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“Owww! What was that?” Something had either just stung or pinched me on my exposed leg while out diving in about forty feet of water off Hawai’i’s Big Island. I rubbed the spot philosophically and looked about for fragments of a floating jelly; or…. “Yowch”; this time on my forearm where the wetsuit shorty just joined exposed skin; and then I saw it… a pencil-like horizontally striped fish with, I swear, a smile on its little face, with some of my arm-hairs in its mouth!
This was my first and most memorable experience with the subgrouping of true or Combtooth blennies (Family Blenniidae) that comprise the Fangtooth or Sabretooth Blennies. All told there six genera and sixty or so described species; all occurring in the tropical to sub-tropical Indo-Pacific. These bold little fishes are notable for more than there propensity to at times bite divers; they also avoid predators with their biting, some deriving nutrition by ambushing other fishes; biting off scales and flesh. Oh, and some species are venomous.
For aquarists, a few Fang Blennies are of use regularly aquacultured and seasonally available as imports, principally from the South Pacific. As with hapless divers, there are definitely genera/species to be avoided; lest your other fish livestock become bitten and skittish.
Some Prominent Fang Blennies:
Some of these members of the Combtooth or “True” Blennies are offered year round as tank-bred specimens; but most are “catch as catch can” specimens collected in the wild. I’ll present other genera and species of biological interest; though for aquarists, only the genus Meiacanthus is of practical use.
Petroscirtes: Ten described species.
Genus Plagiotremus: Eleven valid species
Genus Meiacanthus: Twenty eight species currently described; they spend most of their time in mid-water; are less-inclined to hole up in tubes or hide in rock.
There are some celebrated Batesian mimics of some of the Fang Blennies; a few accruing less-predation advantage by pretending to be species that bear poison bites though possessing none themselves.
A fave example of Batesian mimicry involves three fishes found in the Red Sea; the “real” Fang Tooth Blenny (Meiacanthus nigrolineatus), a “faking” non-venomous Plagiotremus (P. townsendi) and a harmless Ecsenius blenny (E. gravieri). The real Fangtooth and Ecsenius shown below.
Meiacanthus grammistes and Petroscirtes breviceps I’ve mentioned above along with their images. M. grammistes has a very interesting mimic partner in the form of the Bridled Monocle Bream, Scolopsis bilineatus. Of all things, these two appear as all bright yellow species in Fiji; continuing the mimicry! Shown, the Blenny and the Bream in N. Sulawesi.
Another kind of Batesian mimicry involves pretending you’re a beneficial animal in order to gain proximity to prey. I’ve mentioned Aspidontus taeniatus mimicking the Cleaner Wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus, and there’s yet another “copy-cat” in the way of Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos as juveniles. Shown: the “real thing”, Labroides dimidiatus juvenile, the Sabertooth mimic, Aspidontus taeniatus, and below them, the fake Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos juvenile. Note the terminal mouth on the true Cleaner, the underslung, sub-terminal ones on the fakes.
Aspidontus taeniatus can fool even the best of us in the trade. On a visit to Fiji I recall stopping in at Walt Smith International to chat with Walt himself. On inspecting his large Labroides dimidiatus tank I mentioned to him that he had a few Aspidontus mixed in. He was very surprised, and asked how I could tell so easily. I told him the first clue was the behavior of the “true” cleaners present toward the mimics. You could see the former avoiding the latter; making a sort of cleared area around them. Walt quickly netted out the offenders. Shown
Though one can find the other genera of Fang Tooth Blennies in brief association with each other in the wild; and even seemingly shoaling at times as juveniles; other than the members of the Genus Meiacanthus, these fishes are territorial toward their own kind; and again; inclined to nip and tear at other fish life. Hence you are encouraged to only consider Meiacanthus species for mixed-fish systems, keeping the other genera/species in either specialized solitary systems or perhaps in huge volume tanks with low fish-stocking density.
These fishes are definitely “reef safe”; neither biting nor lounging on corals, clams, shrimps…. But they do not tolerate bullying from other fishes; or crowding of conspecifics.
Some of the genera/species of Fang Tooth (aka Poison Tooth) Blennies derive a good deal of their nutrition from preying on other, larger fishes; ambushing them and tearing off tissue and scales with their prominent teeth. You assuredly do NOT want these in your mixed-fish aquariums. Others, in particular the genus Meiacanthus, which feed predominantly on plankton, can make beautiful additions to fish to full-blown reef set ups.
The first resource for these fishes is the several species that are aquaculture. The company ORA alone produces seven Meiacanthus species for the ornamental trade. Barring these, the best source from the wild is from Fiji.
For breeding purposes, Meiacanthus species may be housed in small systems of a few tens of gallons volume; but in mixed fish settings they’re better kept in as large size tanks as can be afforded.
Appropriate habitat has been referred to. Providing rocky crevices, pipe parts, and for non-Meiacanthus species, ideally worm and snail holed rock and coral skeletons will help your Blennies to feel right at home. Neither current nor lighting intensity are important in keeping Fang Blennies.
These fish are superb escape artists! Make sure the top of their tank is thoroughly screened; as well as intakes to pumps, overflows and filter intakes.
These fishes are eager eaters, and though their small and human hands large; do NOT offer food via your fingers. Meaty foods are accepted greedily, frozen/defrosted, live, dried… More frequently, smaller amounts better than the alternative.
These fishes are remarkably disease resistant. To wit; they will likely be amongst the last if not the end of livestock lost due to environmental or pathogenic problems.
Quite a few genus Meiacanthus Fang Blennies have been captive bred and reared; a few commercially.
Breeding pairs can be kept, but Meiacanthus are more likely to reproduce and do so more frequently when maintained in a grouping of their own species. As they’re difficult to sex, keeping a group will allow harems to form and sort out spawning in time. Subordinate males should be removed; and sections of plastic pipe included, providing spawning caves. A hundred or more adhesive eggs are placed inside the pipe/s. Rearing protocol includes removing the eggs and pipe to a hatching/rearing tank ahead of hatching (typically 7-8 days); providing the small (3 mm.) young with appropriate foods (rotifers typically) in reasonable stocking density.
Fang Blennies, the Plagiotremi in some classification schemes, are a group of active, even bold small fishes capable of holding their own and more in captive settings. These are intelligent, largely handsome, outgoing animals that exhibit intelligence as well as beauty. Some genera should be avoided if you’re stocking larger, predatory fishes; and all need room, habitat to do well in captivity. Consider the tank-bred species; and maybe try breeding them yourself. Like Neon Gobies, these are tough, fun fishes to keep.
Fishelson, Lev. 1976. Spawning and larval development of the blenniid fish Meiacanthus nigrolineatus from the Red Sea. Copeia 1976: 798-800.
Smith-Vaniz, William F. and Gerald R. Allen. 2011. Three new species of the fangblenny genus Meiacanthus from Indonesia, with color photographs and comments on other species (Teleostei: Blenniidae: Nemophini). Zootaxa 3046: 39-58.
Wingerter, Kenneth. 2012. Aquarium Fish: An Overview of Fang
Blennies of the genus Meiacanthus.