A head-turning fish

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Travels with your fish
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Quite literally! Heiko Bleher introduces the Salamander fish, which has some quite extraordinary neck-bending abilities! It also has a unique method of reproduction...

Fish don’t turn their heads like birds or humans — or do they? A couple have limited movement, like the South American predator Rhaphiodon vulpinus, which can bend its neck slightly upwards, and the Polypterus can turn the front of their bodies slightly sidewards.

But there is a fish that can actually turn its head – the Salamander fish, Lepidogalaxias salamandroides! To see this for yourself, check out the amazing video below:

The biology of this amazing fish was described by the Dutch Mees in 1961. It was studied extensively in the 1980s with several scientific papers published. It has been placed in a family of its own, Lepidogalaxiidae, and is only found along a few km in the extreme south-west of Western Australia.

Recently I studied it in its natural habitat when I joined Sven O. Kullander to research the Northcliff region of this remote southern part of the country.

Temporary pools

We were only able to find the Salamander in temporary pools that appeared after rains.

These pools had coarse white sandy bottoms, sometimes with a thin layer of organic mud and detritus, black water with a pH of 3.5-4.5 and temperature 14-15°C/57-59°F (but can drop to 5-6°/41-43°F or rise to 30°C/86°F).

The Salamander fish burrows into the sand to escape the desiccation of its habitat once it dries up and reappears almost immediately after a rainfall. It had rained just the night before, so we were very lucky.

Lepidogalaxias has a robust, wedge-shaped skull and, combined with its flexible vertebrate column and the second protective eye-layer, facilitates fast and safe burrowing into the sandy substrate where they produce a mucous cocoon around themselves and aestivate until it rains. When the water soaks into the ground, the cocoon softens up and they dig their way up and into the water.

Because of its restricted distribution this fish has been placed in the Australian Society for Fish Biology list as endangered and categorised as "restricted".

Unique reproduction

Nobody has reproduced this fish, but it’s known to use internal fertilisation. Males have a modified anal fin and its associated scale sheaths clasp the female and facilitate the direct transfer of sperm. The spermatozoa of the Salamander fish, with its internal fertilisation is unique and unknown in any other teleosts.

Reproduction in nature should be between July and September, but we found 8-12mm/0.3-0.5” babies at the beginning of June.

Maximum total length recorded is 7.5cm/3” for females and 5.5cm/2.2” for males, but ours were smaller. Main nutrition is Diptera larva, Trichoptera, Cladocera and Ostracoda. They also take Artemia naupili.