Goatfish: Tropical bottom-dwellers

by B. N. Sullivan

Take a close look at the photo on this page, and you can understand how this fish family acquired the common name Goatfish.  Members of this family (Mullidae) all sport appendages on their chins that look like very fat whiskers.  As the story goes, these 'whiskers' suggest a billy-goat's beard.

Those appendages are called barbels, and they are a kind of sensory organ.  They sense chemical 'smells' and a goatfish uses its barbels to help it locate a meal.

Goatfish are bottom-dwellers.  They like sandy areas, where they can rummage in the sediment for tasty morsels to eat.  They eat small crustaceans, worms,  snails -- just about any little invertebrate they can find under the surface of the sand.  Some goatfish species also eat tiny fishes; we have seen goatfish use their barbels to nudge little fishies out of their hiding places in reef crevices and then gulp them right down.

Most goatfish species live in relatively shallow water, so it is not uncommon for snorkelers to spot them.  During the day, goatfish often hang out in small groups in sandy areas at the edges of coral reefs, where you might see them lying on the bottom.  Most of their feeding activity takes place at night, but sometimes you might see some goatfish nosing around, looking for food during daylight hours.

Goatfish are quite adept at changing their coloration.  Most assume one color pattern while at rest, and another when swimming.  There are some that even sport a specific color pattern just for feeding!

The fish in the photo on this page is called Forsskal's Goatfish (Parupeneus forsskali), common in the Red Sea.  It is solid-colored during the day, with a very dark stripe on each side that runs the length from its nose, through its eye, and almost to the base of its tail.  At night, while the fish is feeding, the dark stripe becomes blotchy, and the body of the fish is mottled rather than solid.  The photo was taken during a night dive at a reef near Safaga, Egypt. [Click on the photo to enlarge.]

In case you are wondering if these are edible fish, yes, they are.  We've never eaten goatfish, but we have seen some for sale at fish markets in several countries, particularly in Asia. In fact, some of the larger goatfish species look like they could be quite meaty.  If any of our readers have dined on goatfish, we would be interested to know how they tasted, so do tell us.


  1. Love the blog guys! It's always to read a blog about scuba diving.

    Check out www.studyscuba.com for some of the best dive training.

  2. I've never eaten goatfish, but I hope that the answer to your question would be 'goaty'.

  3. @ Anonymous - Thank you.

    @ AFM - ...or maybe just 'fishy'?


  4. I can see the resemblence. Very cool creature. Any relation to the catfish?

  5. Perhaps it's just empathy, but I see the appendages below the fish's mouth and thing how that must "feel." Interesting that it's actually part of a completely separate sensory system.


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Bobbie & Jerry