Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What We Can Learn About Thanksgiving Day Manners from the Turkeyfish

Many of you may be thinking, "Here comes Thanksgiving and last year I missed that last piece of excellent pie or cake, and I still regret it. Maybe I was too polite."

Well don't worry, this year we will look to the natural word to see what manners can be learned  from our marine brethren, the turkeyfishes, Pteoris spp.. Although these fish are predators, sometimes taking down large amounts of food in a breathtaking manner, they are also a natural and integral part of their reef ecosystems - like us. There is no need to be embarrassed by emulating the behavior of these elegant fish.
Image - J.E. Randall
First off, turkeyfishes may look quite dramatic when taken out of their normal environment. In actuality, their patterns, colors and frills allow them to blend seemlessly into their environment nestled deep within the overhangs and crevices of the reef. It is a necessary part of being an ambush predator.

Consider this when dressing for Thanksgiving. Your habitat will most likely be a nice soft couch or easy chair by the television. You should blend in well  enough that you are virtually impossible to see. This way, you will not be harassed by others who might possibly assign you to unnecessary duties that might distract you.  Scope out the couches and chairs you might be using and dress to fit. Plaid if needed, dark browns, dull blues, whatever works. Remember not to engage in excess movement, it will just get you spotted. Sloth, in this case, is a virtue.

If you are noticed, you can learn from the turkeyfish's other methods of protection. Each frilled fin ray is actually a spine coated with venom. Nothing messes with them. You could make a hat with toothpicks poking out, this alone might make people avoid you, or perhaps you could lift your fork up above your head occasionally and slowly move it around in a vaguely alarming fashion. Do this and no one will sit near you.
Image - J.E.Randall
As mentioned, turkeyfish are ambush predators, lying in wait for their prey which they will lunge for and secure in one huge gulp. Imagine an innocent shrimp or fish that makes the mistake of venturing too close to a turkeyfish. Suddenly the turkeyfish rises out of nowhere, fins sweeping forward, jaws whipping open so quickly that an irresistible suction is created . . . and when they snap shut, the shrimp is gone. Mission accomplished,  the turkeyfish settles back into the reef, quiet and hidden once more.

What an excellent lesson in holiday manners! Have you spotted a delectable bit of food? Is it in danger of escaping? Don't be ashamed to surge up in a breathtaking fashion and secure that large hunk of turkey or last piece of pie. Snap it up quickly to your plate and then retreat back to the camouflage of your couch or easy chair. They will soon forget you even exist and continue on with their idle chatter and social interactions while you consider your next prey item.

Some turkeyfish have been seen blowing jets of water on the fish they are intending to eat. This would seem counter-productive in that it would alert the fish, but it may just get the fish's attention long enough to cause it to turn towards the turkeyfish so it can be swallowed more easily head first. Other behaviors include herding small fish or shrimp with their fins so they can be more easily captured and even stalking their prey.

What can we learn from this? Blowing or breathing on a bit of food to secure it is okay. Talking to someone so that they turn towards you, allows you to more easily slip items from their plate to yours. Keep their eyes locked to yours and they will not even notice. Again, this is a natural behavior and is okay to do. Use your arms to corral food that looks like it might escape, small loose items like deviled eggs, cupcakes or olives all come to mind here and don't be afraid to stalk your prey - cakes and pies can move quickly if startled.

Finally, if someone criticizes your feeding behavior, you can feel good knowing that a study of predatory fishes found that those that are both well camouflaged and well protected by having poisonous spines or other features, also tend to have the smallest brains for their body size.

Relax your cerebral cortex and enjoy your couch and your foraging. You are an integral part of your environment, appropriately fulfilling an ecological role that larger minds may just be having a hard time with - especially since you got that last piece of pie.



Note: The term turkeyfish and lionfish are used synonymously by some, but we will go with Jack Randall's differentiation: Lionfish are the genus Dendrochirus and turkeyfish are the genus Pterois. This works well if you consider that the term pterois is a bit like the word ptero in pterodactyl, referring to wings.


Reef and Shore Fishes of the Hawaiian Islands. Randall J.E. 2007. UH Sea Grant College Program, University of Hawaii, Honolulu.

Invasive red lionfish Pterois volitans blow directed jets of water at prey fish. Albins MA, Lyons PJ (2012).  Marine Ecology Progress Series 448:1-5.  Scholars Library at OSU11/21/12.

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