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Fish in the Sonoran Desert

Updated on August 18, 2014

Fish in the Desert? Yes!!!

Bet you didn't know there are fish in the desert. But if you know where to look, you can find them. Fish live in the rivers and lakes in the desert, and yes, there are rivers and lakes. They also live in the Sea of Cortez, which is right smack dab in the middle between Baja California and Sonora, in Mexico, and thus in the middle of the Sonoran Desert as well.

Recently, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum put in a room full of aquariums. Some are freshwater, and some saltwater. It is amazing how many different species, some very colorful, they have in these. And they're just scratching the surface!

Warden Aquarium Rivers to the Sea.

I had the opportunity to go take pictures just a few days ago. I will spend a lot of time there, I suspect.

The photo on the left is a Pacific Seahorse, Hippocampus ingens. This is probably one of the strangest animals, ever! Not only do they LOOK strange, but they are strange in other ways. The female seahorse deposits the eggs in a pouch in the male's body. He cares for them until they are born alive. Thus, it is the male who is pregnant in this species!

All photos are mine.

Sea of Cortez

The Sea of Cortez is host to many different species of saltwater fish and other animals and plants.

Photographing Water Animals and Plants

Going scuba diving to photograph the species of the oceans requires a certain amount of skill, in fact, multiple skills. That is probably something I will never get to do in my lifetime.

Photographing species in an aquarium isn't easy, either, although it requires fewer skills. I have reached the point where I get fairly decent pictures much of the time, and I am sharing a few with you here. I don't have any problem with showing you "captive" sea animals, since this is how people usually learn about them, and they learn to appreciate them. This is especially good for children. The more people appreciate these organisms, the more they will want them to be protected and preserved. Many aquariums engage in breeding programs, particularly for endangered species, and so perform a vital role.

Southern Arizona didn't have any kind of aquarium until just December of 2012, and this was one thing I regretted very much. Now we have one. It's not huge, like the New England Aquarium, but it is respectable, and I am very happy with it.

My Freshwater Tank

I first got interested in keeping fish several decades ago. We had a 20 gallon tank and kept about 60 individuals in it. We had many beautiful species, and all of us enjoyed it very much. As a result, one of our daughters actually raised freshwater Angelfish for awhile.

Sadly, we haven't been in a position to keep any fish since that time. I would love to get back to it. I never felt I was skilled enough to keep a saltwater tank. But my interest remains.

Razorback Sucker - Xyrauchen texanus

The mouth parts show that this fish likes to eat algae off the surface of rocks.

They also said they had Desert Suckers, but I didn't notice them. These are freshwater fish that live in the rivers in the Sonoran Desert. They are also called Gila Mountain Sucker. Catostomus clarkii.

Blue Catfish - Ictalurus furcatus

You can see this fellow if you look under the rock. His mouth, whiskers and eye are visible. I wouldn't have seen him if one of the docents hadn't pointed him out. Catfish also like to gather food from the bottom of the water; they are scavengers. But they make good eating!

Freshwater species

I don't yet know what this is. I'll let you know when I figure it out.

Yaqui Topminnow - Poeciliopsis sonoriensis, Poeciliopsis occidentalis sonoriensis

These resemble guppies when they are small. Males may grow to 1" while females may grow to 2". They are endangered, and only live a few weeks once they reach mating age. This is another freshwater species.

Gila Trout - Oncorhynchus gilae

This freshwater fish is getting competition from four other non-native species. For this reason, it is considered endangered.

Certain officials and organizations are working to save endangered freshwater fish by breeding and releasing them.

These several species of trout will interbreed with each other.

Mexican Lookdown

We turn to saltwater species. This strange-looking fish is clearly named after its shape. It is also known as the Airfin Lookdown. These fish like to form schools.

Mexican Lookdown School

Garden Eels

These strange creatures live mostly below the sand, moving up and down in the water, in and out of the sand.

Garden Eels - closeup

The Spotted Garden Eel is Heteroconger hassi. The Splendid Garden eel is Gorgasia preclara. It should be easy to figure out which is which. The Splendid Garden Eel is striped.

Garden Eels - feeding behavior

The camera work on this video isn't so great; panning is jerky. But it is the best demonstration of how they move and feed.

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Black triggerfish - Melichthys niger

This fish is known as Humuhumu'ele'ele in Hawai'ian. Thus, as you can see, it has a fairly large range. They are found in just about all tropical waters around the planet, except for the Caribbean. They look black in the water, but dark blue-green in sunlight.

