the brood from poachers, which he does with his usual valor. His mouth is also used as a dueling weapon during breeding season. Two males disputing a nesting site display cavernous open mouths to each other, then use them to push each other back and forth until one gives up and departs. Watch the action here.

The temperamental sarcastic fringehead didn’t evolve to win any congeniality awards but to play an important role within its ecosystem. For those of you suffering in close proximity to someone with an equally challenging deportment, maybe the sarcastic can serve as reminder that even the bad-tempered exist for a reason and, as such, deserve consideration.


— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to