WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH) (7): THE SOAPFISH
The WTF? series features some of the stranger fish that inhabit the waters of the Bahamas. Ones that, were you to encounter one on the reef, might make you exclaim “WTF?”. The soapfish Rypticus belongs in the same family as grouper and sea bass. Within the soapfish genus there are quite a few varieties in different shapes, sizes and colours that include several mottled, freckled, spotted and generally blotchy fish. This post features one (or two) of them! Sorry to be lame here and lacking in authority, but having looked carefully online at images of several types of soapfish, I reckon there are 3 candidates. Freckled, I think these are. Enlightenment would be welcome!
Rypticus tend to inhabit shallower tropical and sub-tropical waters. They are mainly nocturnal in their habits, feeding at night on small fish, crustaceans and molluscs. The WTF? factor arises from the creature’s oddly truncated shape. If you cover the back end of the fish in the image below with your hand, you might expect the fish to be about the same length again. But no, there’s just the tail to come. It looks a bit cut in half.
DOES THE SOAPFISH HAVE ANY AWESOME POWERS?
I’m glad you asked because in fact it has two. First, these fish respond to threats by secreting large amounts of toxic mucus from their skins. This acts as a defensive barrier to repel predators. Secondly, female soapfish are able to change sex to male. This is not uncommon among fish, and in some (e.g. Clownfish) the change works the other way, male to female. I read a lot about chemicals and gonads in this connection, then decided to spare you the details. So basically, it’s toxic slimy coats and female gender realignment.
Credits: all photos, Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba