It's Alive

Bumphead parrot fish declare their arrival with a crunch

Fish’s coral crushing raises conservation dilemma

12:00pm, August 25, 2014

BIG BUMPS  Distinctive patterns on the foreheads of bumphead parrot fish let researchers identify individuals.

The sound of the world’s largest parrot fish swimming toward him, says Douglas McCauley, is not some watery swish, swish. It’s crunch, crunch. “You can hear a school of them before you see it,” he says.

Bumphead parrot fish (Bolbometopon muricatum) grow to “about the size of a junior high school kid” as McCauley puts it.  And feeding is a noisy business because they eat — and loudly digest — what’s essentially rock.

The fish gouge out hunks of reef and snap thumb-sized coral branches. But what McCauley finds even more impressive are the noises of the parrot fish’s down-deep throat teeth, which can grow wider than half dollars, milling the coral chunks.

Crushing coral uncovers what the fish really want: fleshy polyps and other tiny organisms hiding inside. Bumpheads excrete the broken-up coral as gravel and a plume of white sand that “just hovers,” McCauley says, “as if you had opened a carton of milk underwater.”

This article is available only to subscribing members. Join SSP today or Log in.

More from Science News