Hogfish changes color

The hogfish is like the chameleon of the sea, quickly changing colors from white — to blend in with its surroundings to hide from another fish — to speckled brown or reddish to look scary or attract a mate.

The fish got its unusual name because they use their pointy snout to poke around in the bottom of the ocean to find food like snails and crabs, rooting around like a hog. The Spanish have a prettier name for them: doncella de pluma, which translates to maiden pen.

Scientists have long believed that the fish’s skin has special cells that react to the light. It’s almost like their skin can see, but not quite. According to recent research by Duke University scientists, the hogfish’s skin may be sensitive to things like brightness, moving shadows cast by approaching predators, or light changes during different times of the day.

The hogfish’s skin has special cells called chromatophores that respond to the light and can spread the fish’s skin colors out or bunch them up to change the skin's color or pattern, according to scientists Lori Schweikert and Sönke Johnsen.

Skin that changes color is not the only unusual skill of the hogfish. After the age of 3, if a female hogfish gets big enough, it can change into a male.

Hogfish live in the Atlantic Ocean along the southeastern coast, the islands of the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico. They can grow to 3 feet long, weigh up to 22 pounds and live for as long as 11 years.

The fish typically live in harems, with one male and several females.

Humans like to eat hogfish, and because of that their populations are down. Some people have experimented with farming hogfish to raise them for food and relieve fishing pressure on the wild fish.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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