The Great Escape … Sometimes

Lizardfish & goby The Great Escape...Sometimes
A goby fights for its life

Lembeh Strait, Indonesia ~ Chances are if you’re going to see a fish eat another fish, the assailant will turn out to be a lizardfish. These missile-shaped, lie-in-wait predators typically perch on the bottom with their primitive tooth-lined jaws aimed in the direction of a busy aggregation of potential prey, such as damselfish. And there they rest as still as stones waiting for an opportune moment to strike. If all goes right, a rocket attack ends with a bite-sized victim taken headfirst, which allows the meal to easily and quickly slide down the gullet.

But from time to time lizardfish make mistakes either attacking too-large-to-fit-in-the-mouth prey or grabbing a fish from behind forcing the predators to swallow against a phalanx of backward-pointed fin spines. Such miscues often lead to dramatic life and death struggles providing time to snap a photo or two. During an October trip to Indonesia’s Lembeh Strait Anna and I witnessed three lizardfish make logistical errors, which brought to mind a similar attack that took place in Lembeh years earlier:

While gliding down the rubble slope below Nudi Falls I spotted a foot-long Reef Lizardfish with a bulging head. It took several seconds after I swam over to make out the head of a half-swallowed shrimpgoby sticking out of the predator’s gaping mouth. With a last-ditch effort to prevent its imminent demise the gallant little goby flared bony gill covers and contorted its gaping mouth into an imitation of Edvard Munch’s, The Scream. (Blennywatcher’s note: that image, shown at the top of this post, was on the cover of the Winter 2000/01 edition of Ocean Realm Magazine).

Threadfin sand diver The Great Escape...Sometimes
A Threadfin Sand Diver in all its glory.

The first lizardfish affair this past October took place on the crest of a mucky incline where an eight-inch, straw-thin Threadfin Sand Diver escaped from the jaws of a rather small Red Lizardfish following a two-minute struggle. I must have arrived on the scene just after the lizardfish had taken its slender quarry tail first and began slowly gobbling it down like a strand of spaghetti. Only the sand diver’s head and long foredorsal fins remained exposed by the time I settled next to the pair. Looking closely I realized that the sand diver’s body appeared to be longer than the lizardfish. Frustrated, confused and apparently having enough of me the lizardfish spun and fled to a nearby algae clump where with a mighty contortion the sand diver somehow wrenched its spindly body free and disappeared beneath the sand.

Lizardfish eating a sand diver The Great Escape...Sometimes
Tail first is not the optimum way for predators to capture prey

When threatened, tubby little tobies have the ability to inflate their bodies with water to the size of a ping-pong ball. The nifty adaptation allows the toylike fish to roam the bottom with a minimal risk of predation. Now lizardfish aren’t sinister or stupid, but from time to time they can’t seem to resist an easy target like a toby. These encounters nearly always end with tobies making an escape following a prolonged standoff.

Lizardfish eating toby The Great Escape...Sometimes
Puff, little toby, puff!

However, snakefish, close relatives of lizardfish, but with larger and more upturned mouths are another matter. Anna captured this drama one late afternoon in Lembeh: