The strange and beautiful grunt sculpin

The grunt sculpin is a favourite fish of many divers and ocean enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest. When I first laid my eyes upon this stripy, stout-looking fish, I thought it looked quite tropical. With its small size (up to 8 cm long), large head and unique patterning, the grunt sculpin has a very specific habitat preference… giant barnacles! These small fish will find homes in empty barnacle casings. Not only are they able to fit into these tiny crevices, but they can look identical to a living barnacle. Their spiky, bright orange tails look like the barnacle’s cirri (feeding fingers) when it feeds. When the sculpin turns around, its snout looks like a closed-up barnacle.

Grunt sculpin. Photo: Eva Funderburgh

This funky shape comes at a price though; they are very inefficient swimmers and tend to hop and crawl along the seafloor using their large pectoral fins. Because of this, grunt sculpins rely on camouflaging with their surroundings to hide from predators. With their tiny mouths, grunt sculpins feed on zooplankton, small crustaceans and fish larvae.

The cirri of a feeding giant barnacle in the waters of Mayne Island. Photo: Rick Taylor

When it comes to mating and reproduction, females are the ones in charge and tend to chase the males aggressively and corner them. After depositing her eggs and the male fertilizing them, the female then leaves the male to care for the young in the nest. She will return periodically to give the male a break, but the male is the primary caregiver of the eggs.

Close up of a grunt sculpin and its intricate patterns. Photo: Josh More

While these cute fish may be tempting to get close to and touch when you see them in the wild, it is important to respect these animals and give them space. Because they cannot swim away quickly like other fishes, these encounters can cause unnecessary stress.


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