That bright line that runs along the base of the fins looks to me like it is fluorescent, or may be produced by internal mechanisms. That's my opinion. anyway.

Jewel Moray - Muraena lentiginosa

There is an eel hiding in the rocks. Someone mentioned the expression "blind as an eel". From this photo and the photos of the Garden Eels, you can determine that they can actually see quite well.

These are often kept in tanks, but require a minimum of 50 US gallons, or 120 gallons for two. If two are added to the same tank, they must be added at the same time.

Guineafowl Puffer - Arothron meleagris

This individual is not highly puffed up at the moment. They can really expand like a balloon.

You can see one puffed up here:

Guineafowl Puffer

Balloonfish, Spiny Porcupine Fish - Didon holcanthus

Another fish that puffs up, this fish's spines stand straight up when it puffs.

This fish is poisonous, but when prepared properly, it is used in Chinese medicine. Personally, I think I'll pass on that one.

Blue and Yellow Chromis - Chromis limbaughi

And then there are COLORFUL fish. This one is sure a beauty, in my opinion.

This is a type of Damselfish. This is a schooling fish that lives in reefs. This is a peaceful fish. The yellow coloration indicates this is a juvenile. The adult will lose the yellow.

Blotcheye Soldierfish - Myripristis berndti

Thank you to Mike Kelleher of the New England Aquarium for identifying this fish for me. The Desert Museum calls it a Bigscale Soldierfish. It is the same species.

This species is widespread and will school with other species.

Popeye Catalufa - Pristigenys serrula

This is a shy noctural fish. I think I'd be shy and nocturnal, too, if I were that brightly colored. No protective camouflage here! These are widespread in the Pacific.

Longnose Butterflyfish, Forcepsfish - Forcipiger flavissimus

You can't see the small transparent tail in this picture, but it's there.

This fish is called lauwiliwilinukunuku'oi'oi in Hawai'ian, which means "long-snouted (sharp-beaked) fish shaped like a wiliwili leaf," according to Wikipedia. I don't think I'll try to pronounce that for you!

These fish are popular with people who keep saltwater tanks.

Another view, with tail visible.

Sunset Wrasse - Thalassoma lutescens

Also called the Banana Wrasse.

All the Wrasses I have ever seen seem to like to keep their tail fins tightly closed, and are long, thin, and have small mouths. It's almost like they are trying to will themselves to be invisible, in spite of their bright colors.

There is quite a bit of variation in coloration in this species. This is a female.

Cortez Rainbow Wrasse - Thalassoma lucasanum

Similar species to the Sunset Wrasse. Here is a male.

This is the female.

I'm not an expert, so don't shoot me if I got this all wrong. :)

Longnose Hawkfish - Oxycirrhites typus

This fish likes to hang out in corals.

King Angelfish - Holacanthus passer

Also known as the Passer Angelfish, for obvious reasons.

This fish likes to eat algae, plankton, and sessile invertebrates and sponges. They feed in the daytime. They form pair bonds and are monogamous.

These are popular but difficult to keep.

Moorish Idol - Zanclus cornutus

I have seen this distinctive fish in several collections. It is classified all by itself, in its family. This fish was very active and difficult to photograph. It is also difficult to keep, I am told. They tend to be picky eaters, and may refuse to eat entirely. In the wild, they are widespread and like flat reefs. They eat primarily small things that hold still, such as sponges, coral polyps, tunicates and other benthic invertebrates. They release their eggs directly into the water, where they will float about freely. They form pairs or schools.

The Moors named this fish because they believed it brought happiness.

The dorsal fin is very long; you cannot see the entire thing in this photo. This is called the philomantis extension.

Another view. You can see nearly all of the dorsal fin in this photo, if you look closely.

Frogfish - Antennarius sp.

The Frogfish is an anglerfish. If you look closely left of the center top of the edge of his body, to the front of a hump that reminds one of a camel's hump, you may see a little fuzzy thing (which sometimes looks like a tiny fish). This is a lure, and is used to attract possible prey.

Blue-spotted Jawfish - Opistognathus rosenblatti

I thought he was an eel. I guess not. He was poking his head up out of a hole in the sand, and would draw it back in. I had to be patient to catch him when he was poking his head out rather than hiding.

Convict Surgeonfish - Acantghurus triostegus

Unidentified Fish

I don't have any idea WHO this is, but I'll figure it out. These little fish were a little longer than an inch, and swam around very rapidly. They swam up and down more often than they swam horizontally. This one is on the up elevator.


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