by B. N. Sullivan
Meet the Leaf Scorpionfish (Taenianotus triacanthus). This little fishie is one of the smallest members of the Scorpionfish family. This fish family, Scorpaenidae, gets its name from the venomous spines that most of the fishes in the family bear. (Regular readers of The Right Blue will recall our posts about the Turkeyfish/Lionfish -- another member of the same family.)
The Leaf Scorpionfish gets its name from its appearance. When you see one in its natural environment, it really does look like a leaf, rather than a fish -- until you spot its eye! Members of the Scorpaenidae family tend to be "lie-and-wait" predators. They tend to stay still in one spot until their prey happens past, and then they pounce very suddenly. They rely on camouflage so that they can blend into their surroundings, making it easier for them to surprise their prey.
The bodies of Leaf Scorpionfish are laterally very flat, which certainly contributes to their leaf-like appearance. This little fish not only looks very much like a leaf, it also behaves like a leaf! If you stay still and watch one for awhile, you'll see the little guy rock back and forth every once in awhile, just as a leaf or a stray piece of seaweed would do if it had settled on the reef. This, too, seems calculated to trick potential prey.
The Leaf Scorpionfish is a small species -- maximum length is about four inches (10 cm). They come in lots of colors -- yellow, reddish, purple, brown, pale pink, and off-white. They often have blotches, which enhance their camouflage, and they sport little fleshy appendages on their heads and chins that look like little weeds growing on them.
The photos on this page show examples of some of the color variations of the Leaf Scorpionfish. Despite the range of colors, they are all the same species. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)
The first photo on this page shows a purple Leaf Scorpionfish. You can see that this individual has a lot of blotches. If you see a scuzzy-looking Leaf Scorpionfish, he's probably getting ready to molt, which they do periodically. Soon after they molt they look much less blotchy. Sometimes the color looks a bit different after molting, too.
The second photo is a 1:1 macro shot of a Leaf Scorpionfish that we watched over a period of many months. In the second photo, you can see the little fleshy appendages on the fish's chin quite clearly. It's all part of the disguise.
We've noticed that when one of these fish finds a good spot on the reef, they tend to stay put in the same small patch of real estate for a long time. Once one is located, it's a safe bet that a diver will be able to return to the same spot again and again, day after day, month after month, and see the same little fish. Good dive guides know this, and that is why they can reliably lead divers and underwater photographers to a Leaf Fish almost at will.
The final photo on this page shows one more color variety. This yellow Leaf Scorpionfish is perched on a coral head. We have noticed that smaller Leaf Scorpionfish often tend to hide in the coral this way, while the larger ones seem to prefer a spot on a rocky bottom. We don't know why this is so, but we surmise that the little ones may feel safer in the coral, since it affords them some protection. They can hunker down if there's a lot of surge, for instance.
I took all of the photos on this page at Puako, Hawaii, at depths ranging from less than 20 feet (6 m) to about 125 ft (38 m).