Study sheds more light on life of land-dwelling blenny


A tiny fish that lives on land uses camouflage to shun attacks by predators such as birds, lizards and crabs.

Scientists from the University of NSW in Australia studied this unique fish species — the Pacific leaping blenny (Alticus arnoldorum) — in its natural habitat on the tropical island of Guam.

The Pacific leaping blenny grows to around 4-8cm and gets its name from its ability to leap using a tail-twisting behaviour. They are also capable of jumping many times their own body weight to reach higher ground.

These blennies remain on land all their adult life, living on the rocks in the splash zone where they defend their territories, feed and court mates. But they have to stay moist to be able to breathe through their gills and skin.

"They offer a unique opportunity to discover in a living animal how the transition from water to the land has taken place," says Dr Ord, of the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

The researchers first measured the colour of five different populations of the fish around the island and compared this with the colour of the rocks they lived on. "They were virtually identical in each case. The fish’s body colour is camouflaged to match the rocks, presumably so they aren’t obvious to predators," says Dr Ord.

To see if background matching reduced predation, the researchers created realistic-looking models of blennies out of plasticine, putting lots of these model blennies on the rocks where the fish live, as well as on an adjacent beach where their body colour against the sand made them much more conspicuous to predators.

"After several days we collected the models and recorded how often birds, lizards and crabs had attacked them from the marks in the plasticine. We found the models on the sand were attacked far more frequently than those on the rocks," Dr Ord explained.

"This means the fish are uniquely camouflaged to their rocky environments and this helps them avoid being eaten by land predators."

The researchers then studied the body colour of closely related species of fish, some of which lived in the water and some of which were amphibious, sharing their time between land and sea.

"These species provide an evolutionary snapshot of each stage of the land invasion by fish," says Dr Ord.

The similarities in colour between these species and the land-dwelling fish suggest the ancestors of the land-dwelling fish already had a colouration that matched the rocky shoreline before they moved out of the water, which would have made it easier for them to survive in their new habitat.

The study by Dr Terry Ord and Courtney Morgans, of the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre will be published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Why not take out a subscription to Practical Fishkeeping magazine? See our latest subscription offer.

Don't forget that PFK is now available to download on the iPad/iPhone.