BAHAMAS REEF FISH (40): FOUR-EYED BUTTERFLYFISH
Four-eyed (or foureye) butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus) are small, somewhat circular fish with an endearingly pointy little snout. They are one of several butterflyfish species found in Bahamian waters. On their sides are smart ‘go-faster’ chevrons, with the unmistakeable white-circled black ‘eye’ at the back. The real eyes, in the conventional position, are small and far less noticeable, not least because of the stripe that passes right through them.
WHY THIS EXOTIC PATTERNING?
This type of misleading pattern is not uncommon in fishes and indeed in terrestrial creatures. It creates confusion in predators – and when this little fish is threatened it swims away with its large ‘eye’ prominent to the pursuer. It acts as a warning and an off-putting feature that suggests ‘don’t eat me’. If you half-close your eyes and look at the image below, the large eyes stand out against the reef background and hint at a creature not to be tangled with. Why reef predators don’t rumble this ruse within minutes, I have no idea.
WHAT IF THE RUSE FAILS?
Foureyes are very agile swimmers and can take advantage of narrow gaps and clefts in the reef by swimming sideways or even upside-down to manoeuvre away from danger and to safety where the predator cannot reach it.
AND IF THAT DOESN’T WORK?
If the foureye is in deep trouble, it has an alternative cunning plan. It will turn and face the pursuer, head down and dorsal spines erect. This posture says both ‘I’m very spiny – watch out’ and ‘I’m coming atcher’.
AND IF THAT DOESN’T WORK? I’M WORRIED FOR IT NOW…
Curtains. It’s lunchtime, I’m afraid.
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Foureyes are far from the only reef dwellers that have predator-confusing markings. In the image below, the foureye at the top is swimming with a larger BUTTER HAMLET, a species that also relies on an abnormal spot pattern to put off predators. This is a great capture, and it also illustrates how the smaller reef fishes can hang out together amicably.
Image Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba; 5, Lazlo Ilyes